Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Technological Change and Human Obsolescence: An Axiological Analysis

I have a new paper coming out. This one is about how rapid changes in technology might induce human obsolescence. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I try to argue that, contrary to first impressions, it might be a good thing.

Details, including links to the pre-print version, are below.

Title: Technological Change and Human Obsolescence: an Axiological Analysis
Journal: Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology
Links: Official; Philpapers; Researchgate; Academia
Abstract: Can human life have value in a world in which humans are rendered obsolete by technological advances? This article answers this question by developing an extended analysis of the axiological impact of human obsolescence. In doing so, it makes four main arguments. First, it argues that human obsolescence is a complex phenomenon that can take on at least four distinct forms. Second, it argues that one of these forms of obsolescence (‘actual-general’ obsolescence) is not a coherent concept and hence not a plausible threat to human well-being. Third, it argues that existing fears of technologically-induced human obsolescence are less compelling than they first appear. Fourth, it argues that there are two reasons for embracing a world of widespread, technologically-induced human obsolescence. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Robots, AI and the Moral Culture of Patiency

[This is the text version of a talk I delivered to the Swedish AI Society Conference, via Zoom, on the 17th of June 2020]

Will the increased use of robotics and AI change our moral culture? In this talk I want suggest that it will. Specifically, I want to argue that the diffusion of robots and AIs into our political, social and economic lives will cause us to shift away from a moral culture of responsibility towards a culture of moral patiency.

The argument I put forward is tentative and suggestive only. I am not trying to predict the future today. I am, instead, trying to sketch a way of looking at it and understanding the impact that technology might have on our moral beliefs and practices. In some ways, it is this style of thinking about the future that I hope to defend, not the specific claims I make about the future, but I do this by showing how this style of thinking works and not by just talking about it.

I have three things I need to cover in the remainder of my talk: (a) what is a moral culture?; (b) how can we think about changes in moral cultures?; and (c) how might robots/AI cause a shift to a culture of moral patiency?

1. What is a moral culture?

The concept of a moral culture is something that is common parlance among sociologists and social psychologists. That said, it is not always well or precisely defined. Different theorists and commentators seem to mean slightly different things when they use the terminology. For present purposes, I will define “moral culture” in the following way:

Moral Culture = “A reasonably stable set of moral beliefs and practices, associated with an identifiable social collectivity/group, usually defined by a common core of key moral concepts”

This definition is inspired by, but not the same as, the definition offered by Vygautus Kovalis in his 1977 article “Moral Cultures and Moral Logics”. One thing that Kovalis claims in that article is that there is a distinction to be drawn between moral cultures and moral moods. The former a relatively stable and long-term equilibria in moral beliefs and practices; the latter are more short-term fashions. The distinction seems useful to me but it a matter of degree, not type. Today’s moral mood may, under the right conditions, become tomorrow’s moral culture. Contrariwise, today’s moral mood might just be an aberration: a momentary destabilisation in social morality before the dominant culture reasserts itself. This is something worth keeping in mind throughout the following discussion. When I talk about the changes in social morality that might be brought about by robots/AI, am I highlighting a shift in short-term moral moods or a longer-term shift in moral cultures?

So far I have been talking about moral cultures in the abstract. Are there some actual examples I can point to in order to make the idea more meaningful? Indeed there are. Perhaps the most widely discussed contrast in moral cultures is the distinction drawn between moral cultures based on honour and those based on dignity:

Cultures of Honour: These are moral cultures in which the most important thing for individuals is attaining and maintaining the respect of their peers. This respect (or “honour” as it is usually called) is something that is fragile and can be lost. Individuals must constantly protect their honour (and possibly the honour of their families) from insult or attack. They must do this largely by themselves (i.e. through “self-help” mechanisms) and not by calling on the support of their peers or the state. Indeed, it may be cowardly or dishonourable to do so. The practice of duelling is one of the more famous manifestations of the culture of honour.
Culture of Dignity: These are moral cultures in which everyone shares an equal, innate and inalienable moral status called “dignity”. In other words, everyone is owed some basic respect and moral protection, irrespective of who they are or what they have done. It is not something that is fragile and susceptible to attack. These cultures tend to be more tolerant (partly because people feel less insecure in their moral standing) and place a greater emphasis on state intervention to resolve conflict.

One of the claims that has been made is that people living in Western, developed nations have, since the late 1700s, shifted from living in cultures of honour to living in cultures of dignity. We once lived in the world of gentlemanly duelling; we now live in the world of universal rights and equal protection of the law. That said, there are still some honour based sub-cultures within these societies, and there are many other societies around the world that are still heavily focused on honour.

In some recent work, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, have argued that we are undergoing another shift in our moral culture, away from a culture of dignity to a culture of victimhood. In this new culture, people worry about being victimised by others. They are concerned about any threat to self-esteem or self-worth. Such threats must be neutralised by the help of some third party authority. In some senses, the culture of victimhood is like a culture of honour, insofar as people are constantly worried about their moral standing. Where they differ is in how they resolve threats to moral standing. Honour cultures leave it up to individuals; victimhood cultures rely on third parties.

Campbell and Manning claim that the seeds of victimhood culture are being sown on today’s college campuses, with students increasingly emphasising their vulnerability and need for safe spaces. In this way, Campbell and Manning’s argument feeds into certain narratives about contemporary youth culture — that it is full of narcissistic snowflakes etc — that I don’t believe are entirely fair. That said, I don’t need to pass judgment on their argument in this talk. There is, clearly, some evidence for it, even if there is also countervailing evidence. All I will say is that even if they are right, victimhood may just be a short-term shift in the moral mood and not a sustained shift in moral culture.

For Campbell and Manning, the defining features of the different moral cultures is how they understand the moral status of individuals and how they negotiate and resolve threats to moral status. Not all theories of moral cultures see things in the same way. The aforementioned Kovalis, for example, in his 1977 paper on moral cultures argued that there were four distinct modern moral cultures: (i) liberal; (ii) romantic-anarchist; (c) nationalist and (d) ascetic-revolutionary. Now, you can certainly find evidence for these four moral outlooks in the historical records, but it is not obvious what structural properties they share.

The question then becomes: is there any way we can think more systematically about what a moral culture is and how a moral culture might change over time?

2. A Framework for Thinking about Moral Cultures

Here’s one suggestion. In his book, Moral Psychology, the philosophy/psychologist Mark Alfano suggests that there are five key structural elements to human morality. Although Alfano seems to think of these as distinctive features of human life that are morally salient, I think we can think of them as different variables or parameters that get filled in and prioritised in different ways by different moral cultures.

The five elements are:

Patiency: Some people/entities in the world are moral patients, i.e. they can be harmed and benefitted by actions; they can suffer; they can flourish. They have basic moral standing or considerability.
Agency: Some people/entities in the world are moral agents, i.e. they have duties they must perform in order to respect moral patients; they can be held accountable or responsible for their behaviour toward others.
Sociality: Moral agents and patients live in groups and not as isolated individuals. Their actions can affect one another (e.g. harm and benefit one another). Alfano argues that sociality has degrees of iterative complexity. One agent P2 can do something that affects P1 (in some morally salient way); P3 can do something to P2 (who does something to P1); P4 can do something to P3 (who does something to P2 (who does something to P1)); and so on. A lot of the complexity to our moral lives stems from the importance we attach to these nested forms of sociality. Who do we count as being socially relevant? How far down the iterated nest of complexity must we go when we make moral judgments?
Reflexivity: Agents and patients don’t just interact with others, they interact with themselves. In other words, what they do has some moral relevance for themselves. For example, I can harm and benefit myself through my own actions; I can reflect on my own nature as an agent and my possible duties to myself.
Temporality: Agents and patients exist through time and relate to themselves and others over time. How they do so, and how they conceive of those temporal relations, affects moral beliefs and practices. For example, is my future self more important than another future person? Do I relate to my future self in the same way that I relate to a stranger? Derek Parfit wrote about the moral significance of how we answer those questions in his famous work Reasons and Persons.


Alfano claims that different moral theories vary in how they approach these five structural elements. Some think that only humans count as moral agents/patients, some think that animals or other entities (gods etc) also count. Some attach great importance to our social and temporal relations with others; others do not.

One of the more interesting parts of Alfano’s book is when he argues that the leading Western moral theories — Kantianism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics etc — can be categorised and understood in terms of this framework. Take utilitarianism as the starting point. Alfano argues that utilitarianism is primarily concerned with moral patients. Utilitarians want to know who counts as a moral patient and how can their happiness/pleasure be maximised. Utilitarians are also concerned with sociality and social relations. Classical utilitarians think that all moral patients count equally in the utilitarian calculus. There can be no morally justified preferential treatment for someone in virtue of your social proximity to them. Some utilitarians, particularly in the wake of Derek Parfit’s work, are also deeply concerned with the future of moral patients. Indeed, a lot of the existential risk debate, for example, is taken up with people espousing a form of utilitarianism that is focused on the long-term future well-being of moral patients. Agency and reflexivity are not emphasised in utilitarian moral theory.

Contrast that with Kantianism. Kantian moral theory is primarily concerned with agency and reflexivity. It is focused on who counts as a moral agent and what their duties and responsibilities to themselves and each other might be. The basic idea in Kantian theory is that our moral duties and responsibilities can be derived through a process of self-reflection on what it means to be an agent. Kantians do care about sociality as well, insofar as they care about what we owe each other as members of a shared moral community, but it is a form of sociality that is viewed through the perspective of agency. Kantians do not care so much about temporality. Indeed, some strict forms of Kantianism suggest that we should not focus on the longer term consequences of our actions when figuring out our moral duties. Furthermore, Kantians care about moral patients to the extent that they are moral agents. To be a moral patient you must first be an agent, and then you are afforded a basic kind of moral dignity and respect. Thus, Kantianism is an agency-based moral theory through and through. Most of its key features are derived from its primary focus on agency.

I could go on. Alfano also categorises virtue ethics and care ethics using this framework. The former, he argues, is concerned with all five structural elements to some extent: the well lived life requires some moderate concern for everything. The latter, he argues, focuses on sociality and patiency, particularly on how moral patients depend on and care for one another. It takes issue with the Kantian focus on individual agency and responsibility.

You may agree or disagree with Alfano’s categorisations. What I think is interesting, however, is the framework itself. Can it be used to understand the potential shift in moral cultures that might be precipitated by robotics/AI? I think it can.

3. How Might the Rise of Robotics/AI Cause a Change in Moral Cultures?

Let me set up the argument first by making a strong claim about the kind of moral culture we currently inhabit. As you may have intuited from the discussion of Alfano’s framework, it’s likely that none of us lives in a single, pure moral culture. Instead, we live inside a space of morally possible cultures whose limits are defined by the five structural elements. Within that space, different moral theories/cultures are constantly jostling for supremacy. Some dominate for a period of time, but there are always seeds of alternative possible moral cultures lying around waiting the germinate.

This complexity notwithstanding, I think it is reasonably fair to say that we — and by “we” I mean those of us living in Western, developed nations — live in moral cultures that are broadly Kantian in their nature. In other words, we live in cultures in which individual agency, responsibility and dignity are the key moral concepts. We view ourselves as fundamentally equal moral agents who owe each other a basic, unconditional duty of respect in virtue of that fact. We hold each other to account for failing to live up to our duties toward one another. We care about moral patiency too, of course. We view ourselves as moral patients — entities that can experience joy and suffering and so on — and we want to live “flourishing” lives. Nevertheless, one of the key feature of what we think it takes to live a flourishing life is that we continue to exist as agents.

I’m sure some people will disagree with this. They will say that this moral culture does not describe their own personal moral views or, perhaps, the views of the people they interact with. That may well be the case. But, remember, I’m making a claim here about what I take the dominant moral culture to be, not what I think specific individuals or sub-cultures might believe. I feel about 75% confident that the moral culture in, say, European countries is broadly Kantian in its flavour. This appears to be reflected in the core human rights documents and legal frameworks of the EU.

If I am right about this, then one of the defining features of our current moral cultures is how we conceive of and relate to ourselves and one another as agents, first, and patients, second. Robots and advanced AIs disrupt this moral culture by our normal moral relationships. They do so first by changing the kinds of agents that we interact with and second by changing how we conceive of our own agency.

Robots and AIs are artificial agents. They take information from the world, process it and then use it to make some prediction or judgment about the world or, in the case of robots, perform some action in the world. They often do this by substituting for or reducing the need for human agency in the performance of certain function. Take, as an obvious example, an automated vehicle (“self-driving car). This piece of technology substitutes for a human agent in all, or at least some, key driving tasks. In a world in which there are many automated vehicles there are fewer interactions between human moral agents. This forces us to reconsider many of our default moral assumptions about this aspect of our lives. As robots and AI proliferate into other domains of life, we are forced to do more reconsidering.

The claim I wish to defend in this talk is that the rise of the robots/AI could cause a shift away from our basically Kantian, agency-centric moral culture to one in which moral patiency becomes the more important and salient feature of our moral lives. There would seem to be three major reasons for thinking that such a shift is likely.

First, the proliferation of robotic/AI agents has a tendency to corrode and undermine human agency. This is something I have written about quite a lot in some of my previous work. To be clear, I think the actual impact of these technologies on our agencies is multifaceted and doesn’t necessarily have to undermine our agency. Nevertheless, there are certain features of the technology that have a tendency to corrode and undermine human agency. In particular, reliance on such technologies tends to obviate the need for at least some forms of human agency. In other words, we typically use artificial agents when we don’t want or are unable to do things for ourselves. Similarly these technologies are increasingly being used in ways that nudge, manipulate, control or constrain human agency. As I put it in one of my previous papers, this could mean that our agency-like properties are undervalued and underemphasised, while our patiency-like attributes become our defining moral characteristic.

Second, robotic/AI agents occupy an uncertain moral status. Things wouldn’t change all that much if instead of interacting with human moral agents, we interacted with machine moral agents. We would just be trading one moral partner for another. But it seems plausible to suppose that this won’t happen. Machines will be treated as agents but not fully moral ones — or, at least, not equal members of the Kantian kingdom of ends. This means we won’t tend to view them as a responsible moral agents and we won’t view them as equivalent, duty-bearing members of our moral communities. To be clear, I am fully aware that the present and future moral status of robots/AIs is contested. There is lots of interesting work being done in social psychology on how people apply moral standards to machines and how you might design a robot to be viewed as a responsible moral agent. There is also a heated debate in philosophy about whether robots could be moral agents. Some people think they could be (at least someday) while others actively resist this suggestion. In a way, the existence of this controversy proves my point. It seems like you have to do a lot of technical design work and philosophical work to convince people that robots/AI might count as equal moral agents. Therefore, it is plausible to suppose that they pose a major disruption to any culture that presupposes the presence of moral agents.

Third, even if it is possible to design robots/AI in a way that they do not undermine human moral agency and in which they are treated as human-equivalent moral agents, there may not be any desire or motivation to do so. It may be that if we create robots/AIs that support human agency and can be viewed as moral agents in their own right, then we lose many of the benefits that they bring to our lives. This is something that I have written about a few times in relation to explainable AI and self-driving vehicles. Others have presented similar analyses, particularly in relation to explainable AI. If this view is correct, then society may face a hard tradeoff: we can either have the benefits of robots/AI or our existing moral culture, but not both. If we choose the former, then we cannot avoid a disruption to our moral culture.

But what might that disruption look like? If I am right in thinking that it is our agency-centric moral culture that is challenged by robots/AI, then I think the end result will be a culture in which moral patiency becomes the dominant moral concern. I don’t have time to sketch out the full consequences of this change in this talk, nor, if I am honest, have I actually attempted to do so. Nevertheless, I think a patiency-centric moral culture would have the following defining features:

  • (a) It would be a more utilitarian culture, i.e. one in which optimising for benefit over harm would be the primary focus (and not ensuring responsible, accountable agency)
  • (b) It would be a culture in which we (humans) became more conscious of ourselves as moral patients, i.e. more conscious of the pleasures and pains we might be suffering, as well as the harms and, crucially, risks to which we are exposed. In other words, it would exaggerate the risk averse trend we already see in our present society.
  • (c) It would be a culture in which there is more emphasis on technology as the solution to our problems as moral patients, i.e. we turn to technology to protect us from risk and ensure our well-being.

In this last respect, the culture of patiency might be a little bit like the culture of victimhood that Campbell and Manning talk about in their work except instead of turning to other third party humans/institutions to resolve our moral problems, we turn to machines.

There is, already, an active resistance to this culture of moral patiency. In some ways, the entire field of AI ethics is an attempt to protect our agency-centric moral culture from the disruption I have described above. These efforts may be fully justified. But in this talk I am not trying to ascertain which moral culture is the best. I am just trying to suggest that it might be useful to think about our current predicament as one in which the dominant moral culture is being disrupted.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Mindscape Podcast Interview on Automation and Utopia

Sean Carroll is one of my favourite authors and podcasters. He is a great cosmologist and defender of philosophical naturalism. His podcast Mindscape is the first thing I listen to every week. It was, consequently, a great privilege to be a guest on this podcast to discuss my book Automation and Utopia.

You can listen below or check out the original post on Sean's website.


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Will COVID-19 Spark a Moral Revolution? Eight Possibilities

The dust has not settled yet, and it may not settle for some time, but already people are wondering what kind of society we will have once the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end. Some are excited by the “imaginative possibilities” it opens up; some are concerned that it challenges our existing moral frameworks; others are worried about the slippery slope to authoritarianism and social control.

I am interested in this too. I am particularly interested in whether the disruptions and adjustments necessitated by COVID-19 will spark a moral revolution. In other words, will it change our moral beliefs and practices in a significant way? There is no doubt that our civilisation has been shaken to its core and new potentialities are tantalisingly being revealed in the space of moral possibility. But which way will we shift and rebalance ourselves?

There are many ‘thinkpieces’ out there already that offer some opinions on these questions. In this article, I want to take a step back and think about the issue in a more systematic way. I do so in three stages. First, I discuss the general phenomenon of a ‘moral revolution’. What does it mean to say that morality has been revolutionised? How can we tell that we have undergone a moral revolution? Second, I discuss the various ways in which COVID-19 and our response to it may change our moral beliefs and practices. I don’t offer definitive opinions but, rather, try to survey the various possibilities in a reasonably comprehensive fashion (with the caveat that nothing is ever truly comprehensive). Third, and finally, I offer some reasons to be sceptical about the prospects of a genuine moral revolution resulting from COVID-19.

1. What is a moral revolution anyway?
It’s important to be somewhat precise about the concept of a moral revolution at the outset. If we aren’t, then we won’t know whether to classify some social change made in response to COVID-19 as a genuine moral revolution.

It helps if we start with the concept of ‘morality’ itself. Moral philosophers often adopt a normative view of morality. For them, morality is the set of rules and theories that describes what is good/bad and right/wrong. Although there are plenty of philosophers who are sceptics and nihilists about the possibility of moral truth, there are also plenty who are moral realists and believe that there are correct moral theories and rules that do not change over time or depend on what people do or believe. For these people the idea of moral revolution might sound nonsensical. Morality is not something that changes or alters over time: it is something that is already waiting out there to be discovered by our reason.

Social theorists and psychologists often adopt a more descriptive view of morality. For them, morality is the set of socially accepted rules and theories that people use to determine what is good/bad and right/wrong. There is no guarantee that these socially accepted theories are correct. They can, and in fact often do, change over time. For example, once upon time many people thought it was morally acceptable to own slaves. Most people now reject this belief. What happened? There was a revolution in social morality. What people once deemed permissible was rejected as impermissible; what people once thought was good was categorised as bad. The evaluative standards that lay at the heart of our social moral consciousness shifted.

Thinking about moral revolutions makes most sense if you adopt this descriptive perspective. Moral revolutions are changes in social moral consciousness. They are not simply changes in behaviour. After all changes in behaviour can be enforced through authoritarian control without any underlying change in social morality. One day a dictator could declare that homosexuality is morally abhorrent. He could enforce this decree by banning homosexual relations and instituting harsh punishments. This might change people’s behaviours but it wouldn’t necessarily change their moral consciousness: they might continue to believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable. It’s only if there are changes in associated beliefs that there is a genuine moral revolution.

How do changes in moral beliefs take place? How do revolutions get started? There are divergent answers to those questions. Kwame Anthony Appiah, for example, has proposed that moral revolutions are catalysed by changing beliefs about the nature of honour. This is because perceptions of honour play a key role in our moral psychology: we are motivated to do the things that we perceive to be honourable. He may be on to something with this. I would, suggest, however a less precise and more abstract set of mechanisms. Moral revolutions start when there is some 'shock' to social order. This could be internal (endogenous) or external (exogenous), or a bit of both. The COVID-19 pandemic would seem to be a largely exogenous shock (though it was certainly encouraged by practices that are inherent to modern industrial-agricultural society). This shock prompts or forces new behaviours and new styles of thinking. We have to make sense of our new reality. To do this we go to the existing pool of moral ideas, theories and concepts (which is vast). Ideas emerge from this pool that help to justify, reinforce or control the new reality. This leads to a refinement of our moral consciousness and, if the process continues in the right way, a moral revolution.

Should we be careful about using the term ‘revolution’ in this context? One of the most thoughtful and well worked-out theories of moral revolution can be found in Robert Baker’s book The Structure of Moral Revolutions (which I discussed here). Using Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions as his model, Baker argues that we should distinguish between three types of changes in social morality: (i) revolutions which involve some intentional change in a general moral paradigm (e.g. a change in an abstract normative theory or principle like a shift to utilitarianism in lieu of traditional Christian morality); (ii) reforms which involve some intentional change in moral beliefs that are less far-reaching than revolutions (e.g. changes in what we believe about the morality of homosexuality without a change in an underlying paradigm) and (iii) drifts which are non-intentional changes in social morality.

My attempt to explain Baker's three different types of moral change

Baker’s theory is an interesting one but I think these distinctions are unnecessary and unnecessarily complicated. While it might be intellectually interesting to classify different kinds of moral change depending on their directedness or gravity I suspect that in most cases what we really care about is whether there has been some change in morality at all and not whether it was intentionally directed or whether it involved a change to a moral paradigm as opposed to a less central moral belief. In any event, I won’t be too precious about how I use the term ‘revolution’ in the remainder of this article. I will use it to refer to any noteworthy change in social moral beliefs.

It’s worth saying one thing about the importance of individual humans in instituting moral revolutions. Michelle Moody Adams — who has written extensively about the idea of moral progress and change — has argued that certain individuals (moral visionaries) often play a key role in moral revolutions. These are people who see new moral possibilities in the world, who reframe and reevaluate events and behaviours in a way that casts them in a new moral light, and refine and expand existing norms and theories. These people often lead moral revolutions through their use of language and their ability to use language to redescribe and recategorise our moral predicament. A good example might be Martin Luther King Jr who, although not the only one to speak out about the injustices visited upon the black population of the United States, managed to do so in a particularly effective way, using some arresting metaphors and articulating a vision (a “dream”) for our moral future. Similarly, some feminist activists, such as Catharine MacKinnon, have played a key role in redescribing unwanted flirtation or interest in the workplace as sexual harassment. In doing this, they managed to ‘see’ something that other people missed (the sexual harassment example is one that Moody Adams relies upon in her work).

One thing we might be curious about, as we now turn to consider the possible moral revolutions that might be kicked off by the COVID 19 pandemic, is whether there are any such moral visionaries at work at present. Are we being guided to a new moral paradigm by their insights and leadership? I’ll return to this question later.

2. How Might COVID 19 Revolutionise Morality?
COVID-19 is altering many of our daily habits and practices. Many people have lost their jobs and become reliant on the state for survival. Many people have been forced to work from home and interact with people online instead of in the real world. Many working parents have suddenly realised how exhausting it is to look after children full time. And so on. The changes are everywhere. Will any of them spark a moral revolution? In what follows I will briefly sketch eight nascent moral revolutions that might be precipitated by the current pandemic. At the moment, most of these nascent revolutions are either taking place at the level of behavioural change or, in some cases, are just mere possibilities that seem to be encouraged by the dynamics of the pandemic. None of them really seems to involve a change in social moral consciousness. At least not yet.

(a) Hyper-Utilitarianism
The first nascent moral revolution involves a shift to a hyper-utilitarian social ethic. I recently saw an interesting comment on Twitter (I think it was from Diana Fleischmann but I cannot remember). It went something to the effect of “just as there are no atheists in foxholes so too there are no non-consequentialists in triage”. This was a comment on some of the stark decisions being forced upon doctors and healthcare workers in the midst of the pandemic surge. These decisions have occurred most visibly in Italy and New York. With a limited supply of medical resources to go around, healthcare workers have been forced to make essentially utilitarian calculations about which patient is worth saving. Many times this has come down to saving younger people at the expense of older people. It’s a little more complicated than that, of course, — if you are interested in the topic I did a whole podcast episode about it with Lars Sandman — but it is still noteworthy that maximising the number of life years saved is one of the more dominant criteria being used to ration healthcare.

Furthermore, it is not just in the healthcare context that the utilitarian approach is in the ascendancy. We also see it, more broadly, in the economic sphere. We are now classifying workers based on whether they are essential or not. Healthcare workers? Grocery store workers? Sanitation workers? All essential. University professors? Beauticians? Baristas? Sadly non-essential. When we lift lockdown orders and try to return our societies to something like the pre-pandemic reality, we will also be forced to make such calculations. Some people will be deemed more essential — more socially important — than others and allowed back sooner. Some might never be allowed back (cruise ship captains?).

You might argue that this hyper-utilitarian mode of thinking is just being forced on us by the crisis. We will abandon it when we get a chance. You might also argue that behind the general lockdown orders lurks the dignitarian principle that every life is sacred and worth saving. But could this just be a fiction that is no longer sustainable in the face of necessary utilitarianism? Societies are clearly making choices that some lives are more important than others. We have always done this to some extent. Indeed, it may be unavoidable. But the pandemic might be forcing the utilitarian choices into the open in an unprecedented way. It might be like pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. We cannot unsee what we have now seen.

The end result might be that society re-emerges from the crisis embracing a hyper-utilitarian view in which it is acceptable to rank and prioritise lives according to some metric of relative worth. I am not sure what this will mean in practice but one possibility would be that we adopt an extreme version of the Chinese social credit system, wherein everyone is given a rating based on their worth to society or their contribution to the common good and are then selectively exposed to social benefits and burdens.

(b) The End of Work
Closely related to the above, is the possibility that the pandemic might be revealing how many things we thought were socially necessary are, in fact, optional and arbitrary. Close to my own heart — given that I wrote a whole book critiquing the role of work in our lives — is the fact that the crisis might be highlighting how unnecessary certain forms of work really are. We tend to moralise work and think that it plays an important role in our well-being. The fact that many are now forced to accept that their work is non-essential and have to take an involuntary break from it, might encourage a rethink. Maybe we shouldn’t moralise our work so much?

This is certainly true for me. I am now working from home, as is my partner. We are fortunate that this is possible. We have a young daughter and she needs to be looked after. So we don’t work full time. We work, at most, half time instead. I know of many parents who have to do this (single parents, of course, face tougher choices). For me, working half time has made me realise how little of what I do is important and how it is possible to do most of what I need to do in far less time than it it used to take. In a sense, I could work half time all the time and no one would know the difference (though, ssshh, don’t tell my employer this!). Furthermore, I now appreciate how lucky I am to spend so much time with my daughter as she navigates the first few months of her life. In a country with limited paternity leave, I am being given a taste of something I would not ordinarily have (though, I am not going to lie it is pretty draining sometimes).

This is one reason why some of the groups that have long been advocating for a reduction in the working week, such as Autonomy UK, see the crisis as an opportunity for their movement. The changes to working habits and practices may force a change in moral consciousness around work. Perhaps it shouldn’t occupy such a central role in our lives? This transition to a post-work world could also be hastened by the fact that the crisis makes machine labour more attractive, and possibly more necessary, than it ever was before. Running a large kitchen or warehouse with lots of human workers is far riskier now than it would be if it were just one or two humans interacting with large teams of robots.

That said, I would be cautious about the possibility of a genuine moral revolution around work. The present circumstances are a less-than-ideal natural experiment for the possibility of a post-work economy. Living in lockdown, not being allowed to visit friends and family, travel to the beach or countryside, or participate in rewarding leisure activities, means that people might not see the current predicament as better than work. Indeed, I already hear rumblings to this effect in my peer group. People are now saying that they can’t wait to get back to the office. I suspect this is largely because we all need a break from our families from time to time. If we weren’t required to comply with public health orders, this would be possible. But since it is not going to be possible until this ends, people might learn the wrong lesson from this ordeal. They may redouble their commitment to the work ethic not slacken it.

(c) Renegotiated Social Contract
Another thing the present crisis has revealed are the inadequacies and inequalities inherent in many societies. The disease itself strikes some people (notably the elderly) more harshly than others. The associated economic shock has hit some people and some countries harder than others.

The ’social contract’ is the term moral and political philosophers use to describe the agreement we have in society about how rights get protected and goods get distributed. It’s a bit of a fiction, of course, but it seems plausible to suggest that there is some kind of ongoing negotiation about this in every society. No matter where you live, the COVID-19 pandemic is testing the social contract. Governments have to scramble to decide how to prioritise lives and well-being and how to compensate for economic losses. Some governments have responded in a remarkably dynamic way: significantly increasing healthcare capacity, welfare payments to those who have lost their jobs and support for businesses that are struggling. One of the most notable developments is that many countries have switched to something pretty close to a universal basic income for all citizens, at least over the short term. This may not be sustainable over the long-term but the fact that it was possible at all is noteworthy.

Is there an opportunity for revolution here? This is one of the features of the present crisis that has been most remarked upon. Amartya Sen has penned an op-ed suggesting that there is an opportunity to build a more communitarian and equal society as we come out of the pandemic. We have now seen what it is possible for governments to do when their backs are against the wall. Perhaps some of these changes can become more permanent? Sen is cautiously optimistic on this front, though admits that past crises didn’t always leave lasting changes.

Some people are less optimistic and revolutionary in their outlook. John Authers wrote an interesting piece for Bloomberg in which he argued that the current pandemic was testing our moral frameworks but that we were, ultimately, favouring a basically Rawlsian maximin approach to the social contract: raise the floor for the most vulnerable. This wouldn’t be a revolution since, according to Authers, the Rawlsian view has been dominant for some time. I’m not sure about this but I accept that there is plenty of opposition to the more radical egalitarian and communitarian possibilities inherent in the present crisis. For example, one of the reasons why some politicians, noticeably in the US, have opposed more dramatic reforms to social welfare is that they fear that these changes will become permanent. It’s as if they are anticipating the revolution and trying to preempt it.

(d) The New New Death of Privacy
In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a lot of talk about the death of privacy. The belief was that as surveillance technology became more widespread people would, to a large extent, trade their privacy for other conveniences, e.g. cheaper and more efficient services. Some optimists argued that people would insure themselves against the loss of personal privacy by turning surveillance technologies back on those who might abuse their power (the so-called ‘sousveillance’ approach).

To some extent, this revolution in our attitude to privacy has come to pass. Surveillance technologies definitely are more widespread and people do often trade personal privacy for other conveniences. Nevertheless, there has been a significant retrenchment from the optimistic, ‘death of privacy’, view in recent years. Furthermore, privacy activists have won some notable legal battles, particularly in Europe, ensuring the protection of privacy in the digital age.

This retrenchment may now come to an end. It has become clear that one of primary tools that governments have used — and plan to use — to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic is increased surveillance and control. Identifying those who are infectious, and those they might have come into contact with, and isolating them from everyone else is the only viable long-term solution to the pandemic in the absence of an effective cure or vaccine. This requires testing individuals and recording their healthcare data. It also requires tracking and controlling people. This is likely true even if people voluntarily commit to isolation and quarantine. This could be done manually (i.e. by individual case workers) or it may, in some cases, be done through some kind of digital tracking and tracing. In fact, many governments are encouraging digital solutions to the problem, partly because they are seen to be more efficient and scalable, and partly because we live in an age where this kind of technological solutionism is favoured. This is to say nothing, incidentally, about the kinds of surveillance and control that will be favoured by private corporations in their effort to ensure safe and productive working environments.

What this could mean, in practice, is that we will witness the new death of privacy. Faced with a choice between the inconveniences of lockdown and the intrusiveness of surveillance and tracking, many people will choose the latter. That’s if they even get a choice. Some governments will choose (and some already have chosen) to impose surveillance technologies on their populations in an effort to get their economies back to some level of functionality; some companies will require employees to do so before they can return to work. It’s hard to see how privacy can be sustained in light of all this unless we get an effective treatment and vaccine and even then we can expect some recording and tracking of healthcare data (e.g. through immunity passports).

The issue is complicated. There are those that argue that the choice between privacy and public health is a false one. There are those that argue that digital contact tracing simply will not work. I discussed these issues in my podcast with Carissa Véliz. Maybe these voices will be heard and privacy will not go into the dying light just yet. But it certainly looks like it might be on life support once more. How many more battles can it win?

(e) The Uncertain Fate of Universalism and Cosmopolitanism
A common theme in books written about moral change is the sense that creeping universalism is the hallmark of moral progress. Humanity started out in small bands and tribes. We owed moral duties to members of our tribes but not to outsiders. They were not ‘one of us’. This made a certain amount of ruthless sense in a world of precarious living conditions and scarce resources. As society grew more technologically complex, and as the social surplus made possible by technology grew, the pressure eased and the moral circle started to expand. More and more people were seen to be ‘one of us’. It hasn’t all been plane sailing, of course, but the recent high watermark in this trend came, perhaps, in the post-WWII era with the rise of global institutions and the recognition of universal human rights.

What’s going to happen in the post COVID-19 world? It seems like we are poised on the precipice and could go in either direction. On the one hand, we will need greater global coordination and cooperation to both resolve this pandemic and prevent the next one. So we could be on the cusp of even greater global cooperation and solidarity. On the other hand, infectious diseases, almost by necessity, tend to breed suspicion of others. Others are a threat since they could be carrying the disease. Borders are being shut down to prevent the spread. We are asked to distance ourselves from one another. The sense that the disease originated in a specific country (China) also fosters suspicion and antipathy toward foreigners.

I am not sure which way we are going to go. I have certainly felt my own world shrinking quite a bit over the past few weeks. It’s hard to maintain a globalist and cosmopolitan outlook when you limit your movements and contacts so much. When I go for a walk I find myself wary of others: are they getting too close? Why aren’t they abiding by social distancing rules? But when I go online and read opinions from around the world I do also sense some greater solidarity emerging, particularly in academic and research communities. The only problem is that they have always tended to be more cosmopolitan and globalist in their outlook.

(f) Return of a Disgust Based Morality
According to Jonathan Haidt’s influential theory of moral foundations one of the five (or six) basic moral parameters used to shape our social moral consciousness is that of disgust. This gives rise to the perception that some people, foods, places, and actions are ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’. It also gives rise to an associated set of purity and cleanliness norms. These can be odd, but relatively innocuous, when applied to rituals around food and personal hygiene. They can be pernicious and exclusionary when applied to people and, classically, sexual practices. One of Haidt’s claims is that disgust-based morality is more prevalent in traditional and conservative moral communities. Modern, liberal moral communities seem to have abandoned it in favour of a social ethic based primarily on harm and fairness.

It seems plausible to me to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will provide an opportunity for a disgust-based morality to get a foothold in modern liberal societies once more. To some extent this could be positive. Better policing of norms around personal hygiene (hand-washing) and social hygiene (mask-wearing) could genuinely reduce the spread of infectious disease, thereby limiting loss of life. At the same time, there could be pernicious effects as some people and practices that are, in fact, innocuous are perceived to be ‘unclean’ or ‘disgusting’ and so must be ‘purged’ from our communities. This could help to support the retrenchment from universalism and cosmopolitanism that I outlined above.

(g) Animal Ethics and the One Health Approach
One thing the COVID-19 pandemic clearly places under the spotlight is our relationship with animals. It’s very clear, if you read the research on viruses and pandemics, that zoonoses like Sars-CoV2 are hastened by how we choose to control and live with animal populations. Many viruses that are deadly to humans jump from animals (where they are relatively innocuous) to humans (yes, I know we are ‘animals’ too). Living in close proximity to animals, killing them and eating them allows this to happen with relative frequency.

The Wuhan wet market has been pinpointed (though this is disputed) as the origin point for this particular outbreak. Wet markets of this sort are notable for the fact that they contain wild and exotic animals that are slaughtered onsite and sold to humans. But it is not just wet markets that are to blame for the risk of viral pandemics. The entire system of animal agriculture has played its part. We breed animals in closed environments where infectious diseases can spread with ease ; we pump them full of anti-microbial drugs that encourages the growth of anti-microbial resistant strains; we destroy the natural homelands of wild animals, forcing them to migrate into closer proximity with us. (This is something discussed in more detail in my podcast with Jeff Sebo).

Epidemiologists have long noted that this is a recipe for disaster. A ticking time bomb that was set to explode at any time. The best solution is to adopt a ‘one health’ approach to the world whereby we see our fates as inextricably intertwined with the fate of our animal populations. As the COVID-19 pandemic makes the wisdom of the one health approach more obvious it also provides an opportunity for an enhanced animal ethics. Maybe we will now realise that we have moral duties to animals and take these duties seriously.

(h) An Ethic of Existential Risk
One final possible moral revolution concerns our attitude to existential risk. I am not going to debate the precise definition of this concept (Toby Ord’s recent book The Precipice offers a highly restrictive definition of the concept). I am just going to submit that an existential risk is a one that threatens a lot of harm to human civilisation. A highly lethal global pandemic has long been touted as a potential existential risk.

Right now we are living with a pandemic that is, fortunately, not as lethal as it could have been. Nevertheless, the fact that we had a close call this time around could change our attitude to all those other existential risks that people have been harping on about for some time: bioweapons, nuclear war, global warming, supervolcanoes, artificial superintelligence and so on. Maybe now we will take them much more seriously? In other words, maybe we will emerge from this pandemic with a social moral consciousness that is more attuned to existential risk and more willing to take decisive preventive action.

These are the eight nascent moral revolutions that occurred to me. I am sure that I could identify more if I thought about it for longer. As you will see, there is plenty of uncertainty in my preceding remarks about the exact course these moral revolutions might take, if they come to pass. It should also be clear that I am not claiming that these revolutions will be positive. Some of them might be quite negative. We are working with a descriptive understanding of social morality; not a normative one. Where we shift to in the space of possible social morality could be good or bad, depending on your normative commitments.

3. Conclusion: Preventing the Moral Revolution
I mentioned at the outset that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken society out of its equilibrium. If you look around you can now glimpse tantalising new possibilities in the landscape of possible moral futures. I want to conclude by briefly mentioning three ways in which these revolutions might never get off the ground; in which we settle back into our old patterns.

First, the pandemic might just be a ‘short sharp shock’. There will be no second or third wave. We won’t be living with it for the next 18-24 months. It will just be that weird spring — you remember the one — where we all stayed at home for 6-12 weeks, drove our families a bit made, but got through it all okay. Assuming we didn’t work on the frontline, or lose a loved one to the disease, or get infected ourselves, we will just look back on it as a nice holiday from our ordinary lives. Not something worth changing our moral beliefs over.

Second, the pandemic might be a source of collective shame — something we would all much rather forget. This is something I discussed in my podcast with Michael Cholbi. It has been noted by other historians and commentators looking at past pandemics. The 1918 flu pandemic, for example, was largely ignored until recent times, perhaps because it didn’t show humanity in its best light. The same could happen this time around. In the fight for survival we might become more insular, selfish and scared. We might like to move away from the people we were in the midst of the pandemic and return to what it was like before.

(There is a bit of a paradox here. Others have pointed it out: If we are very successful in flattening the curve and suppressing the virus we might think we overreacted and that there was nothing truly revolutionary about the pandemic. This might encourage the belief that there is no need to change who we are or what we do. If we are unsuccessful and the virus spreads and kills millions, we might like to forget about it. It’s only if we land somewhere in between these extremes that the revolutionary potential is most potent.)

Third, and finally, we might lack the requisite moral visionaries. As noted above, we need people — individually and collectively — to identify the new moral possibilities and articulate them in a compelling and engaging way. If the moral visionaries do not emerge, we might not realise what needs to change.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

76 - Surveillance, Privacy and COVID-19

Carissa Veliz

How do we get back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic? One suggestion is that we use increased amounts of surveillance and tracking to identify and isolate infected and at-risk persons. While this might be a valid public health strategy it does raise some tricky ethical questions. In this episode I talk to Carissa Véliz about these questions. Carissa is a Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, also at Oxford. She is the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Digital Ethics as well as two forthcoming solo-authored books Privacy is Power (Transworld) and The Ethics of Privacy (Oxford University Press).

You can download the episode here or listen below.You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Stitcher and a range of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here). 

Show Notes

Topics discussed include
  • The value of privacy
  • Do we balance privacy against other rights/values?
  • The significance of consent in debates about consent
  • Digital contact tracing and digital quarantines
  • The ethics of digital contact tracing
  • Is the value of digital contact tracing being oversold?
  • The relationship between testing and contact tracing
  • COVID 19 as an important moment in the fight for privacy
  • The data economy in light of COVID 19
  • The ethics of immunity passports
  • The importance of focusing on the right things in responding to COVID 19

Relevant Links


Friday, April 17, 2020

The Future of Humanity: Automation and Utopia

Above is a video of a Zoom talk that I gave to the Oxford PPE society. The talk was about my book Automation and Utopia and I gave an overview of the main claims defended therein. There is a bit of a time lag between the audio and the video at the start of this talk but it corrects itself before too long.
Here is the original description for the talk:
Our world has never changed so much in such a short period of time. One aspect of this is technological progress, with ever more innovative machines doing what we once thought impossible and artificial intelligence doing things of which we had never even thought. John Danaher is an associate fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and the author of 'Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work'.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

75 - The Vital Ethical Contexts of Coronavirus

David Shaw

There is a lot of data and reporting out there about the COVID 19 pandemic. How should we make sense of that data? Do the media narratives misrepresent or mislead us as to the true risks associated with the disease? Have governments mishandled the response? Can they be morally blamed for what they have done. These are the questions I discuss with my guest on today's show: David Shaw. David is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel and an Assistant Professor at the Care and Public Health Research Institute, Maastricht University. We discuss some recent writing David has been doing on the Journal of Medical Ethics blog about the coronavirus crisis.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Stitcher and a range of other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

 Show Notes

Topics discussed include...
  • Why is it important to keep death rates and other data in context?
  • Is media reporting of deaths misleading?
  • Why do the media discuss 'soaring' death rates and 'grim' statistics?
  • Are we ignoring the unintended health consequences of COVID 19?
  • Should we take the economic costs more seriously given the link between poverty/inequality and health outcomes?
  • Did the UK government mishandle the response to the crisis? Are they blameworthy for what they did?
  • Is it fair to criticise governments for their handling of the crisis?
  • Is it okay for governments to experiment on their populations in response to the crisis?

Relevant Links

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Epistemic Puzzle of Rashomon

Rashomon Gate - from the movie

[What follows are some thoughts on the movie Rashomon. These were prepared for a class I teach on critical thinking in law. If you haven't seen the movie, you can watch it for free, online, here.]

Rashomon is one the great films of the 20th century. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and released in 1950, it is a film that is perhaps known more by reputation and allusion than by actual viewing. The central plot device — multiple characters recounting the same events all with slight but significant variations — has passed into the popular imagination. So much so that the word “Rashomon” is now synonymous with the kind of epistemic problem that arises from conflicting testimony. This problem is faced in many disciplines, perhaps most notably in law.

I recently watched the movie Rashomon with one of my classes. I did so as an exercise in critical thinking. I wanted to use the movie as a way to easily illustrate the problem that we often face when dealing with conflicting testimony from different witnesses. I wanted students to approach the movie as an epistemological puzzle in which they had to use their critical faculties to figure out which narrative was most likely to be true.

I appreciate that some people will see this exercise as completely wrongheaded. They think the movie is intended to present a kind of epistemological nihilism. The point is not to ask which story is true but, rather, to realise that the ’Truth’ is elusive. Perhaps there is no such thing. Donald Richie, for example, in one of his essays about the movie suggests that this is the major theme of all of Kurosawa’s work: the world is an illusion that we construct through our interpretations of it.

I’m not sure what the correct analysis of the movie is. I suspect, like many artistic works, the movie allows for multiple interpretations and I think the ‘epistemological puzzle’ interpretation is a valid one. The movie is asking us to understand different errors and deceptions that might underlie people’s testimony about the world. If we reflect on these errors and deceptions we might be able to get closer to the truth.

In what follows, I want to do three things. First, I want to explain, in abstract terms, the basic epistemological problems that arise from all forms of testimony. Second, I want to use this abstract framework to explain the epistemological puzzle at the heart of Rashomon. And third, I want to present some of my own thoughts on how we might resolve that puzzle. I won’t, of course, claim to present a definitive solution to that puzzle. Part of the fun of Rashomon is leaving this as an exercise for each individual. Nevertheless, I think there are better and worse ways to analyse the different narratives within the movie.

1. The Epistemological Puzzle of Testimony
Testimony is what other people tell us about the world. It comes in different forms. In law we draw distinctions between ‘eyewitness testimony’, which is what happens when someone tells us about an event that they witnessed (or participated in) in the past, and ‘expert testimony’ which is what happens when an expert (e.g. scientist) tells us about some discovery they made or theory they have about how we should understand some issue that is relevant to a particular legal trial. Either way, the key feature of testimony is that it is information about the world that comes to us through other people. It is not something that we experience or understand directly, for ourselves.

We rely on testimony all the time. In fact, in many cases we are quite credulous about testimony. If someone tells me that they just saw a car accident down the road then, nine times out of ten, I will believe them. That said, there are times when our credulity lets us down. Perhaps the person is high on some psychedelic drug and so imagined the accident; perhaps they are lying for some reason. If we want to be reasonable and rational about our reliance on testimony we need to think carefully about the ways in which it can be misleading and modulate our credulity accordingly.

There are two basic kinds of problem that can arise when we confront testimony, particularly eyewitness testimony concerning events that happened in the past (which is the kind of testimony at the heart of Rashomon):

Encoding Errors: These are errors that arise when the person is witnessing or participating in an event that they later recount from memory. That is to say, they are errors that arise when the person is encoding the events into their memories for later retrieval. There are many different forms that encoding errors can take. The person may not be a good position to see exactly what is going on; they might mishear or misinterpret what someone else is saying; they might be drunk or intoxicated; they might have only participated in or witnessed some of the events; they might have their own biases that lead them to interpret events in a particular way; and so on. All of these encoding errors prevent their testimony from revealing the truth to us.

Decoding Errors: These are errors that arise when the person is recounting the events from memory. Again these errors can take different forms. We are told, repeatedly, by memory scientists that our brains are not like video recorders. We do not ‘store’ perfect records of past events for later retrieval. Memory is, rather, reconstructive. We reconstruct past events based on present knowledge, capacities and biases. So, for example, someone might have forgotten exactly what happened in the past and fill in the details in a way that seems plausible to them; or they might be suffering from some mental impairment in the present that causes them to distort the past. Most dramatically and obviously, they might deceive us as to what happened in the past because it suits their own interests. Sometimes this deception might be active and intentional; other times it might be inadvertent and arise because the person has such a distorted self-image or view of the world that they delude themselves into thinking that what they are saying is true.

Whenever we hear someone’s testimony we need to think about whether what they are saying is susceptible to these possible errors. As we shall see below, figuring out the potential decoding errors — particularly the motivations for deception — might be the key to unravelling the epistemological puzzle in Rashomon.

Is there any general test we can apply to testimony that will enable us to figure out whether it is true or not? Perhaps. The modern view is that we should apply Bayes Theorem to all evidence, including testimony. This means that we should weigh the probability that the testimony is true against the background probability that the event being testified to actually occurred. This can be useful but it is important not to mislead yourself into thinking that we always have reliable quantitative estimates for those probabilities. I personally think that David Hume got the basic picture right in his essay ‘Of Miracles’. That essay is famous for presenting a sceptical view about the occurrence of religious miracles, but in presenting this view Hume tackles the problem of testimony and proposes a simple two-part test we can apply when deciding whether or not to believe in it.

I outlined this test in some of my previous writings, relying on Robert Fogelin’s interpretation of Hume. Hume’s test does, roughly, follow the structure of Bayes’s Theorem but does so in qualitative, descriptive terms and not mathematical terms. What Hume says is that when assessing testimony we should first apply a ‘direct test’, which focuses on how credible the testimony is, and then a ‘reverse test’ which focuses on how probable the event being testified to is, given our prior knowledge. That works as follows (some of the language used in this test is directly from Hume's essay):

Direct Test: Testimonial evidence for some event X is generally more reliable (i.e. more likely to be true) if it exemplifies the following (non-exhaustive) list of properties: 

  • (i) There are many witnesses, not few. 

  • (ii) The witnesses concur with one another rather than contradict one another. 

  • (iii) The witnesses are of unimpeachable, rather than of doubtful character. 

  • (iv) The witnesses are disinterested, not interested, parties. 

  • (v) The witnesses present their testimony in measured tones of confidence, rather than with hesitation or too violent asseveration.

Reverse Test: The probability-raising potential of reliable testimonial evidence for X must be assessed relative to the prior probability of X. If X was highly improbable, then the effect of reliable testimony is proportionally diminished.

The importance of the two parts of this test varies depending on the context. In Hume’s case, where the focus was on the plausibility of religious miracles, most of the emphasis was on the Reverse Test. Indeed, Hume’s main insight into the debate about miracles was his observation that even if the testimony provided was credible it still not did make it rational to believe in the historical occurrence miracles, given their low prior probability. In the case of Rashomon, the direct test really becomes the more important one. The challenge of Rashomon is that we have contradictory testimony coming from interested, not disinterested, parties.

2. The Epistemic Puzzle of Rashomon
Let’s turn now to the plot of Rashomon and the epistemic puzzle it presents (there will be spoilers from here on out). Rashomon starts in the rain. Three people — the commoner, the priest and the woodcutter — huddle under the ruined Rashomon gate for shelter. Earlier that day, the woodcutter and the priest watched a trial concerning the murder of a man in a grove in a wood. The murder took place three days ago. At trial, three witnesses gave evidence: a bandit (Tajōmaru - the only named character), the murdered man’s wife, and the murdered man himself (via a medium). The trial perplexed the woodcutter and the priest because each of the witnesses presented a very different version of events. They tell the commoner about the trial and their own role in it. It turns out both had tangentially witnessed events related to the murder. The woodcutter discovered the body and the priest had witnessed the man and his wife journeying through the wood several days before. It later turns out that the woodcutter also witnessed the murder, but this is not revealed until close to the end of the movie.

From the start then, Rashomon is structured in an unusual way. It’s not just that we get different witness accounts of the murder; it’s that these witness accounts are revealed to us second-hand via the woodcutter and the priest and, in one case, third-hand because a medium provides the testimony from the deceased husband. Only the woodcutter provides direct eyewitness testimony at the very end. Thus, the reality of what actually happened in the grove is filtered through several layers of  potentially misleading testimony. The viewer has to peer through these layers of testimony, as is illustrated below.

You could mull over this curious structure for a long time. Since the story comes at us through these layers of testimony it makes it more difficult to get at the truth. You don’t just have to think about the testimonial errors that might have been made by the original witnesses to the events; you also have to think about the testimonial errors that the people recounting the testimony of the original witnesses might be making.

But adding that extra layer of critical analysis might be going too far. Initially, I think it makes most sense to assume that the witness testimony is recounted by the priest and the woodcutter in a reasonably accurate way. The puzzle then is in trying to reconcile the four different accounts of the murder. Doubling back and considering whether the priest and the woodcutter might be misremembering or deceiving us with respect to the testimony of the three witnesses at trial might be fun, after we have attempted to resolve the discrepancies between the four different versions of events.

So what are the four different versions of events? Let’s start with the testimony from the bandit, Tajōmaru. He was sleeping under a tree in the wood when the husband and wife passed by. He runs after them and then lures the husband away with the promise of showing him some weapons. He tricks the husband and ties him up. He then proceeds to rape (or ‘seduce’ - if you believe what he is saying) the wife. He begs her to leave her husband and come with him. She tells him he must kill the husband first to preserve her honour (she cannot be tied to two men at the same time). He and the husband fight nobly, crossing swords 23 times. He kills the husband with his sword. The wife runs away and so does the bandit, taking the husband’s horse but not a valuable dagger that was also in his possession (the dagger plays a crucial role in subsequent narratives). The bandit drinks some poisoned water and is later discovered by a policeman.

Next we get the wife’s version of events. She takes up the story after the rape. She tells the court that the bandit runs away after the rape and she is left with the husband. She unties him. He is contemptuous of her. She asks him to kill her with the precious dagger. He does nothing. She goes into a fugue holding the dagger before her and threatening the husband. She then blacks out. When she wakes up the husband is dead with the dagger sticking out of him. The implication, though not clearly stated, is that she may have killed the husband in her fugue state.

The next story comes from the husband himself. You have to suspend disbelief at this point and assume that the medium at the trial really is channeling the husband’s voice. If you don’t do that then you may as well discount this version of the story in its entirety. He tells us that he is tied up and witnesses the rape of his wife. The bandit then pleads with the wife to come away with him. She agrees, but only if the bandit kills the husband. The bandit rejects this as dishonourable. The wife runs away. The bandit tries to find her but fails. The husband is left alone and, in his grief and shame, he kills himself with the dagger. Later, someone takes the dagger from his body but he cannot tell who it is.

Finally, we get the woodcutter’s version of the story. He comes upon the scene after the rape. He witnesses the bandit begging the wife to come with him. She will not. She argues that the men have to decide her fate by fighting over her. The husband doesn’t want to, but the bandit is disgusted by the husband’s attitude and they reluctantly fight each other. The fight is not noble; it is farcical. They do not cross swords 23 times. After a comedy of errors, the bandit kills the husband with a sword.

This prosaic summary does not do justice to the way in which the stories are told in the movie. There are some interesting aspects to performances by the actors that could affect our interpretation. For example, the bandit is a little bit eccentric and quite proud in the way he recounts events; the wife goes through different extremes of emotion, displaying quite an odd attitude to events at times. The medium is pretty creepy and ominous but she presents the husband in a somewhat pitiful light. And the woodcutter is sheepish and meek. It’s worth watching the movie to appreciate the different performances.

3. Resolving the Epistemic Puzzle
So who is telling the truth? Clearly, the four narratives present very different and irreconcilable versions of events. There are, however, some common points of agreement. All seem to agree that the bandit rapes the wife (though he suggests that she ultimately fell for him), all agree that the husband was tied up, all agree that the husband was, ultimately killed. They then differ quite substantially on the details. Two of the witnesses (the bandit and the woodcutter) suggest that the bandit killed the husband in a duel; the husband claims to have killed himself; and the wife is unclear but hints that she may have killed the husband. There is also disagreement about the murder weapon. Two of the narratives suggest the husband was killed with a sword; two suggest that he was killed with a dagger.

Is there anyway to sort through this mess and get to the truth? Well, let’s start with sketching the possible answers to this question. There are only three:

Possibility 1: None of the witnesses presents us with anything that can get us close to the truth.
Possibility 2: One of the witnesses is telling the truth and all the others are lying.
Possibility 3: Some or all of the witnesses present part of the truth and it is possible to triangulate on what really happened by carefully selecting relevant portions of the testimony.

The first of these options seems unlikely given that there is some agreement on what happened across the multiple witnesses. In addition to this, the stories told do seem to exhaust some of the relevant possibilities when it comes to who the murderer might have been. The only possibility not covered is that the woodcutter might have murdered the husband (perhaps to get his precious dagger). Consequently, it seems more plausible to suppose that either one of the witnesses is telling the truth or there is partial truth across the different stories and that if we interpret it carefully this might be enough for us to get close to what actually happened. Let’s work with that possibility for now.

We can start to sort fact from fiction by thinking about the possible errors that the witnesses might be making. As noted above, there are two basic types of error: encoding errors and decoding errors. It’s certainly plausible to think that there are some encoding errors affecting the testimony in Rashomon. The woodcutter, for example, seems to have only witnessed some of the events and the wife doesn’t remember a crucial part of what happened. That said, decoding errors seem to be the more likely cause of the discrepancies between the stories. When you look at it, it’s not just the case that the witnesses misremember or misunderstand events; they have very distinctive ‘slants’ on what happened. Indeed, their narratives typically paint some of the participants in a favourable light and others in a less favourable light. What’s going on?

One of the major themes in Rashomon is that of honour. The movie depicts a Japanese society that is very much bound up with a culture of honour. The bandit makes it a point to suggest that he and the husband fought honourably; the wife cares about her honour as a ‘defiled’ woman; the husband is a Samurai and, according to his own testimony, appears to have killed himself out of a sense of shame; the woodcutter may, if we believe what the commoner suggests at the end of the movie, have provided his testimony in order to cover up his own dishonour in stealing a dagger from the corpse of the dead man. Given all this, it seems plausible to suggest that the characters are retelling events in a way that serves their perceptions of honour.

Another major theme in the movie is that of love and loyalty. The bandit appears to have fallen in love with the wife (and he suggests that she has fallen in love with him); the wife cares about losing the respect and love of her husband; the husband seems heartbroken at having lost the love of his wife. Love can make people do irrational things and it may well be affecting the testimony we hear. The characters could be covering for one another in order to protect the people they love.

In short, each of the witnesses could be deceiving us, for different reasons, associated with honour and love. We can try to work out the truth by figuring out the motivations for deception and seeing which story is most plausible after we have accounted for the possible lies. I’m going to suggest one way of doing this but leave it open to readers to suggest alternative analyses.

Let’s start with the bandit. Why might he lie and can we believe his story? The obvious answer is that he might be lying to protect the wife. It could be that she really killed the husband but he is in love with her and wants to protect her. He certainly professes a strong affection for her in his testimony. He may also reason that his lie is likely to be believed because he is a notorious bandit who would commit a crime like this, and he has less to lose for his lie since he is presumably wanted for other crimes that may attract the death penalty. (A more subtle interpretation is that he may be in league with the wife. They want to sow enough reasonable doubt in the courtroom so that neither of them gets convicted.)

What about the wife? Why might she lie and can we believe her story? The obvious answer is that she might be lying to protect either the husband or the bandit. She wants to protect the husband from the shame of suicide; or the bandit from the charge of murder. That said, she tries hard to paint herself in a sympathetic light in her testimony (as a victim) and she conveniently blacks out at the moment of the murder. This may be a hedge on her part to make it less likely that she will be convicted. There may also be a gendered aspect to this insofar as women might be less likely/more likely to be believed or treated sympathetically in the society at the time. I don’t know enough about the history of Japanese society to comment meaningfully on this.

Turning our attention to the husband, why might helie? Well, he might be lying to protect the wife. Perhaps he is still in love with her, despite her rejection of him (if you believe his story), and even though he knows she killed him, he wants to take the blame away from her. He may also feel guilty about how he treated her (if you believe her story) and has nothing to lose since he is already dead. There is also a possibility that he may lie to protect the bandit if, as seems to be the case from his story, the bandit has won his respect. But this strikes me as being less likely given that the bandit has humiliated him in other ways.

Finally, why might the woodcutter lie? The obvious answer — suggested to us by the commoner at the end of the movie — is that the woodcutter lies to conceal the fact that he stole the dagger from the corpse (the theft of the dagger is hinted at in the husband’s testimony). He knows the dagger was the murder weapon and needs to tell a story that makes the sword the murder weapon. He already heard the bandit’s testimony at trial and so gives a slight variation on it to make it sound plausible and cover his own tracks.

You might think this analysis does little to shed light on the matter. And in a sense this is true. We see now that each character has a plausible motive to lie and it is possible to construct an argument in favour of each as a potential killer. That said, my own take on it is that we can discount some stories more than others. First, I think we can discount the woodcutter’s story. He had the benefit of hearing all the previous testimony and could easily have concocted a version of events that helped to conceal the fact that he stole the dagger from the corpse. He doesn’t deny that he stole the dagger when challenged by the commoner. This has the knock-on effect of undermining the bandit’s story and making the dagger the likely murder weapon. This strikes me as plausible since the bandit’s story is a bit too self-serving at times, e.g. the suggestion that the wife fell in love with him and that the duel was a noble one. That said it is not entirely satisfying to discount the bandit’s story since he does have a lot to lose by confessing to the murder, even if he is a notorious criminal with other potential convictions against him.

If you buy that, then it’s either the case that the wife murdered the husband or the husband killed himself. Of these two narratives I tend to favour the view that the wife murdered the husband. She has some motivation for doing so (he didn’t protect her from the bandit and he scorned her afterwards) and her blacking out at the time of the murder is quite convenient. Also, given how she is portrayed across the different stories, including her own, it doesn’t make sense to me to suppose that she is lying because of any great love she has for either the bandit or the husband. The husband’s testimony I tend to discount. He may be feeling some kind of guilt for how he treated his wife and wants to protect her. It may also just be worth discounting his testimony entirely because of its dubious origin.

For what it is worth, when I ran this exercise with one of my classes this tended to be the favoured interpretation. This was before I presented any interpretation of my own. That said, it is not an aesthetically pleasing interpretation. The wife is, after all, the victim of a crime and suggesting that she is the murderer plays into certain stereotypes about vengeful women that doesn’t sit well with modern audiences. Furthermore, even though I think this is a plausible reading of the events, it is not one that would have sufficient credibility to cross the burden of proof in a criminal trial: beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, I wouldn’t convict anyone on the basis of the evidence provided in the movie nor my interpretation of it. In some ways, that's why the movie is such a good one. It challenges us to reconsider the weight we place on testimony in certain contexts.

What do you think? Is there an interpretation of events that you favour?

Further Reading