Wednesday, December 23, 2020

87 - AI and the Value Alignment Problem

Iason Gabriel

How do we make sure that an AI does the right thing? How could we do this when we ourselves don't even agree on what the right thing might be? In this episode, I talk to Iason Gabriel about these questions. Iason is a political theorist and ethicist currently working as a Research Scientist at DeepMind. His research focuses on the moral questions raised by artificial intelligence. His recent work addresses the challenge of value alignment, responsible innovation, and human rights. He has also been a prominent contributor to the debate about the ethics of effective altruism.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).


Show Notes:

Topics discussed include:

  • What is the value alignment problem?
  • Why is it so important that we get value alignment right?
  • Different ways of conceiving the problem
  • How different AI architectures affect the problem
  • Why there can be no purely technical solution to the value alignment problem
  • Six potential solutions to the value alignment problem
  • Why we need to deal with value pluralism and uncertainty
  • How political theory can help to resolve the problem


Relevant Links

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

86 - Are Video Games Immoral?

Have you ever played Hitman? Grand Theft Auto? Call of Duty? Did you ever question the moral propriety of what you did in those games? In this episode I talk to Sebastian Ostritsch about the ethics of video games. Sebastian is an Assistant Prof. (well, technically, he is a Wissenschaftlicher mitarbeiter but it's like an Assistant Prof) of Philosophy based at Stuttgart University in Germany. He has the rare distinction of being both an expert in Hegel and the ethics of computer games. He is the author of Hegel: Der Welt-Philosoph (published this year in German) and is currently running a project, funded by the German research body DFG, on the ethics of computer games.

You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

Topics discussed include:

  • The nature of video games
  • The problem of seemingly immoral video game content
  • The amorality thesis: the view that playing video games is morally neutral
  • Defences of the amorality thesis: it's not real and it's just a game.
  • Problems with the 'it's not real' and 'it's just a game' arguments.
  • The Gamer's Dilemma: Why do people seem to accept virtual murder but not, say, virtual paedophilia?
  • Resolving the gamer's dilemma
  • The endorsement view of video game morality: some video games might be immoral if they endorse an immoral worldview
  • How these ideas apply to other forms of fictional media, e.g. books and movies.

Relevant Links

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Should I Become an Academic? Academia and the Ethics of Career Choice

[Note: This is a draft chapter from a book project I was trying to get off the ground called The Ethics of Academia. It looks unlikely that this book will ever see the light of day, and if it does it’s even more unlikely that this draft chapter will be part of it. So, I thought there would be no harm in sharing it here. The writing style in this draft chapter is intended to be somewhat ‘tongue-in-cheek’.]

If you are reading this the odds are pretty good you are an academic or, at least, thinking about becoming one. But maybe you are having second thoughts? Maybe this career isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe you are not sure that you want to spend the rest of your life churning out research papers, teaching students, or, God forbid, administering other researchers and teachers?

I commend you. The first ethical question any academic should ask of themselves is: should I exist? I don’t mean this in the profound existential sense. Albert Camus (1942) once said that the question of suicide was the first and most important of all philosophical questions. He may well be right about that, but that’s not the question I think all academics should ask of themselves. I think they should ask the slightly more mundane question: is being an academic an ethical career choice? Not everyone gets to choose their careers but I’m guessing that if you are considering a career in academia you have the luxury of some choice. There are, presumably, other things you could do with your time. Should you do them instead?

Many people fail to ask this question. Outside of some extreme exceptions — assassin, torturer, arms dealer — most of us assume that our choice of career is ethically neutral. We try do what we want to do and what we feel best suited for doing. We may not always succeed, but that’s usually the goal. Careers guidance councillors often reinforce this attitude toward career choice. They advise us to focus on our aptitudes and talents, not on the relative moral standing of careers. When you think about it, this is a very odd thing to do. Whatever we choose to do in our careers, we are likely to spend a lot of time doing it. It will be in and around 80,000 hours according to one popular estimate. It seems appropriate, then, to subject our choice of career to some serious ethical scrutiny.

In the remainder of this article I will do this for academia. My analysis will proceed in three parts. First, I’ll outline a framework for thinking about the ethics of career choice. This framework will suggest that there are two main ethical criteria that we can use to assess different careers: (i) do they produce good/bad outcomes in the world? and (ii) do they allow us to self-actualise or attain self-fulfillment? (This may not sound like an ethical criterion right now but bear with me.) Second, I will consider whether choosing to be an academic produces good or bad outcomes in the world. And third, I will consider whether we can self-actualise or attain self-fulfillment through an academic career. Initially, I will be quite critical of academia, suggesting that it isn’t a particularly ethical career choice; subsequently, I will soften the argument and suggest that it probably isn’t any worse than many other career choices. To the extent that “do no evil” is ethical principle that’s worth adopting in your own life, you have some reason to hope that you won’t do evil by becoming an academic. Perhaps that’s the most any of us can hope for.

1. Ethical Criteria for Choosing Careers

There are two criteria we can use to assess the ethical value of our careers. They are: (i) the consequentialist criterion and (ii) the self-actualisation criterion. These can be explained in the following terms:

(i) The Consequentialist Criterion: If I pick this particular career, will it allow me to cause or produce or bring about morally positive consequences in the world?


(ii) The Self-Actualisation Criterion: If I pick this particular career, will it enable me to self-actualise, i.e. allow me to attain a high level of satisfaction and fulfillment, and enable me realise and take advantage of my talents?


The consequentialist criterion views your career as a means to an end. Imagine you are choosing whether or not to be a doctor. If you apply the consequentialist criterion, then you will want to ask yourself how much good you can do by being a doctor. How many lives can you save or prolong? This consequentialist approach to career choice is favoured by several philosophers (Care 1984; Unger 1996). It is also central to the effective altruist community’s approach to career choice. The effective altruist community is a community of individuals that dedicate themselves to doing the most good they can possibly do with their lives and one of the most important things we can do with our lives is choose a career (MacAskill 2015, Singer 2015).

Although I say that the consequentialist criterion views the career as a means to an end this doesn’t mean quality of life is irrelevant to its application. Your happiness with your career is a relevant consequence of choosing that career, one that ought to be factored into any consequentialist calculation of the relative benefits of a career. That said, your individual happiness is likely to be swamped by other ethically relevant consequences. Similarly, your capacity to self-actualise through your choice of career isn’t completely irrelevant to the consequentialist criterion. After all, your talent for a particular job is likely to have some bearing on your capacity to do good with that job. It’s just not the major relevant consideration (though we will discuss a complication to this in more detail below).

Although the consequentialist criterion finds most favour among proponents of a utilitarian or consequentialist moral theory, it doesn’t only appeal to them. Consequences are relevant to most ethical theories, even if they are not decisive or constitutive of what it means to make an ethical choice. So the consequentialist criterion has broad appeal.

The self-actualisation criterion is rather different. It views a career not so much as a means to producing better ends but, rather, as a vehicle for self-fulfillment. What matters is whether you are happy and engaged by the work that you do, whether that work is suited to someone with your skills and aptitudes, and whether it develops those skills and aptitudes in an appropriate way. As I said in the introduction, this is the criterion that most of us use when choosing careers. On the face it, it doesn’t seem like an ethical criterion. Indeed, it seems like the exact opposite: it is selfish and egoistic criterion. But that’s not entirely true. For one thing, as I just noted, self-actualisation is relevant when it comes to considering the ethical consequences of a career. For another, there are some ethical theories according to which we may have a duty to fulfill our potential. Immanuel Kant, for instance, developed a complex moral theory that claims that humans have ethical duties purely in virtue of the fact that we are agents (i.e. beings with the power to choose and intend our actions). Among the duties he thought we had was a duty to make the best of our talents. As he put it, we each have a duty:

not to leave idle… rusting away the natural predispositions and capacities that [our] reason can someday use” 
(Metaphysics of Morals, 6:444-5)


That said, Kant no doubt would have accepted that there are other moral constraints on this duty. We shouldn’t make the best of our talents if doing so would, for instance, violate another of our duties toward other agents, such as the duty not to treat another agent as a means to an end. So, sad to say, even if being an assassin is the best way to make use of your talents, you still probably shouldn’t do it. Finally, it is worth noting that the self-actualisation criterion might overlap with virtue ethical approaches to the moral choice. Virtue ethics, roughly, is the view that we should act in a way that develops morally virtuous character traits (generosity; kindness; courage etc). Doing so will lead to fulfilment and flourishing. It’s possible, though I don’t think it is guaranteed, that following the self-actualisation approach could lead to the development of the virtues.

Sometimes people pick and choose one of these two criteria over the other. In fact, a significant amount of the philosophical discussion of ethical career choice is focused on figuring out which of the two should guide our decisions. But, strictly speaking, they are not in tension with each other. They are, rather, two different dimensions along which we can evaluate a career choice. To illustrate this point, we can arrange them into the following two-by-two matrix:

Ideally, you would like to pick a career that is high and to the right: one that produces good outcomes in the world and allows you to self-actualise. Sometimes, however, you will need to make a tradeoff. Some philosophers, such as Norman Care (1984), have argued that given the current injustices of the world those of us with the luxury to choose a career ought to prioritise good consequences over self-actualisation. At a first glance, that sounds plausible but it raises the obvious question: can we produce good outcomes by becoming academics?

2. The Consequences of Becoming an Academic

There is a consequentialist case to be made for becoming an academic. Think about what an academic does. According to most job descriptions and characterisations, the typical academic will be expected to do three kinds of things: (i) research; (ii) teaching; and (iii) administration. It’s possible to do good through each of these activities. Consider:

(1) It is possible for an academic to produce good outcomes through their research: they can produce knowledge or insights that are either intrinsically valuable (i.e. valuable in and of themselves) or instrumentally valuable (i.e. capable of being used to good effect). There are some uncontroversial examples of this. Albert Einstein produced groundbreaking insights and theories in physics. These insights are both intrinsically fascinating for what they say about the nature of reality and instrumentally valuable in helping us to develop satellite technology and GPS. He was, for most of adult life, an academic (yes, I know, he wrote his first famous papers while working as a patent clerk but he was always actively seeking academic work and did end up working as an academic for most of his life). Or consider Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, whose research prevented the suffering of millions of people. Or Rosalind Franklin, whose groundbreaking X-ray crystallography was important in unlocking the molecular structure of DNA. Examples could be multiplied, but you get the point. Research can do a lot of good for the world and, as an academic, you are actively encouraged to do it.


(2) It is possible for an academic to do good through their teaching, by providing their students with essential skills and knowledge that help them to live better lives: Education is something that uplifts and improves the lives of students (at least if done right). It enables them to question and analyse the world around them and explore new opportunities. For example, Tara Westover, in her memoir of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home, explains how crucial education was in helping her to escape the limitations of that world (Westover 2018). Education helps students to develop and hone skills that are essential to securing paid employment. It may even make the world, more generally, a better place. As an illustration of this consider Carlos Fraenkel’s memoir of teaching philosophy to students in conflict zones, Teaching Plato in Palestine. Fraenkel is no starry-eyed optimist about the power of education but through his recollections he shows how it is possible to use philosophical education to facilitate discussion between competing worldviews and perhaps avoid violent conflict. What could be more valuable to the world than doing that?


(3) It is possible for an academic to do good through effective administration: Academic administration is usually criticised and rarely celebrated. Nevertheless, administration of higher educational systems (and, indeed, any complex human organisation) is essential if they are to operate effectively. Without proper administration it would be impossible for academics to do the good work they can do through research and education. So by helping out with administration, academics can help themselves produce good outcomes in the world through their teaching and research.


To be clear, none of these arguments is watertight. No one would claim that all research or all teaching produces good outcomes. Lots of academic research has been used for ill. For example, some people have used psychological research to create manipulative advertising and to design more effective forms of violent interrogation. Destructive weapons systems have been created with the help of academic research. Some teachers instil false beliefs in their students and may even crush their hopes and dreams. Plenty of academics fail to do good in their jobs. But failures of this sort are a problem in all careers. The crucial point is that it is possible to do good with an academic career.

That said, possibility alone is not enough. Some exceptional individuals may be able to do a lot of good with an academic career but what about the rest of us? Most of us aren’t exceptional. What we want to know is whether there is some reasonable probability of doing good with an academic career. When we try to assess this probability, things start to look a lot worse for the would-be academic. There are six issues, in particular, with which to contend.

First, academia is a highly competitive career. After undergoing a boom in the mid-20th century, when there was a significant undersupply of academic labour relative to the number of available careers, there is now a significant oversupply of academic labour. There are far more PhDs granted than there are academic jobs for these PhDs to fill. This trend seems likely to continue. As Bryan Alexander notes, most developed nations are undergoing a demographic shift (Alexander 2020). Traditionally the demographic structure of society represented a pyramid: there were lots of young people and relatively few old people. Thanks to improvements in healthcare, and declining fertility rates, this demographic structure is now shifting to a more rectangular shape. This means there are roughly equal numbers of young people and old people. In some extreme cases, such as Japan, the demographic structure is starting to represent an inverted pyramid in which the old outnumber the young. This presents a major challenge for the university system which has, traditionally, been designed to educate the youth population. Unless there is a significant shift in institutional design, it seems plausible to suppose that there will be a retrenchment in the higher education system in the future. In other words, to put it more bluntly, there are likely to be dwindling job opportunities for academics coupled with increasing competition for those job opportunities. This presents a major problem for anyone who wishes to do good through an academic career. Unless you are exceptionally talented, privileged, or fortunate, you are increasingly unlikely to have the chance to even get the chance to do good through an academic career.

Second, even if you overcome the odds and get an academic job, you are unlikely to be a morally successful academic. In other words, you are unlikely to do much good with your job. Consider the example of doing good through research. There are only a handful of people who manage to make significant breakthroughs with their research. The sad reality is that most academics do trivial and unimportant work. This is partly because they lack the talent and also, partly, because they don’t get rewarded in their careers for doing high impact work. The philosopher Michael Huemer has made this argument in rather stark terms in relation to philosophical research. He claims that most philosophical research and writing is done to improve the reputation of the researcher in the eyes of their academic peers; not to solve important worldly problems or to make a moral difference to society. This, he claims, equates to a massive squandering of human capital:

“Quite a bit of intellectual talent and energy is being channeled into producing thousands upon thousands of papers and books that hardly anyone will ever read or want to read. These articles and books are written almost entirely for other academics working in the same sub-sub-sub-specialization that the author works in. The main reason they are written is so that the author can get tenure or otherwise get credit for publishing. The main reason they are read even by the tiny number of people who read them is so that the readers can cite those articles in their own articles.”


And it is not just philosophers who suffer from this ignominious fate. Consider the replication crisis in biomedical science and psychology. Over the decades, thousands of experiments have been performed and research reports have been written about positive psychological and pharmacological effects. These effects have since turned out to be false or, at best, unproven (Fidler and Wilcox 2018). That equates to thousands of psychologists and biomedical researchers whose research has not made the positive difference that they once thought it did. To be clear, this is not to say that no academic research is valuable or that all academic research careers, like their political equivalents, end in failure. It’s just to say that you are unlikely to be among the privileged elite of researchers whose research does make a positive difference.

Third, something similar is true when it comes to teaching. Even if you don’t hope for success as a researcher you might hope for success as a teacher. Most academics get to teach a unique cohort of students. Through their teaching, they might hope to make a positive difference to, at least some of, the lives of that unique cohort of students. But this hope is probably forlorn. For starters, many academics are not very good at teaching. They aren’t properly trained for it and they see it as a distraction from their more important research work (even if, as I suggested above, this research is itself likely to be trivial). Even if they are engaged in teaching, there is little evidence to suggest that their teaching makes a positive difference to their students lives. It is hard to measure any difference teaching makes in terms of skills acquisition or knowledge transfer. Most students forget what they have learned within a relatively short period of time, and there is a strong case to be made that most of the value of higher education lies in signalling and credentialing, not teaching and learning (Caplan 2018). This doesn’t mean that students don’t like their teachers. Sometimes they do and sometimes they claim that their teachers have made a positive difference to their lives. The problem is that these self-reports are usually based on how likable they perceive their teachers to be. There is evidence suggesting that likability does not correlate with positive educational impact such as improved intellectual capacity or skill (Brennan and Magness 2019). Furthermore, the potential for teaching to do good for students is to a large degree dependent on other moral features of the student-teacher relationship in particular the fairness of assessment and grading practices. As I have argued elsewhere there are good reasons to think that current assessment and grading practices are morally circumspect and unfairly prejudicial. If that argument is correct then academics may actually do more harm than good through teaching.

Fourth, even if you have good intentions, and have the capacity to do good through your work, you will often find yourself hampered in doing so by institutional constraints and incentives. This is obvious enough in other careers. Perlman (2000), for example, argues that it is true for lawyers. A lot of people write about legal ethics and the ethical choices facing the typical lawyer. But the reality is that most lawyers working in large law firms (or other legal institutions) have little choice over what kinds of cases they do and what kinds of clients they take on. If you choose to be a lawyer, odds are that you will face stark ethical choices several times in your career: represent an ethically dubious client or quit your job. This leads Perlman to conclude that the most important ethical choice made by a lawyer is whether to become one in the first place and, if they do, what kind of law firm or institution they choose to join. Once they are in situ, their ethical choices will become much more constrained and their opportunities for doing good work will be limited. Something similar, though perhaps less extreme, is true for academics. They might want to do ethically valuable research or inspire their students to reach new heights, but once they find themselves in an academic institution they might quickly be disabused of these aspirations. They might learn that their preferred field of research is not rewarded by their institution or their academic peers. They might find themselves teaching hundreds of students and evaluating their performance in line with ethically dubious institutional norms. They might find themselves being evaluated using metrics that don’t encourage ethically valuable work and, in some cases, incentivise the opposite (Muller 2019). This means that, once they are in situ, they won’t have the choice, time or energy to do the good things they would like to do.

Fifth, even if you are good at what you do and you have the opportunity to do good, you are likely to be replaceable by someone who can do even better. In any highly competitive career, there are likely to be hundreds of well-qualified candidates for your job. Are you so sure that you are better than them? What if your occupying a job is denying someone more competent and more likely to do good the opportunity to do so. Saul Smilansky (2004) refers to this as the “paradox of beneficial retirement”. According to Smilansky, if you are a professional academic, then you are likely to do more good by retiring from your current job than continuing to do it. Why? Because even if you are competent at what you do you are unlikely to be exceptional. Consequently, you would make the world a better place by retiring and clearing the path for someone who is exceptional. Of course, there are problems with this argument. As James Lenman (2007) points out, for your retirement to be genuinely beneficial, you have to assume that (i) there is a plentiful supply of better candidates for your job, (ii) that one of these candidates will actually get your job if you retire and (iii) that they wouldn’t have got an equivalent job if you didn’t retire. Those conditions may not hold. Indeed, in a highly competitive career there are probably many less qualified and less competent candidates for your job as well. It’s possible that they might end up taking your position if you retired. So you might make the world a worse place by retiring. Still, Smilansky’s basic insight is an important one. It takes a peculiar kind of arrogance and self-belief to assume that you are the best candidate for your own job and, perhaps more importantly, that you will make a positive moral difference with your career choice. That’s an insight that all would-be academics should take to heart.

Sixth, and finally, there are moral opportunity costs associated with becoming an academic. Even if you can do good through an academic career, it’s possible that you might have done even more good with another career. William MacAskill, one of the co-founders of the effective altruist movement, famously popularised this analysis of career choice. In his article “Replaceability, Career Choice and Making a Difference” (MacAskill 2014) he argues that if we want to do good with our lives, we are better off choosing a job that pays well and using the money for philanthropic donations, than trying to do good through our actual careers. In other words, instead of becoming a doctor and trying to save lives, you are better off becoming an investment banker, earning lots of money, and then giving that money to other people who can save lives. His reasoning is straightforward. Money is a fungible resource: careers are not. You can do more types of good with money than you can with your job. Similarly, there is a good deal of moral uncertainty associated with career choice. As the arguments discussed above suggest, even if you want to do good by becoming an academic, you might end up doing bad. At least with money, you can compensate for any badness through the right kind of donation. If you have squandered your life doing research that makes the world a worse place, there is little chance to correct your mistake, especially if your career wasn’t very lucrative. Academics are usually intellectually gifted people and its quite likely that they could use their talents to pursue other, more lucrative, career choices. Consequently, it’s likely that budding academics could do more good for the world if they gave up their dreams of becoming academics and considered other career possibilities.

Taken together, these six arguments seem to cast doubt on the wisdom of becoming an academic. Is there anything to be said against them?

3. Academia and Self-Actualisation

The preceding analysis focused entirely on the consequentialist criterion for evaluating career choice. If we shift focus to the self-actualisation criterion, perhaps we can paint a different picture – a picture is a little more optimistic about the ethics of becoming an academic?

There are two parts to the argument I wish to develop. The first focuses on the limits of the consequentialist criterion and why we cannot completely ignore self-actualisation in the analysis of career choice; the second on the advantages of academia from the perspective of self-actualisation.

(A1) - The Limits of the Consequentialist Criterion

There are a few problems with relying solely on the consequentialist criterion to guide your choice of career. The most obvious, and most important, is that very few career choices hold up under its scrutiny. This is because it is very hard to conduct an all things considered evaluation of the consequences of an individual’s career. We cannot easily add up all the incidents and outcomes of an individual career, categorise them according to whether they are bad or good, and determine clearly whether the good outweighs the bad (or vice versa).

There are some outlier cases, of course. We can say with some confidence that Hitler’s life was, on net, bad. He did more ill for the world than good. But beyond these outlier cases our judgments are dubious and prone to bias. If you were to ask me, right now, whether I had done more good than bad through my career I would be hard pressed to give you an answer. I would like to think I have done more good but I have no idea. I don’t collect the relevant data and I don’t even know how to go about collecting it. I can pick particular incidents and anecdotes that support the notion that I am a good person, but I’m probably being conveniently selective in my approach to the data about my own life. Perhaps some of the things I have said in class to students have shattered their hopes and dreams? Perhaps I have inspired them to do wicked things? Perhaps my research has been or will be used by others to support ideologies and agendas that are evil? I don’t know. Unless you are meticulous in collecting data about the consequences of your actions, and unless you avoid bias and error in doing so, you won’t be able to tell whether your career choice was, on balance, good or bad. What’s more, since we don’t typically collect this data about people who currently follow the career you are thinking about following, you don’t have the evidence you need to apply the consequentialist criterion to your own career choice.

The problem, however, goes deeper than simply a lack of evidence. Although we might have some hope of reaching consensus on the badness of certain careers, I suspect we will find it much harder to reach consensus on the goodness of most careers. This is because there are several different conceptions of the good life and a lot of disagreement about what is truly “good” for the world.

Consider the case of Normal Borlaug. Borlaug is one of the scientists responsible for the so-called “Green Revolution” in agriculture. Working initially in Mexico in the 1940s and 50s, Borlaug successfully bred new strains of high-yield wheat that, according to his supporters, averted mass famines in the middle part of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and when he died in 2009, he was lauded as a humanitarian hero, perhaps “history’s greatest human being”, “who saved 1 billion people from death by starvation.”

He sounds like the model example of someone who satisfied the consequentialist criterion with his choice of career (though, to be clear, there is no evidence to suggest he thought about career choice in this way). But not everyone sees it the same way. To his critics, Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” has had disastrous social and environmental consequences. It has increased the use of artificial irrigation and chemical fertilisers, increased the power of large agricultural conglomerates, and disrupted traditional small scale communities and farms. Some critics see Borlaug as a moral monster. Alexander Cockburn, for example, has suggested that: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the [Nobel] peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose 'green revolution' wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Cockburn’s criticisms are unfair, in my opinion. But that’s not really the point. Even judicious and fair-minded assessments of Borlaug — such as that provided in Charles Mann’s book The Wizard and the Prophet — acknowledge that the Green Revolution has had some sizeable negative consequences. So even someone lauded for their positive contribution to humanity can have a legacy that is contested and open to doubt. If this is true for the putative “greatest human being” ever to have lived, then what hope do the rest of us have? Heck, I could write the critical reappraisal of my own life right now.

As I say, this is probably most important criticism of the consequentialist criterion. There are, however, two others that are worth mentioning.

The first is that even if we did apply the consequentialist criterion we would have to apply it to other possible careers too. Academia might offer little hope for doing good but do other career choices fare any better? Consider supposedly ethical careers like being a doctor or pursuing charitable work. Can you do good through them? Sure, it’s possible. Are you likely to do good through them? Not necessarily. They are susceptible to many of the criticisms I offered of academia. They are highly competitive careers so you may not get the chance to do any good through them; you may end up being a sub-standard or relatively incompetent occupant of those careers; you may do work that is counterproductive or trivial; you will be replaceable, and so on. Similar problems arise for high-earning careers, such as investment banking, that are supported by those who think we should do good through charitable donations. You may not succeed in becoming an investment banker since the field is so competitive, you may not be a high-earning investment banker, your moral views may change as a function of occupying that role; and so on.

To be clear, some of these fears are addressed by people who write about career choice and the ethics of earning to give (MacAskill 2014). I raise them not in order to endorse a form of “futility thinking” about careers, i.e. assuming that it is impossible to do good through one’s career (cf Unger 1996). I raise them in order to highlight the fact that if we consistently apply the consequentialist criterion to the ethics of career choice, it is not obvious that academia is such a terrible career choice or that it is much worse than other, supposedly positive, careers. Consistent consequentialists are rarely able to reach such definitive conclusions.

This then relates to another criticism: It is really hard to be a consistent consequentialist. This is a long-standing criticism of consequentialist moral theories. They are often said to be “over-demanding” (Mulgan 2001; MacFarquhar 2015). They demand us to do more good with our lives and to constantly reevaluate our choices to ensure that they are, in fact, doing the most good. Sometimes it is good to demand a lot of ourselves and as long as we don’t violate the Kantian maxim that “ought implies can” (i.e. that it should be possible to adhere to a moral norm) then it’s not obvious that demanding a lot is a mark against a ethical criterion. Nevertheless, when we apply to the consequentialist criterion not just to individual choices but to our entire lives — i.e. who we are and who we choose to be — then it can become counterintuitive and counterproductive.

The philosopher Bernard Williams was one of the first people to point this out (Smart and Williams 1973). He was critiquing utilitarian moral theories when he did so, but did so by specifically raising a dilemma about career choice. He asked us to imagine a chemist named George who is out of work and desperate to earn some income for his family. George is also deeply morally opposed to biochemical warfare. George is offered a well-paying job in a chemical weapons plant. He is told that the job is competitive and that if he refuses to do it another, equally qualified and more enthusiastic, candidate will be found. Should he take the job? If George is a consistent consequentialist, then he probably should take it. He can provide for his family by doing so, and it is probably better, all things considered, if someone less enthusiastic occupies the job. It might reduce the harm done to the world. But, of course, this means that George will have to suppress or deny his profound moral opposition to chemical warfare. He will have to treat himself as a mere instrument to certain ends and not as an agent with coherent life plans and values.

Williams thinks this is a flawed approach to career choice, in particular, and moral decision-making, in general. Consequentialism seems to demand that we adopt an impartial point of view and treat our own lives as things that are alien from us and interchangeable with any other life. This impartialist logic is clearly at work in the criticisms of academia that I made in the previous section. Williams argues that we cannot consistently apply this approach because we cannot completely alienate ourselves from our own lives. We have to live with ourselves. In a sense, then, self-actualisation has to be a core part of the picture when it comes to career choice. If we didn’t think about oursleves, and whether a career is a good fit for us, we would undermine our sense of moral integrity. As Williams put it, for the chemist George to consistently apply the consequentialist criterion:

“is to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions. It is to make him into a channel between the input of everyone’s projects, including his own, and an output of optimific decision; but this is to neglect the extent to which his projects and his decisions have to be seen as the actions and decisions which flow from the projects and attitudes with which he is most closely identified. It is thus, in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity.” 
(Smart and Williams 1973, 116-117)


Proponents of the consequentialist criterion to career choice have acknowledged Williams’s concern and sought to avoid it. MacAskill (2014), for example, argues that choosing a high-earning career over a charitable, do-gooding career does not have to undermine one’s integrity. There are several reasons for this. One is simply that many high-earning careers are not necessarily attacks on one’s moral integrity. Many times people are ambivalent or unsure about the compatibility between the career and their ethical commitments. Another, perhaps more powerful reason, is that picking a high-earning career in order to pursue an ethical goal (doing good through charitable giving) can be construed as acting with the highest moral integrity. You want to do good for the world and you do this through your career choice. MacAskill uses the example of Friedrich Engels to make this point. Engels, along with Karl Marx, was an opponent of capitalism. He wrote about it, and organised against it. But he also worked for a capitalist company, run by his uncle, that he hated. The money he earned from this job funded his socialist and communist activism:

“In doing this, rather than displaying a gross violation of integrity, it seems that Engels acted with the highest integrity. He found his moral projects sufficiently compelling that he was willing to work out how best to further them and to act on that basis.” 
(MacAskill 2014, 280)


MacAskill’s point then is that you can treat your career as a mere instrument to an end without violating your integrity in the process. This is true as long as your career choice is consistent with your ultimate moral goals.

This might be plausible but, in the end, it still leads us back to the importance of the self-actualisation criterion. To successfully apply the consequentialist criterion to your choice of career you should want to be a consistent consequentialist. In other words, that should be part of what it means to be a fully actualised version of yourself. This doesn’t mean you have an excuse to ignore the consequences of your actions if that doesn’t seem to fit with your abilities and aspirations; but it does mean that you need to take some due consideration of those abilities and aspirations when deciding what to do.

(A2) - We Might Be Able to Self Actualise Through Academia

To summarise the preceding argument: it’s very difficult to apply the consequentialist criterion to career choice because it is hard to reach an all things considered assessment of the relative value of careers; given this uncertainty it’s not obvious that academia is such a morally terrible career choice; and we have to allow self-actualisation to play some role in our ethics of career choice. This then raises the obvious question: can you self-actualise through academia?

Yes, maybe. This is something that each individual will have to determine for themselves, based on their attributes and abilities. I often ask students thinking about pursuing an academic career whether they enjoy certain processes and activities. Do they like ideas and arguments? Do they enjoy the process of research? Do they like explaining ideas to others? If so, then they might find an academic career quite rewarding and self-actualising. Furthermore, academia is quite a diverse career and can be rewarding for a number of different sensibilities. If you aren’t any good at research, you might fare better with teaching. If you don’t like teaching, you might find your calling in academic administration. If you don’t like one discipline, you might be able to shift to another. There are many ways to build an academic career and one of them might be the right fit for you.

The challenge, of course, is that it can be difficult to know in advance whether academia will be self-actualising. This is because you have to try it out for yourself to see if it fits. The philosopher L.A. Paul (2014) has described this problem quite well. She argues that a number of choices in our lives are transformative. In other words, by making those choices we don’t just alter the short term experiences we might happen to have; we also change the kind of person we will become. In these cases, you need first-hand experiential knowledge of what it will be like to make the respective choice in order to fully rationally assess the options. Career choices are often like this. You can learn a bit from reading about other people’s careers and asking them what it is like, but ultimately you have to run the experiment for yourself. But academia fares no worse than other careers in this respect. We always face this epistemic “gap” when deciding who we wish to become.

So it is possible that academia can be self-actualising and if you are one of the people for whom this is true then you also have a shot at doing some good by being an academic, i.e. by doing research that changes the world for the better or by inspiring others to do good and to actualise themselves. This might seem to contradict what I said previously, but it doesn’t. It is still pretty unlikely that you will do good by becoming an academic. But it helps if you have the both the aptitude and self belief that you can do good.

In this respect, Lisa Bortolotti’s (2018) ‘agency-based’ theory of optimism can be quite inspiring. Bortolotti argues that even though most forms of optimism are irrational there is one form of optimism that might buck the trend. It is not irrational, she argues, to be optimistic about the power of your own actions to make a positive difference to the world. Bortolotti supports this thesis by highlighting a series of famous studies done on people suffering from serious illnesses such as breast cancer. These studies have found that patients who think they can positively affect their health outcomes through their choices, and who formulate reasonable, evidence-based plans for doing so, tend to do better than their more pessimistic peers. This idea is complemented by research from other fields. Philip Tetlock, for example, in his work on “superforecasters” — people who outperform others in their ability to predict future events — finds that people who believe that forecasting is a skill that they can hone and improve are more likely to be better at it (Tetlock and Gardner 2016). If this is right, then it may be worthwhile being optimistic about the ethics of academia as a career choice. If you think you can do good by being an academic, and if you formulate a reasonable, evidence-based plan for doing so, then you might just pull it off. At any rate, you won’t do much worse than you would in any other career.


  • Alexander, Bryan (2020). Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.
  • Bortolotti, Lisa (2018). Optimism, Agency, and Success. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21, 521–535 (2018).
  • Brennan, Jason and Magness, Philip (2019). Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education. Oxford University Press.
  • Camus, Albert (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin (2005 edition)
  • Caplan, Bryan (2018). The Case Against Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Care, Norman (1984). Career Choice. Ethics 94: 283-302
  • Fidler, Fiona and Wilcox, John (2018)/ "Reproducibility of Scientific Results", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Kant, I. (1797) The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge University Press Edition, edited by McGregor, Mary, published 1996.
  • MacAskill, William (2014). Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17: 269-283.
  • MacAskill, William (2015). Doing Good Better. Guardian Faber.
  • MacFarquhar, Larissa (2015). Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. New York: Penguin.
  • Mann, Charles (2018) The Wizard and the Prophet. New York: Knopf.
  • Mulgan, Tim (2001). The Demands of Consequentialism. Oxford: OUP.
  • Muller, Gerald (2019). The Tyranny of Metrics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Lang, Gerald (2014). Jobs, Institutions and Beneficial Retirement. Ratio 27: 205-221
  • Lenman, James (2007). Why I have no plans to retire. Ratio 20: 241-246.
  • Paul, L.A. (2014). Transformative Experience. Oxford: OUP.
  • Perlman, AM (2000). A Career Choice Critique of Legal Ethics Theory. Seton Hall Law Review 31: 829-
  • Singer, Peter (2015). The Most Good You Can Do. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.
  • Smart, JJC and Williams, Bernard (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973)
  • Smilansky, Saul (2004). The Paradox of Beneficial Retirement. Ratio 18: 332-337
  • Unger, Peter (1996). Living High and Letting Die. Oxford: OUP.
  • Tetlock, Philip, and Gardner, Dan (2016). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. London: Random House.
  • Todd, Benjamin (2016). 80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good. Createspace Publishing.
  • Westover, Tara (2018). Educated: A Memoir. Random House

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Automation, Work and the Achievement Gap

I just published a new paper with my colleague and friend Sven Nyholm. It's in the new journal AI and Ethics and it is about robots undermining human achievements and what we should do about this. One reason why we think this topic is interesting is because it identifies a positive responsibility gap that might be created by autonomous technologies. This is distinct from the negative responsibility gaps already widely discussed in the literature. The paper is available in open access format from the publishers. Links and details below.

Title: Automation, Work and the Achievement Gap

Links: Official; Philpapers; Researchgate; Academia 

Abstract: Rapid advances in AI-based automation have led to a number of existential and economic concerns. In particular, as automating technologies develop enhanced competency, they seem to threaten the values associated with meaningful work. In this article, we focus on one such value: the value of achievement. We argue that achievement is a key part of what makes work meaningful and that advances in AI and automation give rise to a number achievement gaps in the workplace. This could limit people’s ability to participate in meaningful forms of work. Achievement gaps are interesting, in part, because they are the inverse of the (negative) responsibility gaps already widely discussed in the literature on AI ethics. Having described and explained the problem of achievement gaps, the article concludes by identifying four possible policy responses to the problem. 



Monday, November 16, 2020

Wedding Cakes and Discrimination: An Analysis

For some reason, cakes became a major flashpoint in anti-discrimination law a few years ago. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the US Supreme Court and the Asher’s Bakery case in the UK Supreme Court, courts were confronted with similar, albeit not identical dilemmas. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, two same-sex customers went into a bakery looking to purchase a wedding cake to celebrate their marriage. In the Asher’s Bakery case, a homosexual rights ‘activist’ looked to purchase a bespoke cake bearing the slogan ‘Support same-sex marriage’.

In both cases, the bakers refused to supply the cake due to their Christian beliefs. In both cases, the respective Supreme Courts held that this refusal was legally permissible though for different reasons. The US decision was a narrow one that overturned a decision by a state tribunal on the grounds that it displayed religious hostility to the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop. The UK decision was a broader one, focusing on the freedom of conscience and expression of the baker.

How should we think about these cases? The philosopher John Corvino has written an interesting analysis of the arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Looking closely at two of the concurring judgments in the case, one from Justice Kagan and one from Justice Gorsuch, he suggests that there were legitimate grounds for thinking that the refusal of service by the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop was discriminatory. Corvino argues that there is an important distinction to be drawn between the use and design of a cake (or, indeed, any object) when it comes to the application of anti-discrimination law: it’s okay to refuse to sell a particular design of cake but not okay to refuse to sell a particular cake based on its possible use. It seems that the UK Supreme Court, agreed with this perspective when reaching their decision.

In what follows, I want to explain Corvino’s reasoning. In doing so, I’m focusing on the general philosophical issues pertaining to discrimination and not on the legal niceties of constitutional interpretation and so forth.

1. Brief Notes on Discrimination

There is no universally agreed upon definition of discrimination (then again, is there a universally agreed upon definition of any philosophically contentious concept?). Very generally, to discriminate between two people, X and Y, is to treat them differently for some reason. If you have two children and you give one of them an ice-cream for dinner and the other one a bowl of cold rice, you are discriminating between them. Some forms of discrimination are justifiable — e.g. it makes sense to give healthcare workers prioritised access to flu vaccines — and some are not — e.g. you cannot fire a woman from her job just because she takes maternity leave. The debate in law and philosophy centres on the dividing line between justifiable and unjustifiable forms of discrimination.

How should we draw this line? Most legal systems around the world do this in a similar way. They define people in terms of different characteristics that they possess (height, age, weight, ethnicity, gender etc) and then distinguish between protected characteristics and non-protected characteristics. Protected characteristics include things like age, religion, race, gender, ethnicity, and, in many places, sexual orientation. It is against the law to discriminate against someone on the basis of a protected characteristic. Non-protected characteristics are not like that. They include things like educational achievement, career history, height, and so on. It is is usually permissible to discriminate between people on the basis of non-protected characteristic (as well as other considerations not pertaining to people). That said, some caution should be expressed because non-protected characteristics are tricky: sometimes they correlate with or stand in for protected characteristics and so can be impugned on the grounds that they indirectly sustain discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics. For example, discriminating against women in employment decisions because they have taken ‘career breaks’ might sound innocuous at a first glance until you realise that ‘career breaks’ can be a proxy for ‘maternity leave’.

Another point to be made here is that sometimes the relationships between personal characteristics and physical actions (the things people do) can be contentious in discrimination cases. Are the things that people do as a result of their personal characteristics integral to those characteristics or not? For example, there is a common slogan among religious believers, in relation to homosexuality, that they can ‘love the sinner’ (the homosexual person) but ‘hate the sin’ (the homosexual activity the person engages in). This can lead them to claim that they are not discriminating against homosexuals when treating them differently or denying them certain entitlements. On the contrary, they will argue that they love and care for them. They just discriminate against what they do. The problem with this line of argument is that it seems a little disingenuous: in discriminating against what they do you are, in essence, discriminating against this specific attribute of their personhood. Maybe you love and care for them as a human in general, but not as a homosexual in particular.

Furthermore, this approach to the relationship between actions and persons gives rise to problems in other contexts. What if we discriminated against Christians for attending church? Could we argue that we are not discriminating against them qua Christian believers but only against what they do as a result of this? This seems implausible. That said, there may be some kinds of activities that are only loosely or indirectly attributable to a protected characteristic, that it is okay to discriminate on the basis of. This distinction — between protected characteristics and the activities associated with them — becomes relevant later on in this discussion.

What justifies the distinction between protected and non-protected characteristics? It’s hard to say for sure. Oftentimes this isn’t well theorised. Usually, the assumption is that protected characteristics are somehow fixed or natural properties of people that are beyond their control. The reasoning then is that it wouldn’t be fair to distinguish between people on the basis of things outside their control. But this argument is not without its flaws and may not explain all cases of anti-discrimination law. For example, people can and do change their religious beliefs all the time. Nevertheless, religious belief is usually a protected characteristic.

Whatever the ultimate reason may be, the issue in the bakery cases is the same. In both cases, the bakers refused to sell items to same-sex people. The argument in both cases that this amounted to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The difficulty in both cases is that this argument seems to butt up against the rights of religious people to freedom of expression/conscience.

Let’s now consider Corvino’s analysis of the cases.

2. Cakes versus Users of Cakes

To understand the arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, we need to add some more factual and contextual detail, not covered in the introduction. After the facts that gave rise to the Masterpiece case arose, a man called William Jack went to another bakery in Colorado (the same state where the Masterpiece Cakeshop was located) called the Azucar Bakery and asked for a bespoke cake to be made for him. This cake was to be in the shape of a bible, with two grooms on it, a red ‘X’ over them, and an inscription reciting some biblical verses disapproving of gay marriage. Unsurprisingly, the Azucar Bakery refused to make the cake on the basis that they disapproved of the message.

William Jack was trying to prove a point. If it was okay for the Azucar Bakery to refuse to bake the bible-quoting cake, why was it not okay for the Masterpiece Cakeshop to refuse to supply a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage? In both scenarios, the bakers were exercising their freedom of conscience rights not to sell a cake of whose message they disapproved. The only difference — if there was one — is that mainstream opinion was more supportive of the conscience being expressed in the Azucar case. That shouldn’t be a relevant factor. The legal system should protect freedom of religious conscience too, even if many people disapprove of the underlying beliefs.

But is the analogy between the Azucar Bakery and Masterpiece Cakeshop cases as simple and direct as William Jack would have us believe? As best we can tell, there was no proposed slogan or other specifically homosexual symbolic material on the wedding cake in that case. The couple just asked for a wedding cake. Maybe they would have wanted to add some symbols to it if the baker had been willing to sell to them. The problem is that the negotiation never got that far. They asked for a wedding cake and were refused on the grounds that the cake was being used to celebrate a same-sex wedding.

This undermines the analogy that William Jack is trying to draw. The baker in the Masterpiece case doesn’t seem to be disapproving of the message associated with the wedding cake, per se but, rather, the use to which it will be put: the celebration of the same-sex wedding. This looks like it could be grounds for discrimination in a way that denying William Jack the bible-quoting cake is not.

Corvino finesses this point in the following way. He argues that there is an important distinction to be drawn between two things:


Design-Based Objection to a Cake: Objecting to the sale of the cake based on some intrinsic properties it has in virtue of its design.


Use-Based Objection to a Cake: Objecting to the sale of the cake on the basis of the use to which it is to be put (i.e. on the basis some extrinsic properties acquired by the cake in a certain context).


In the Azucar Bakery case, the baker had a design-based objection to creating the anti-homosexual cake. They did not object to William Jack as a customer or a religious believer. They were willing to sell him other cakes. They just wouldn’t make that particular cake, bearing that particular message. Requiring them to do so in the interests of anti-discrimination law would have been to impinge on their freedom of conscience and expression rights.

In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the baker had a use-based objection to selling a same-sex couple a wedding cake. He didn’t want to sell them a generic wedding cake because he didn’t like how they intended to use it. Now, to be fair, he was willing to sell them other cakes, and so had no problem selling items to homosexuals in general. He just objected to their symbolic use of the wedding cake. Nevertheless, this seems more like discrimination against those customers on the basis of who they were and not on the basis of what the cake itself said. Requiring him to sell them the cake would not infringe on his freedom of conscience or expression rights. He already made wedding cakes. He was still free to make and create whichever cakes he liked (bearing whichever messages he liked). He just couldn’t control how people used them.

This line of reasoning — that there is an important distinction between the design of a cake and the use of a cake — is essentially what motivated the UK Supreme Court to find in favour of Asher’s Bakery in their version of the cake case. Asher’s Bakery, unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop, were being asked to make a cake bearing a particular message (i.e. having a particular design). Forcing them to make that cake would impinge on their freedom of conscience and expression rights.

3. Objections and Replies

Is this a strong argument? Corvino considers three main objections to it in his article. I want to address these now and offer some of my own thoughts.

The first objection has to do with the whole idea of use-based objections. Corvino’s claim seems to be that in discriminating against the use to which the cake might be put, the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop was, in essence, discriminating against the same-sex couple for who they were, i.e. on the grounds of their sexual orientation. It is supposed to then follow that he wasn’t entitled to do this since sexual orientation was a protected characteristic. But is that right? Is there not, as was pointed out earlier on, a distinction to be made between who a person is and what a person does (remember the earlier comments about ‘loving the sinner’ and ‘hating the sin’)?

Corvino makes two points in response to this. First, he argues that oftentimes the way in which we describe the use of something implicates who a person is and not just what they do. This means that objecting to what a person does could be semantically equivalent to objecting to who they are. You could, for example, argue that the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop was not willing to sell cakes to ‘people intending to use them to celebrate same-sex weddings’. This is subtly different from saying that he objected to a use to which the cakes might be put. Describing the objection in this way might cause us to question the exact object of his discriminatory attitude. This bit of linguistic trickery, however, is unlikely to persuade anyone. The second, and more telling point made by Corvino, is about ‘identity-constituting practices’. These are activities that are so integral to a protected person’s identity that discriminating against the practice is the same thing as discriminating against the person. As he puts it:

…some practices are constitutive of some identities, such that discrimination against the practice is tantamount to discrimination against the group bearing the identity. 
(Corvino 2018, 12)

This sounds about right to me. But accepting this idea does give rise to some further problems. We could ask the question: is getting married an identity-forming practice for same-sex people? Would objecting to that be tantamount to objecting to who they are? It is at least plausible to suggest that it is not. We could argue that homosexuals can be happy, flourishing and self-endorsing without getting married. (The same is true, of course, for heterosexuals.) That said, the riposte to this is that, in our world, marriage does have an important symbolic meaning and many people will think that it is integral to who they are (and their sense of belonging in a society) to have the right to engage in that practice. In other words, there are some people that will constitute themselves through the symbolic act of marriage. So perhaps it is identity-constituting for some homosexuals.

The only issue with this argument is that it might cause us to wonder whether disapproving of homosexuality is integral to being a Christian, at least as some people conceive of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, if we accept this reasoning is it not then plausible to say that denying William Jack the cake with the bible quotes is tantamount to objecting to his self-constitution as a Christian? Corvino’s response to that is just to fall back on the design/use distinction: no one is objecting to William Jack’s sense of Christian identity or denying him the right to disapprove of homosexuality; they are objecting to making a particular design of cake. But I’m not sure if that is a good response since denying the couple the cake in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case doesn’t prevent them from getting married. It just prevents them from celebrating it with a cake from that particular cakeshop. That said, when we combine this point with the point that Corvino makes in response to the third objection (discussed below) we might be able to resist that conclusion.

The second objection that Corvino discusses has to do with the meaning of the cake. The design-based objection hinges on claims about the meaning associated with particular cake designs. But could you not argue that meaning always depends on context? What a particular cake design means depends, to at least some extent, on the use to which it is put? A generic wedding cake means something different at a same-sex wedding than it does at a heterosexual wedding: in the former case in symbolises an endorsement of same-sex weddings and in the latter case it does not.

This objection has the virtue of being based on something that is true: meaning does change with context. But, as Corvino argues, this shouldn’t affect our judgment about whether a particular design of cake can be rejected or not. A person selling an item cannot possibly hope to control all the possible contexts in which it can be used or the meaning it might take on in those different contexts. To give an example, the person (or persons) that designed the original Guy Fawkes mask cannot possibly be held responsible for, or be allowed to control, the meaning that this mask design has taken on in social protest movements and hacker culture. They can only control the intrinsic features of its design. Ditto for a baker. His or her freedom of conscience covers the right to control the intrinsic features of its design and not all the meanings that might attach to that design down the line.

The third objection that Corvino discusses is the so-called ‘Goldilocks Objection’. This one comes from the concurring judgments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the US Supreme Court. In her concurring judgment, Justice Kagan essentially endorsed the reasoning outline above: that the owner of the Masterpiece Cakeshop may have been impugned for discrimination if we accept that he was objecting the use of the cake and not simply the design. She didn’t phrase it in quite this way but that seems to be the conclusion she reached. Justice Gorsuch objected to this way of looking at it insofar as it was too convenient. To reach the conclusion that the objection was to the use of the cake and not its intrinsic design, we had to describe the cake at just the right level of generality. But what would justify describing it at that “just right” level of generality? As he put it himself:

At its most general level, the cake at issue in Mr. Phillips’s case was just a mixture of flour and eggs; at its most specific level, it was a cake celebrating the same-sex wedding of Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullins. We are told here, however, to apply a sort of Goldilocks rule: describing the cake by its ingredients is too general; understanding it as celebrating a same-sex wedding is too specific; but regarding it as a generic wedding cake is just right. 
(Quote taken from Corvino 2018, 13)


Let’s make this point even more explicit. Gorsuch is saying that the cake at issue in the Masterpiece case can be described in different ways. You can think of it as [just a cake] with no properties unique to weddings. You can think of it as a [wedding cake], intended to be used to celebrate weddings. Or you can think of it as [same-sex wedding cake], intended to be used to celebrate a specific same-sex marriage. The problem with Kagan’s conclusion, in Gorsuch’s eyes, is that it arbitrarily picks the middle-level description, which just happens to support Kagan’s preferred view.

You can imagine what Corvino’s response to this is. He argues that Kagan has not arbitrarily picked the middle level description. She has picked the level that corresponds with the intrinsic, design-based features of the cake: it was designed as a cake to celebrate weddings. She has discounted the lower level description that focuses on the extrinsic properties that a cake of that design might acquire if it is used in a same-sex wedding celebration. If you allowed extrinsic properties of cakes (or other items) to determine their character for the purposes of discrimination law, you would make a mockery of those laws. Any item can be used to celebrate or support a lifestyle or identity under the right circumstance. For example (and this comes from Corvino), birthday cakes are used to celebrate the ongoing life of someone. What if that person is gay, Black or Muslim? Surely it would be discriminatory to not sell a birthday cake to a Muslim simply because it celebrated their life (which you might object to for other reasons)? To make the law workable, you have to focus on the intrinsic properties of the cake, not the extrinsic properties it might take on. This point applies more generally to the sale of other items.

This brings us to the end of this analysis of Corvino’s argument. Overall, I think that he makes some good points. There is some plausibility to the distinction between the design of something and the use to which it is put. Discrimination that results from an unwillingness to supply a particular design of an item might be justifiable; but discrimination that results from an unwillingness to supply an item because it risks being used by people in ‘identity-constituting’ practices of which you disapprove is not. That said, there are limits to this analysis. What counts as an identity-constituting practice might be open to debate. And there are, presumably, other moral limits that might apply to the supply of goods and services that could trump concerns about discrimination. For example, an unwillingness to supply a knife for fear that it might be used in a ritual honour killing, might be permissible. That, however, is an argument for another day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Deepfakes and Sexual Fantasies: Are they both impermissible?

Deepfakes are a type of synthetic or artificial media. By training AI on datasets of images, deepfake technology allows people to create photorealistic fake audiovisual materials. Sometimes these videos depict real people; sometimes they depict artificial people. Deepfakes have provoked philosophical interest in recent times, in part because of the challenge they seem to pose to social epistemic practices, and also because of the significant ethical issues they raise. Is it permissible to create a deepfake video of a real person? If not, why not? If so, under what conditions is it permissible?

These ethical issues are particularly important given the main use of deepfakes. According to one widely-cited Dutch study, 96% of all deepfakes are pornographic in nature. Deepfake technology is commonly used to create videos depicting famous actresses performing sex scenes. Some of the actresses that have been subjected to this include Gal Gadot, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence among many others. Deepfakes are also widely used to create revenge porn depicting ex-partners in sexually compromising positions. Some types of deepfake porn have even been used in political debates and scandals. For example, there have been famous cases of deepfakes (or suspected deepfakes) being used to undermine political opponents in Malaysia and India.

When people hear about these cases, their reaction is often one of intuitive disapproval. They think there is something deeply wrong about the creation of involuntary deepfake porn. If a person has neither consented to have sexual imagery of themselves recorded, nor voluntarily participated in videotaped sexual activity, what could possibly justify or permit their image being involuntarily used to create fake imagery? Surely nothing?

Philosophers, however, sometimes like to ask obvious questions like this to see if they raise any dilemmas in our moral thinking. In his paper ‘Introducing the Pervert’s Dilemma’ (an unfortunate title for reasons I will get to later), Carl Öhman does this for deepfake pornography. In essence, he suggests that if we think the creation of deepfake pornography is morally impermissible, then we should also question the permissibility of generic sexual fantasies. This raises something he calls the ‘Pervert’s dilemma’. Öhman suggests a way out of this dilemma by using the concept of a ‘level of abstraction’ (LoA) to assess different moral phenomena.

Öhman’s paper is a provocative one, and his use of levels of abstraction (LoAs) to resolve the dilemma is certainly worthy of greater consideration, but I’m not sure I agree with key parts of his analysis. I want to explain why in what follows.

1. What is the Dilemma?

The starting point for Öhman’s article is his articulation of the pervert’s dilemma. Here is the basic idea.

Most people have sexual fantasies. In these fantasies, they imagine other people, usually real people that they know or have seen, in sexually explicit scenes. Sometimes they imagine that they are having sex with the object of their fantasy, and sometimes they use these sexual fantasies for self-stimulation. For the most part, we think of these sexual fantasies as a normal and permissible part of human life.

That said, not all sexual fantasies are morally kosher. If a person regularly imagines having sex with a child or fantasises about raping someone, we might call that into question. Such a fantasy might be thought to express a morally problematic desire. This issue is complicated and depends to some extent on what exactly the person is imagining. In any event, even if we agree that it is morally problematic to have such fantasies, it does not follow that we can or should do anything about it. In particular, it does not follow that we should use the law to police people’s thoughts. We might just think it is morally problematic and people that have such fantasies should critically reflect on their moral significance and, if possible, try to change the content of their fantasies. None of this, however, affects the point that generic or ‘plain-vanilla’, sexual fantasies are thought to be morally permissible.

Here then is the dilemma: What if instead of using their imagination to construct a plain-vanilla sexual fantasy, a person creates a deepfake porn video instead? Does the fact that it has been turned into a material representation make a moral difference? Öhman argues that it should not because it is not obvious how materiality can make a significant moral difference. And yet it seems, when pressed, that we would find something morally problematic about creating the video that we wouldn’t find morally problematic about the fantasy. How can we reconcile these differing moral judgments? That’s the essence of the pervert’s dilemma.

Let me say two things about this dilemma before proceeding. First, Öhman’s claim that turning a fantasy into a material representation is not morally significant seems dubious. Surely there is something morally significant about this? When you create the deepfake, you create a file that is easily shareable and, potentially, weaponisable. We see evidence of this all the time. Deepfake porn videos are both (a) widely shared on the internet and (b) often used to humiliate, degrade and intimidate people (typically women). This shareability and weaponisation is part of what makes them morally problematic and, at least in my own case, is part of motivates me to think they are morally impermissible.

Öhman, to be fair, is fully aware of this point. He sharpens the dilemma by asking us to imagine a case involving a purely private, non-shareable, deepfake. So suppose someone creates a deepfake porn video of someone they know for private use only and there is no possibility of it ever being shared or weaponised or, indeed, of the person whom it depicts ever finding out about it. Would we still find it problematic under those conditions? Öhman argues that we would and this means the dilemma is still relevant.

The problem with this is that it means we are now debating the moral permissibility of a hypothetical technology. I’m not aware of any deepfakes that do not have the potential to be shared nor ones that can be confirmed to be purely private in nature. Furthermore, if such a technology existed, I’m not sure what my moral intuitions about it would be. If you remove the major potential consequential harms of deepfakes, I think I might find them less problematic than I currently do. Debating hypothetical technologies like this can be fun, and might reveal something important about our moral beliefs and practices, but it has limited relevance for the real-world.

The other point I wanted to make about the dilemma is that I think it is badly named. Öhman is drawing inspiration from Morgan Luck’s ‘Gamer’s Dilemma’ (which I have discussed previously). The gamer’s dilemma is about the permissibility of virtual child sexual abuse vis-a-vis virtual murder. But calling his dilemma the ‘pervert’s dilemma’ seems unfortunate to me since the term ‘pervert’ carries negative moral connotations. Ordinarily, when we use the term ‘pervert’, we use it to describe someone with morally problematic sexual attitudes and practices. The whole point of the dilemma is to highlight a tension between something we deem non-problematic (plain-vanilla sexual fantasies) and something we deem problematic (non-consensual deepfake porn). Using the term ‘pervert’ to describe the dilemma confuses things because it suggests that this is only a dilemma for someone with problematic sexual attitudes. A morally neutral title (e.g. the fantasiser’s dilemma) might have been better. That said, I don’t know what the best alternative title would be.

2. Using Levels of Abstraction to Resolve the Dilemma

Set all that to the side. Suppose we accept Öhman’s analysis and focus on the permissibility of non-shareable private deepfakes vis-a-vis sexual fantasies. Is there a way to resolve the dilemma? Öhman argues that there is if we use the idea of levels of abstraction (LoA).

This is an idea taken from the work of Luciano Floridi, which was itself inspired by formal methods in computer science. In essence, the idea is that different objects and entities can be described at different LoAs. Take two human beings: Dave and Emma. You can describe them at the LoA ‘HUMAN BEING’, in which case you focus on attributes they share qua members of the human species. Or you can describe them at the LoA ‘FAMILY’, in which case you focus on their attributes as members of the same family (or not, as the case may be). The former is a ‘higher’ and hence broader LoA because it ignores many properties (variables, observables) that are distinctive of Dave and Emma in their everyday lives. The latter is a ‘lower’ and hence narrower LoA since it adds in additional properties that are more distinctive and unique to Dave and Emma and not just shared across all humans.

Although this example covers the comparison of individual human beings at different LoAs, it should be noted that the method of LoAs applies more generally to all forms of comparison and analysis. The basic gist of the idea is that, for any given question or inquiry, there are more or less appropriate LoAs at which to try to answer that question.

This has implications for morality. It is common in moral philosophy to focus on the permissibility of actions at high levels of abstraction. Philosophers often discuss the permissibility of our actions qua individual moral agents, abstracted away from our social contexts and roles. Consider, for example, the normative principles underlying utilitarianism or Kantianism. These are highly abstract principles, focusing on our duties as agents and/or sentient beings. The problem with this style of analysis is that when we consider our duties at lower LoAs (qua citizens in the same nation or members of the same family), we might find that different duties apply. Indeed, this is a common critique of highly abstract, impartialist moral principles: that they overlook our strong partial duties given the particular social roles and contexts we occupy.

In addition to this, Öhman points out that actions that seem harmless or permissible at high LoAs might be harmful at lower LoAs. For example, hate crimes might be of this form. Considered as an interaction between two abstracted agents, an incident giving rise to hate crime might not be morally harmful or problematic. The victim of a racial epithet, for instance, might brush it off or ignore it or not find it upsetting (the opposite could also be true). But considered at the LoA ‘ETHNICITY’ (or some equivalent) it might be harmful or problematic. The use of the epithet might harm or oppress all members of a given ethnic group even if it does not harm a specific individual. It is also possible that the individual acts, considered at the most abstract LoA, might combine or emerge into something problematic at a lower level.

Öhman thinks that this points the way to a solution to the pervert’s dilemma. In brief, he argues that when considered at a very high LoA, the creation of non-shareable deepfakes might not be morally problematic: the moral agent that created the deepfake (A) might not harm or injure the person represented in the video (B). This makes it, effectively, the equivalent to a private sexual fantasy. But considered at a lower LoA, it is problematic because the creation of the video is made possible by, and feeds into, a system of gender-based inequality and oppression. I’ll quote from Öhman’s article on this point (please note that this quote has been modified to remove some technical terminology that Öhman uses in his article but that I have not explained in this article):

For by abstracting the Deepfake phenomenon into a matter of “A” and “B”, one also subtracts from it the very thing that gives it its ethical significance namely its role in the social system of gender oppression. In one sentence, you cannot take gender out of pornography, and you cannot take society out of gender. As a societal phenomenon, Deepfakes are arguably enabled by a [combination] of male consumers, producers, technology, and misogyny. Moreover, it arguably plays a role in the machinery which systematically reduces women (as a collective identity) to sexual objects, even if none of the individual instances can be held to cause this. So it should be fair to say that the phenomenon is highly gendered (indeed, one need not spend much time on one of the forums or websites devoted to Deepfakes to realise this). While each isolated video may not affect the women it stars as individuals, the phenomenon as such…is, in its current form, inseparable from the systematic degrading of women as a collective identity. 
(Öhman 2020, p 137)


Contrariwise, he claims, sexual fantasies are not like this. While the content of specific sexual fantasies might be inspired by a system of gendered inequality, the general phenomenon of sexual fantasies is not part and parcel of such a system. It is, rather, a common and normal part of human experience.

3. Is this a plausible resolution of the dilemma?

Öhman anticipates and responds to two critiques of this line of reasoning. One of them is that his analysis is just a sophisticated way of saying that the ethical permissibility of non-shareable deepfakes depends a lot on social context and meaning of deepfakes, and hence doesn’t say much of use at all. Öhman is, I think, rightfully dismissive of this critique. His point in using LoAs is that the moral assessment of actions requires some preceding sociology of those actions. This is a fair point and has been made by other philosophers. Purely abstract moral reasoning often doesn’t tell us much.

The other critique is more interesting. It is that his analysis of the impermissibility of deepfakes could apply equally well to other forms of media representing sexual fantasies. He gives the example of a man that draws crude pictures of sexual fantasies instead of using photorealistic deepfakes. Is this morally impermissible? Öhman says that it will depend on the social meaning of such images. He thinks it is unlikely that they have the same meaning as deepfakes:

I believe the answer to this question must be sought in the cultural role of the phenomenon of drawing pornographic images of women one has met. To my knowledge, this is not a common practice used in gender oppression in today’s society, but in a hypothetical society, it certainly could be. 
(Öhman 2020, p 138)


I think this is a bit too quick. When we peel back the sophisticated layers of analysis, it seems to me that Öhman is effectively repeating a very common (radical) feminist critique of all pornographic media, namely: that even if the production of particular pornographic media does not harm anyone involved in its production (and possibly may even benefit them), the media contributes to (or maybe even constitutes) a form of gender-based oppression. In this regard it is telling that Öhman cites the well-known feminist critic of pornography — Gail Dines — to support his analysis of the social meaning deepfakes. So I think his critique could easily apply to other forms of media, possibly including drawings or sketches of sexual fantasies since the very reason why a man might draw such images could be, if we follow the critique, because of some toxic, partriarchal ideology he has imbibed..

What should we make of this? Well, I’ve written a lot about the ethics of pornography on this website before, assessing this common critique from multiple angles. In brief, I would say that the problem with this critique is twofold: (i) it often requires us to overlook, ignore, or explain away examples of pornography that genuinely do not seem morally problematic or harmful to either producers and consumers (and thus it generates a tension between two beliefs about these practices) and (ii) it ignores the fact that the social meaning or significance of pornographic production is not fixed or set in stone. It can change and, indeed, many sex positive producers of ‘feminist pornography’ claim that it may already be changing. Furthermore, when it comes to the social meaning of pornography, it is difficult to completely divorce this from its potential social consequences. If pornography is really harmful to women, and clearly contributes to their ongoing oppression and inequality, then the social meaning of any particular instance of pornographic media is more likely to be negative. If pornography is beneficial or if its effects are more doubtful or unknown, then the picture is less clear.

What does this mean for deepfakes? I think it means two things. First, the analysis that Öhman offers of non-shareable deepfakes is quite similar to, and probably subject to similar critiques as, more general critiques of pornography. Second, it might be harder to defend this analysis if we limit ourselves to the purely hypothetical example of non-shareable deepfakes: whether or not deepfakes are part of a system of gender oppression and inequality depends on how they are shared and weaponised.

This brings us back to the point I made earlier in this article: that debating the merits of a hypothetical form of deepfake porn may have little practical utility.