Earlier this month, I gave a talk to the London Futurists group about my book Automation and Utopia. This is, actually, only the second public talk I have given about the material in the book. It was a great event, with some good feedback and questioning from the audience. You can watch the whole thing above.
Friday, January 31, 2020
Earlier this month, I gave a talk to the London Futurists group about my book Automation and Utopia. This is, actually, only the second public talk I have given about the material in the book. It was a great event, with some good feedback and questioning from the audience. You can watch the whole thing above.
Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Here's a preprint of a new paper I have coming out in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Technology (edited by Shannon Vallor). This book is due out sometime in 2020 (not sure when). This is the final draft version. I don't expect it to change very much in the final published version.
Links: Philpapers; Researchgate; Academia
Abstract: There is a growing sense of unease around algorithmic modes of governance ('algocracies') and their impact on freedom. Contrary to the emancipatory utopianism of digital enthusiasts, many now fear that the rise of algocracies will undermine our freedom. Nevertheless, there has been some struggle to explain exactly how this will happen. This chapter tries to address the shortcomings in the existing discussion by arguing for a broader conception/understanding of freedom as well as a broader conception/understanding of algocracy. Broadening the focus in this way enables us to see how algorithmic governance can be both emancipatory and enslaving, and provides a framework for future development and activism around the creation of this technology.
Friday, January 24, 2020
The never-ending podcast tour for Automation and Utopia continues. Two more have been released in the past week. You can check them out at the links below:
- Machine Ethics Podcast Episode 38 - An interview with Ben Byford about the book and, also, about my views on the moral standing of robots/AI. Ben's podcast is excellent and I recommend checking out some of his previous episodes (44 mins).
- Philosophy 24/7 'A World Without Work' - An interview with David Edmonds (of Philosophy Bites fame). This one is a nice, short overview of some of the key ideas from the book. David has been producing interviews like this for a long time and his skills as an editor and interviewer shine through. I'm amazed that he made me sound coherent in a 22 minute interview (normally I take 22 mins to just to clear my throat).
There are more interviews on the way in the next couple of months.
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
|Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by John Rogers Herbert|
Aristotle once said that humans are political by their nature. Certainly, political processes and institutions are central to human life. But are they everything? Is everything we do inherently political? And, more importantly, should everything we do be seen to be inherently political?
These are the questions that Robert Talisse takes up in his recent book Overdoing Democracy. He argues that contemporary life (specifically contemporary life in the US) is overly politicised. Political identities and political causes have seeped into and contaminated virtually every aspect of our lives. As he puts it:
[C]ontemporary democratic societies have embraced a hyperextended conception of democracy’s reach. They have adopted a conception of democracy’s scope that allows for the attribution of political significance — and accountability qua citizen — to too much of what people do, and accordingly tend to recognize too many spaces as sites in which democratic citizenship is to be enacted…we come to see one another solely as political agents who either obstruct or help enable our own political projects.
The book is thought provoking and well written. The argument against overpoliticisation builds in a careful and logical way, and there is some interesting argumentation with respect to polarisation and overpoliticisation in the book. But, as I mentioned to Robert when I recently spoke to him, I may not be the ideal reader for the book since I was already primed to agree with its central thesis. I tend not to think of myself or my actions or my relationships through an overly political lens. It’s not that I am not interested in politics — I pay close attention to political debates and developments around the world — but I try not to define myself through political loyalties or identities. The main reason for this is one of epistemic humility. I don’t have well-formed or well-reasoned views on the vast majority of political issues. I resent the pressure to pick a side.
But this pressure is there. I am often reminded by my academic colleagues that I cannot afford the luxury of sitting on the fence. They tell me that everything is political; that to not pick a side is, in some sense, to favour the political status quo and mark oneself out as a political conservative. And since I don’t like the idea of being labelled a political conservative, I sometimes relent and express loyalty to ideas I am not entirely comfortable with. Am I wrong to do this?
What follows is not going to be a full review of Robert’s book. Instead, I want to critically engage with three key ideas from it, all from the opening sections of the book. First, I want to consider the main argument against over-politicisation from the book: the crowding out argument. Second, I want to examine an objection to this argument that claims that you cannot put politics in its place because “everything is politics”. Third, I want to examine the objection that claims that the desire to ‘put politics in its place’ is an expression of political conservatism. Throughout, I will be folding my own reflections and experiences into the discussion. So what follows is, in part, an exercise in philosophical self-analysis. I offer it in the hope that what I say might resonate with (or challenge) other people’s experiences.
1. Overpoliticisation and the Crowding Out Argument
Talisse presents his thesis in a logical and patient way. He builds from simple definitions and concepts to an extended argument against political overreach. He points out that there are a number of activities that are central to democratic politics — for example, voting, participating in deliberative debates, acquiring and disseminating information about political candidates and policies. He also points out that these activities ought to occur in certain places — for example, newsrooms, townhalls, political hustings and conferences, and parliamentary chambers. His thesis about over-politicisation is simply that the activities that are central to politics now occur in too many places — places where they really ought not to occur. Examples of this overreach would include the politicisation of the family dinner table, the office, leisure activities and so on.
The suggestion from the get-go is that this political overreach is a bad thing, but why is this? Why is it that political activities ought to occur in only a few specific places? Talisse’s main argument for the badness of political overreach is the ‘crowding out’ argument. Very roughly, his claim is that if we allow for political overreach then we allow politics to crowd out the other goods of life. He has a nice analogy that he uses to illustrate this problem.
Imagine Anne. Anne is a fitness freak who spends all her waking hours focused on honing her fitness. She carefully manages what she eats and spends most of her time in the gym . As a result, Anne is very fit and her fitness is clearly a good thing. It gives her a level of health and physical well-being that few people attain. But Anne is such a fitness freak that she has little time for anything else in life. She has no time to dedicate to her family, friends, career, social networks, art, literature, sex and relationships and so on.
Is Anne living a good life? Obviously there are some goods in her life (her fitness) but she is also missing out on a lot. Her dedication to fitness has crowded out lots of other things that would make her life good. There is something imbalanced and incomplete about what she is doing. Furthermore, there might even be something perverse to it as well. After all, few people think that fitness is an end in itself. We don’t simply want to be fit. We want to be fit in order to be able to enjoy other goods, e.g. playing social sports, and living a longer life that gives us access to other goods. So it’s not just that her fitness obsession crowds out the other goods of life, it also undermines itself.
Talisse’s argument about political overreach follows this basic structure. He claims that an obsession with politics can crowd out the other goods of life. If you spend every waking hour obsessed with political processes, policies and identities, you never get to enjoy any of the other important things that make up a well-lived life. Furthermore, politics is not an end in itself. There are some political obsessives who might enjoy nothing more than thinking about political strategy and power every waking hour, but for the majority of people politics is means to other ends — education, health, employment, family and so on. If politics dominates our attention, these other goods can get ignored. Of course, it is probably true to say that most people aren’t political obsessives in the sense that they completely ignore everything else that is good, but if political overreach is encouraged, then it becomes more and more difficult to sustain any oasis of life that is free from political concerns.
I am sympathetic to this idea. For what it’s worth, I defended a similar-ish claim in my book Automation and Utopia when I looked at the political effects of technology. I pointed out that one thing technology does is that it redistributes power in society. What’s more, in recent times, it seems to be doing this in a highly inegalitarian way (hence the dominance of certain companies in the market). But I also argued that we shouldn’t focus on the redistribution of power in and of itself. We should focus on how that power gets translated into effects on people’s lives (specifically how it effects the conditions that need to be satisfied in order to live a flourishing and meaningful life). One reason for this is that there is more than likely always going to be some power structure or power elite in society, and so the challenge is to make sure that this power structure supports, rather than undermines, the conditions we need to satisfy to live flourishing lives.
This has turned out to be a controversial claim. Some people have suggested to me that we should care about power structures in and of themselves. I continue to find this confusing. I have an instinctual preference for egalitarian and decentralised power structures, but I don’t think I prefer them for their own sake. I prefer them because I believe they are more likely to have good effects on people’s lives (in most cases). But I could be wrong about this and so there are some cases where I think inegalitarian and centralised power structures make more sense (e.g. I think some industries and utilities work best when they are under monopolistic public control).
People who resist this idea and think that we should care about power structures in and of themselves, seem to me to assume, implicitly, that certain power structures necessarily have bad effects and so should be resisted. They may well be correct in this. But I would respond to them by saying that this doesn’t undermine the claim that what we really care about are the effects these structures have on people’s lives. In other words, the following argument could apply to this debate:
- (1) When it comes to evaluating political processes and power structures, what we ultimately care about are the effects they have on the goods of life.
- (2) Certain political processes and power structures necessarily have negative effects on the goods of life.
- (3) Therefore, we should focus on these specific political processes and power structures.
People like myself and Talisse are concerned primarily with the truth of premise (1); critics who care about power structures might tell us we should focus more on premise (2) and its implications. We might just be talking past each other.
One final caveat about this. What I have just argued is not inconsistent with the view that certain political processes have intrinsic goods associated with them. For example, somebody could argue that public, transparent and deliberative processes are better than their opposites because they allow people to be the active agents of political change and not just the passive recipients of its benefits (or burdens). In fact, I have made precisely that argument in the past when critiquing modes of algorithmic governance. This does not, however, imply that deliberative processes are the only good that we should care about or that deliberative political processes are not primarily valued because of the effects they have on people’s lives.
3. Is Everything Politics?
An obvious objection to Talisse’s argument is that it is impossible to keep politics in its place because, ultimately, everything is politics. In other words, no matter where you are or what you are doing, politics infests and pervades it. It cannot be escaped and kept in its box.
Talisse points out that there are several problems with this objection. First, claims of the sort “everything is X” are usually problematic. If I say “everything is blue”, you have to ask “what about all the other colours?”. If I say “everything is water”, you have to wonder, “but what about all the other things that don’t seem to be anything like water?” If I say “everything is politics”, you have to ask “what about the things that don’t seem overtly political?”. Furthermore, even if it were true that everything was politics, you would still have to consider the fact that not everything is political in the same way so, if everything is political, these things must be political in different ways and for different reasons. So you will have to start introducing concepts and ideas that help you differentiate between different political kinds of things. More generally, if you are making a foundational claim about the nature of everything you better have the resources to explain it and back it up. But once you start explaining it and backing it up, you almost invariably have to rely on concepts and ideas that are not themselves the same as the thing that you claim is at the foundation of everything. So, pretty quickly, it starts to seem as if there are other things in the world.
Talisse doesn’t make much of this counterargument, hiding it away in a footnote. His more important counterargument is that there are two different ways in which to interpret the claim that “everything is politics”.
Necessity Interpretation: Political factors and processes play some necessary and non-negligible role in explaining all aspects of our lives.
Sufficiency Interpretation: Political factors and processes are sufficient to explain all facets of human life.
Talisse argues that the first interpretation is sensible and “surely correct”, but that it doesn’t undermine his thesis because he is not assuming that politics can be eliminated from our lives but, rather, that it can be put in its proper place. I don’t agree with Talisse that this interpretation is surely correct. It strikes me as trivially true that some aspects of our lives are not explained by any political processes or factors. For example, consider the fact that we are bound by the law of gravity or that we breathe oxygen. I don’t think political processes or factors play any role in explaining these aspects of human life. That said, it seems clear from the context that Talisse intends the claim to have a more limited scope, viz. that political factors play a non-negligible role in explaining virtually all aspects of human behaviour and social life. This is surely correct. The fact that I am sitting a desk right now and drinking coffee may not seem, initially, like it is explained by political factors but, when I reflect upon it, there are numerous political factors and processes at play, e.g. rules of property and employment law that give me the right to the desk and reward me for a certain kind of labour, facets of international economics and trade relations that facilitate the arrival of the coffee, and so on.
Talisse argues that the second interpretation is neither true nor significant. It is a stretch to claim that all aspects of human behaviour and social life are sufficiently accounted for by political factors. They may play some role in the explanation, but there are surely other factors at play too. I tend to agree with him on this. Consider, once again, the laws of physics and biological evolution. They surely play some non-negligible role in explaining facets of our behaviour and social lives. If that’s right, then not everything is reducible to the political.
All that said, I think there is a sensible version of the objection that might be worth considering in more detail. It is wrong for the critic of Talisse’s position to claim that everything is politics. But it may not be wrong for them to claim, more modestly, that most aspects of our lives are more political than we initially realise. In other words, that political factors and processes play a larger part in the explanation of what we do and how we do it than we initially suppose. Go back to my earlier example of sitting at my desk and drinking coffee. The political forces that make this act possible are not the ones that immediately spring to mind, but they are there if I reflect on it.
This modest proposal doesn’t undermine Talisse’s central thesis — that over-politicisation crowds out the other goods of life— but if things are more political than we tend to initially suppose, it could make it quite difficult to put politics in its proper place.
4. Is this a conservative thesis?
Another objection to Talisse’s thesis is that it is inherently conservative in nature. Anyone who laments the overpoliticisation of human life must, in some sense, be satisfied with large swathes of the current political and social status quo. They like things the way they are and they don’t like people coming in and disrupting their contented complacency by turning everything into a political fight. As I say in the introduction, this is the objection I tend to encounter most often among my academic peers.
It might be worth noting here that there are different senses of the word ‘conservative’ at play in political discourse. This objection is focused on what might be called a ‘thin’ or ‘minimal’ form of conservatism. This ‘thin’ form of conservatism is focused purely on avoiding excessive change or disruption to the current social order, whatever that social order happens to be. In other words, it is focused on stability for stability’s sake. It doesn’t have a strong normative view as to what the ideal society should be. There is a contrasting ‘thick’ form of conservatism. This form of conservatism focuses on conserving a very specific set of social values and has a strong normative view as to what the ideal society should be. This objection is not aimed at that thicker form of conservatism.
Talisse thinks this objection to thin conservatism is a serious argument, and he agrees there is a danger that those who step back from politics are guilty of exercising political privilege. But he still insists that his stance is not a thinly conservative one. There are two main reasons for this. First, he argues that you can recognise some apolitical spaces in life and still be deeply committed to the cause of political and social justice. He is not in favour of political complacency, but he thinks it is important that we don’t burn out and become exhausted by the struggle. We have to allow for some respite from the struggle in order to appreciate and realise that the struggle is worthwhile. Second, and linked to this, he argues that over politicisation could actually backfire and undermine the pursuit of justice. His argument here is a subtle one and so I will quote from him:
…failing to put politics in its place threatens to endanger the most vulnerable among us. Those who persist in overdoing democracy of course might succeed in the short run in achieving their goals, but they do so at the broader expense of contributing to a thriving democracy. This renders their success pyrrhic; in attaining the desired political result, they have helped to sustain conditions under which all political outcomes are frail and volatile.
The last sentence in this quote seems to be the crucial one. If I am reading it right, Talisse’s argument is roughly this:
- (4) The point of politics is to secure some spaces in which non-political goods can be realised (derived from the crowding out argument).
- (5) If everything is a subject of political debate and contest, then there is no secure space in which non-political goods can be realised.
- (6) Therefore, not everything should be politicised.
I find this to be an appealing argument but it faces two problems. First, as you can see, it seems to collapses back onto the previous argument: the only way we can justifiably say that there should be an apolitical space is if it is indeed true that not everything is political. Second, even the argument is right, we might worry that some people’s lives are overpoliticised against their will and hence they, unlike the more privileged among us, do not have the freedom to step back into an apolitical space. For example, some members of immigrant communities might find that all of their choices are subject to constant political scrutiny and debate. Who they choose to associate with, who they marry, the jobs they perform, the way they look (and so on) are all used as talking points in political debates. They would like nothing more than to step back and take a breather from all this politics, but they are not given the option. Someone might argue that until their plight is addressed no one should be afforded the luxury of stepping back from the fight.
The problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that it leads us down a slippery slope. If no one can take a breather from politics until all issues of political injustice are resolved, then no one can take a breather from politics. So the question is whether it is right for some people to take a breather even if their ability to do so is a product of unjust privilege. Talisse suggests that it is okay because even if they are privileged to do so, they are not always morally guilty or blameworthy for this privilege. He goes on to argue that this is consistent with saying that these people still have a robust obligation to change the situation so that their unjust privileges are reversed (p. 28).
I guess the bottom line here is that people who think we should all have the freedom to step back from politics from time to time have to ‘put up or shut up’. In other words, they have to take some active part in changing political injustices in order to give everyone that freedom. This applies to myself and Talisse, but it also applies to those who would criticise us for being conservative.
That’s all I wanted to say in this post. To reiterate, I highly recommend reading the whole book. It is a thoughtful and provocative read.
Friday, January 10, 2020
Once upon a time, people believed that it was immoral to anatomise dead bodies, for women to pee in public, for a gentleman not to defend his honour through duelling, and for homosexuals to actively express their sexualities. Over time, public attitudes towards each of these practices has changed. Although there are some lingering moral conservatives, the majority of people in Western societies seem willing to at least tolerate these practices. To the outsider, it looks like we have undergone a series of moral revolutions.
Each of these examples is taken from Robert Baker’s book The Structure of Moral Revolutions. In the book, Baker presents a fascinating and provocative theory about how moral systems change over time and then applies it to several historical case studies of moral revolution. The historical details of the revolutions is the main focus of the book and for people who are not yet convinced that the past is a foreign country (and that they do things differently there), I highly recommend reading it. But since I’m more of a theoretician than a historian, I want to focus my attention in this post on the main features of Baker’s theory.
Baker’s main theoretical innovation is to apply Thomas Kuhn’s famous theory about scientific revolutions to moral revolutions. Others have attempted this in the past, but have reached the conclusion that there are too many differences between scientific theories and moral theories for the analogy to bear fruit. Baker differs in thinking that the analogy is quite illuminating. Furthermore, in the process of applying Kuhn’s theory, he draws distinctions between moral revolutions and moral reforms, as well as the related phenomenon of moral drift (or, as I prefer, moral evolution).
In what follows, I want to critically analyse Baker’s theory, paying particular attention to the conceptual distinctions he draws between moral revolution, reform and drift. Are these useful distinctions? Can we make sense of them? I have my doubts.
1. Lessons from Thomas Kuhn
To understand Baker’s approach, you need to know something about Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. If you have ever heard someone talk about ‘paradigm shifts’, then you have, perhaps unbeknownst to yourself, already been exposed to it.
Kuhn’s main claim was that science advances in different phases. At any given time, scientific inquiry will be dominated by particular paradigms. Kuhn isn’t entirely consistent in how he uses the term ‘paradigm’ but my preferred interpretation (and the one adopted by Baker in his book) is that a paradigm is a reasonably general perspective on the world or some specific feature of the world. To put it another way, scientists are interested in understanding the world (or specific features of it) and paradigms enable them to interpret what they are observing in the world in a particular way.
Paradigms, so understood, are distinct from specific theories, formulas or experimental hypotheses. Paradigms help to generate specific theories, formulas and hypotheses, but they are not reducible to them. That said, the line between a theory and a paradigm can be a bit blurry and, at a sufficient level of generality, a theory might become a paradigm. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (as modified by developments in genetics and molecular biology) is, arguably, the dominant paradigm in modern evolutionary biology. It provides the lens through which most biological data is interpreted.
When scientists operate within a dominant paradigm they are doing what Kuhn calls normal science. They are incrementally reforming and expanding the existing paradigm, generating new hypotheses and new theoretical adaptations of the paradigm. This is, essentially, what has been happening in evolutionary biology since Darwin came along in the mid-19th century. Every scientist since then (with minor exceptions) has been working within the evolutionary paradigm, modifying and expanding its reach to cover new phenomena (genetics, molecular biology and, more controversially, psychology).
Although certain paradigms dominate in science at particular moments, they are not unchallengeable or immutable. Occasionally, scientists will find flaws in the existing paradigm. Kuhn referred to these flaws as anomalies. These are bits of data that don’t seem to fit the existing paradigm: no satisfying theoretical adaptation of the paradigm seems to adequately explain their existence. The presence of such anomalies might encourage these scientists to come up with an alternative paradigm that can account for the anomalies. At first, it is likely that these alternative paradigms will be resisted by the proponents of normal science. But, over time, as the anomalies mount and the new paradigm attracts more followers, there can be a ‘paradigm shift’. Scientists abandon the old paradigm and start interpreting the data in light of the new one. When this happens, a scientific revolution can be said to have taken place.
Kuhn’s main example of a scientific revolution is the shift from the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the solar system to the Copernican heliocentric view. This revolution took place over the 16th and 17th centuries. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were the key movers and shakers in instigating this revolution. The Ptolemaic paradigm had dominated astronomy for the best part of a thousand years. It generated complex formulas for predicting astronomical observations. There were some unsatisfying anomalies in it, such as the odd movement of the planets that had to be accounted for using epicycles. That said, the Ptolemaic paradigm and its associated theories did seem to fit the existing data pretty well and was quite intuitive (to us, here on Earth, it feels like we are standing still). Copernicus argued for a paradigm shift, initially on largely aesthetic grounds, toward a heliocentric view of the solar system. Eventually, evidence mounted in favour of his geocentric paradigm and the theories and formulas it generated were more straightforward and accurate than those generated under the old Ptolemaic paradigm. A revolution took place.
That’s the gist of Kuhn’s theory. There are a couple of key features of Kuhnian paradigm shift that are worth emphasising before moving on. First, one of Kuhn’s key claims is that paradigms are incommensurate. That is to say, they cannot be measured or evaluated along a common rubric. Paradigms, in a sense, are the rubric. They are the framework through which evidence is evaluated and measured. Thus, the heliocentric and geocentric paradigms are incommensurate. They have radically different interpretations of empirical data concerning the movement of the planets and the nature of the universe. Second, another of Kuhn’s key claims is that revolutions are often evidenced through linguistic shifts whereby terminology that was endorsed under the old paradigm is evolved to fit the new paradigm. For example, the word ‘planet’ meant something different under the geocentric and heliocentric paradigms. Under the geocentric paradigm a planet was an aberrant star that appeared to ‘wander’ across the night sky relative to the fixed background stars. Under the heliocentric paradigm it was not a star but another Earth-like body orbiting the sun. Linguistic co-optations of this sort are important to building a new paradigm.
These are the points that Baker emphasises in his summary of Kuhn. I would like to note that I don’t quite agree with Kuhn (or, at least, Baker’s take on Kuhn) with respect to the incommensurability of paradigms. It’s no doubt true that competing paradigms are radically different but I don’t think they are necessarily incommensurate. I think there are some common criteria for theory choice and theory evaluation that these can be used to ‘measure’ the success of competing paradigms (e.g. predictive accuracy, simplicity). Indeed, these common criteria for theory choice may often be key to facilitating the ‘shift’ from one paradigm to another. I think this is particularly true in the case of moral paradigm shifts and I will return to this point below.
2. The Idea of a Moral Revolution
Taking onboard the lessons from the Kuhnian model, Baker argues that some types of moral change follow a similar revolutionary pathway. As noted above, he makes this case through the use of detailed historical case studies. Each of these case studies shares some structural properties. To understand these properties, we need to understand how Baker applies the Kuhnian framework to the phenomenon of moral change.
Let’s start with the concept of morality itself. Baker takes a descriptive approach to morality. He does not see morality as a timeless, abstract set of normative truths. Instead, he sees it as a practical, descriptive feature of human society and human behaviour. Morality is the set of norms and standards against which the members of a society measure their behaviour. It is a collection of ideas, shared among members of society, about what is good, bad, right and wrong. People use these beliefs to evaluate their own conduct and that of others.
This set of beliefs can vary from society to society. For example, one society might think that eating meat is morally wrong; another might think it is morally permissible. It can also vary over time, within the same society. For example, people in the 1800s in the US might have believed that slavery was morally justified whereas people in 2000s did not. Morality is, then, for Baker, a descriptive cultural and community based phenomenon. To make sure this is clear in your mind, and that you don’t confuse this understanding of morality with a more traditional philosophical understanding of morality, I will refer to it as ‘social’ morality in what follows.
Social morality is distinct from ethics. According to Baker, ethics is an explicit formalisation of social morality. This formalisation is usually undertaken by philosophers or lawyers. Most of the time, morality is implicit or tacit: it is just part of the unspoken tapestry of everyday life. It is only rarely that it is rendered explicit. Consider, for example, the specific rules that make up the various ethical codes of conduct for doctors. Many of these rules just codify practices that long predated their formalisation. Would we say that there was no morality prior to this formal codification? Surely not. Surely, the observed normative patterns of behaviour, and the associated practices of moral blame and evaluation, were sufficient for social morality to exist.
What, then, is a moral paradigm? Unfortunately, Baker is not very clear about this. He gives specific examples but no general definitions. This may be intentional. The parallel concept of a ‘scientific’ paradigm is not precisely defined either. It’s just one of those things you know when you see. Reading between the lines, however, I would guess that a moral paradigm is just a very general or abstract social moral belief. That is to say, a very general belief about what is good/bad, right/wrong. For example, Benthamite utilitarianism — the belief that maximising pleasure is the ultimate moral goal — might constitute a moral paradigm. It provides a set of a moral glasses through which to evaluate the world. It can be used to generate more specific moral theories (e.g. act utilitarianism) and rules (e.g. “we ought to end factory farming”). That said, Benthamite utilitarianism might be far more general than what Baker has in mind since some of his specific examples involve paradigms with much narrower scope. We will see this in a moment.
Getting clear about the nature of a moral paradigm is important because Baker uses it to distinguish moral revolutions from other kinds of moral change. As follows:
Moral revolutions: These are intentional changes to an underlying social moral paradigm.
Moral reforms: These are intentional changes to social moral rules that leave the underlying moral paradigm intact.
Moral drift: These are non-intentional changes to social morality (that could affect either the specific rules or the underlying paradigm)
As we can see from this, for Baker, the key distinguishing feature of a moral revolution, as opposed to other kinds of moral change, is that it involves an intentional change to a paradigm and not just to some specific moral rule.
This three-part distinction between revolution, reform and drift is intuitively appealing. In many ways, I like it. But does it stand up to closer scrutiny. Because there is a lack of precision regarding the concept of a paradigm vis-a-vis a moral rule, there is a danger that one person’s paradigm ends up being another person’s rule and vice versa. This creates some problems when we examine some of Baker’s examples of moral change.
3. Moral Revolutions versus Moral Reforms
Consider, for starters, Baker’s examples of moral revolution. Baker presents several such in his book. His three main ones have to do with shifting moral attitudes toward the sacredness of dead bodies, the permissibility of abortion and ethics in biomedical research. His opening example of a moral revolution, however, has to do with the rights revolution for homosexuals.
As is well known, Western societies have radically changed their social moral rules regarding homosexuality over the past 50 or so years. Not too long ago, it was a criminal offence to engage in homosexual activity, and people in homosexual relationships were denied the basic legal rights and privileges afforded to people in heterosexual relationships. This is no longer the case. Starting with the decriminalisation of homosexual activity, and culminating more recently in the legalisation of ‘gay’ marriage, many Western countries have now flipped their social moral rules to tolerate, and in some cases celebrate, homosexuality.
This is an example of a moral revolution, according to Baker, because it involved an intentional campaign to change an underlying social moral paradigm. There was an active social movement to change attitudes toward sexuality, led by organisations such as Stonewall (named after a New York gay nightclub that was raided by the police). These organisations operated with the specific aim of getting society to shift from a moral paradigm that saw homosexuality as a kind of ‘deviant’, abnormal and sometimes socially corrosive sexuality, to a paradigm that championed the freedom and autonomy of all individuals to express their sexualities as they saw fit (or as seemed ‘natural’ to them).
Contrast that with one of Baker’s examples of moral reform: changes in the attitude toward bastardy/illegitimacy in the UK. As he points out, for a very long time, children born outside of wedlock were treated with great moral and legal suspicion. The main reason for this was because female sexual activity outside of marriage was viewed as a moral crime or ‘sin’. The dominant social moral paradigm was one that valued female chastity and sexual purity. If a woman became pregnant outside of marriage, her purity was clearly impinged and she had to be disciplined. She would be taken away from society, oftentimes sent to workhouses or other institutions,* to hide her shame. Her ‘sin’ would then be passed down to her children. They would be sent to orphanages or given up for adoption. They would also be denied rights granted to other children, e.g. rights to property under laws of succession. They were tarred with the epithet ‘bastard’ and deemed to be ‘illegitimate’ in the eyes of the law.
Nowadays most people find this attitude towards children born outside of wedlock both odd and abhorrent. Our new dominant social morality thinks all children should be treated equally, irrespective of their origins. One of the reasons for this shift in attitudes, at least in the UK, is because there was an active campaign to reform the laws surrounding the treatment of illegitimate children. Unwed mothers became increasingly common in the UK in the early 20th century, particularly in the aftermath of WWI when so many young men were killed before they could marry the mothers of their children. In this new demographic reality, The National Council for the Unwed Mother and her Child (NCUMC) led a campaign to change the laws in order to save the ‘illegitimate’ child.
They were ultimately successful, managing to get the government to pass a law that protected ‘illegitimate’ children by providing for state support for all children, punishment for fathers who did not provide support for children born outside of marriage, a ban on women from being sent to the workhouse, and a pathway to legitimacy if the parents ultimately married (later laws further regularised the status of children born outside of wedlock).
This is an example of moral reform, according to Baker, because the NCUMC campaign did not challenge the underlying moral paradigm of female chastity and sexual purity. Instead, it focused explicitly on protecting the children. They were earmarked as innocent victims in the whole affair who should not suffer for the moral sins of their parents. As Baker puts it, the NCUMC focused on remedying the ‘deleterious effects’ of female sexual purity norms, and not on changing those norms themselves.
Is this a satisfying account of the distinction between moral revolutions and moral reforms? I’m not so sure. I see three problems with it.
First, regarding the moral revolution around homosexuality, why is Baker so convinced that the negative attitudes toward homosexuality constituted a moral paradigm and not just a specific set of rules that emerged from a more general paradigm? Perhaps, for example, there is a general paradigm based on the moral value of naturalness. From this, emerges a specific set of prohibitions against homosexuality. This, incidentally, isn’t just idle speculation. One of the most popular arguments against homosexuality was that it was, in some sense, unnatural: contrary to the intended purpose or function of human sexuality. Many homosexual activists rebutted this view by claiming that they were ‘born this way’, i.e. that their sexual preferences were naturally hardwired into them. They did not argue that it was an expression of their freedom and autonomy. They did not use this alternative paradigm to make their case. Could homosexual activists who deployed such arguments be viewed as moral reformers, as opposed to moral revolutionaries? Were they just working within the dominant moral paradigm, doing ‘normal’ morality and not encouraging a shift to a different moral paradigm?
Second, and still working with the example of homosexuality, is it really the case that the freedom/autonomy paradigm represented a radical and incommensurate alternative? Was that not already a very popular moral paradigm, particularly in countries like the US and the UK? Consequently, could the changes in attitudes toward homosexuality be viewed as simply the expansion of an already accepted paradigm? Or the end result of an older moral revolution that started in, say, the 1600s and 1700s when philosophers like John Locke started to espouse the virtues of freedom and toleration?
Third, shifting to the example of bastard/illegitimacy, why are we so convinced that this was a reform as opposed to a revolution? Why couldn’t the negative attitudes toward illegitimate children (and the associated rules) not constitute a foundational and general moral paradigm in and of themselves? Maybe they are an obvious derivation from (or consequence of) negative attitudes to female sexuality, but I don’t see that Baker offers any argument for this. He really just takes it as obvious that the latter is the paradigm and the former as something that derives from this. But there is at least some reason to question this since it is perfectly logically possible for children born outside of wedlock to be morally impugned and for unwed mothers to be treated with sympathy. We could, for example, live in a world in which negative attitudes toward male promiscuity and parental abandonment dominate, unwed mothers are viewed as innocent victims of men, and children carry on the sins of the father (not the mother).
Admittedly, I am arguing largely through rhetorical questioning here. That’s often a weak sign. But I think it is telling that Baker doesn’t raise these questions, let alone provide answers to them. Combined, I believe that the three problems speak to the difficulty of distinguishing revolutions from reforms and emphasise the point I made earlier: one person’s revolution could be another person’s reform and vice versa.
4. Moral Drift versus Intentional Moral Change
What about the distinction between moral drift and the two other kinds of moral change? Obviously this distinction rests on the intentional or directed nature of the change. Baker co-opts the term ‘drift’ from evolutionary biology. In biology, evolutionary changes that are the result of selection for biological fitness are sometimes contrasted with changes that are the result of chance. The former mechanism of change is referred to as natural selection; the latter mechanism is referred to as drift.
Consider an example. Suppose you have a population of ten humans with different eye colours (6 with blue and 4 with brown). Brown is the genetically dominant trait. Suppose that, as far as we know, there is no fitness advantage for people with different eye colours. They are not healthier or more attractive to potential mates. Now, suppose, that through sheer chance no blue-eyed members of the population mate with one another. What will happen in the next generation? Answer: everyone will have brown eyes. Does this mean that brown eyes were selected for? No. It was just an accident: the blue-eyed trait drifted away through sheer chance. Moral drift is the same: it is moral change that occurs through chance.
How does moral drift arise? Baker’s go-to example of this concerns changes in the attitudes to bastardy/illegitimacy in the US. Unlike in the UK, there was no concerted campaign to change the rules or social attitudes regarding legitimacy in the US. They changed as the unintentional side effect of other social, legal and technical changes. In particular, Baker suggests that the social prominence of certain children of unwed mothers (e.g. Marilyn Monroe), the ease and prevalence of divorce, as well as the availability of contraception and changing attitudes to extra-marital sex, made the concept of legitimacy increasingly anomalous and, eventually, redundant. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that the changes in attitudes toward legitimacy in the US were more radical than in the UK (at least initially) because they really emerged from a withering away of the dominant paradigm of female chastity and sexual purity. So there was a paradigm shift in the US, it just wasn’t an intentionally directed one.
Is this a useful distinction? Initially, it appears so: there does seem to be a clear distinction between intentional moral change and un-intentional moral change. But there are also two problems with the distinction. First, the adoption of the term ‘drift’ from biology is unfortunate. Natural selection in biology is not an intentional process. There is no divine watchmaker honing biological mechanisms so that they become more fit. Instead, there are just certain biological forms and functions that are a good fit for their ecological niches. These are the ones that tend to survive and reproduce over the long term. This means that the biological contrast between ‘drift’ and ‘selection’ is not cashed out in terms of a distinction between intentional and unintentional change; it is cashed out in terms of a distinction between change that is adaptive and directed (by natural forces) and change that is not. To adopt the term ‘drift’ from biology and then change its meaning so that it refers to intentionality is unfortunate because it misses out on the possibility that some moral change could be adaptive and directed, but not intentional. I think it is plausible, for example, that some moral changes are adaptations to new social or technical realities, not simply the result of chance. For example, the weakening of the taboo around extra-marital sex could be an adaptation to a world in which contraception was more freely available and hence the balance of risks and reward associated with extra-marital sex changed.
The other problem with the distinction is that it arguably focuses on the wrong thing when it comes to identifying what is revolutionary about a moral revolution. Using Baker’s framework, we identify revolutions by a combination of two main factors (i) their intentional nature and (ii) whether they result in a moral paradigm shift. But you could argue that (i) is a distraction. What really matters to a moral revolution is whether it results in a moral paradigm shift or not. The paradigm shift has far-reaching and radical consequences for social morality. Who cares whether this was intentional. In this respect, I tend to think that the changes in attitudes toward bastardy/illegitimacy in the US were, if Baker’s characterisation of them is right, truly revolutionary. To label them as a case of moral ‘drift’ does them a disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. Baker’s analysis of moral revolutions is informative and enlightening. I definitely recommend reading his book. I also don’t doubt that there is some value to focusing on moral changes that are intentionally directed. After all, many people who campaign for moral change today have explicit intentions to change social morality. They might benefit from learning from case studies of past intentional campaigns for moral change. That said, I don’t think the distinctions between revolution, reform and drift are as sharp or as useful as Baker seems to believe. I think it would be more useful to focus on the general phenomenon of moral change and then to accept that this comes in different degrees. Some moral changes are quite specific and local, others are more general and wide-reaching. Some affect deeply entrenched moral views, some affect views that are more weakly held. Some are the result of intentional action, some are the result of adaptation to a new social technical reality, and some are just random results of other changes. They are all part and parcel of the same thing and they all deserve scrutiny.
* I have to note here that this practice was prevalent in Ireland until the middle part of the 20th century, facilitated by both the State and the Catholic Church.
Friday, January 3, 2020
Someday the seemingly endless promotion of Automation and Utopia will come to an end, but today is not that day. I just had the pleasure of being a guest on the New Books in Philosophy podcast. I discussed the main ideas and arguments from my book with Robert Talisse. This interview is very comprehensive and was a bit of a thrill for me since I am a long-time listener to the podcast (which I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in philosophy).
You can listen via the embedded player above or at this link.