Wednesday, February 29, 2012



Sorry for the delay in getting new posts up. I've been annoyingly busy in the real world over the past couple of weeks, a situation that has not been helped by some impromptu travelling. I should get some new stuff up over the weekend, including the first proper installment in the "Should we freeze ourselves?" series.

In the meantime, some of you might be interested in seeing a paper that I recently had published (Firstview) in the journal Religious Studies. It might just be the computer I'm using, but I think it's available for free at the moment. If not, you can always download a longer uncorrected version on my personal webpage (which also features links to some other stuff I've written).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Should we freeze ourselves? (Index and Introduction)

This post serves as both an index and introduction to my new series posts on the ethics of cryogenic suspension. Cryonic suspension, for the purposes of this series can be defined in the following manner:

Cryonic suspension: Is the process or technology through which a mature human body (or some part thereof, typically the brain or head) is frozen and stored in the hope that it will be revived at a future date.

Definitions are always imperfect — somebody will probably argue that I’ve left something out of the above — but I think this one can be accepted (as a stipulation if need be) since it is the kind of cryonic suspension mentioned therein that is of concern in this series. The series explores the ethical arguments arising from the question: should we have ourselves cryogenically suspended?

1. The Structure of the Series
This series structured in an unusual manner, at least in comparison to other series on this blog. For starters, each post in the series deals with one — and only one — argument for or against cryonic suspension. Typically, I’d cover several arguments in one post, but I decided this more fragmented approach afforded some advantages.

Primarily, it gave me an excuse to avoid writing lengthy introductions to each post reviewing key parts of the preceding discussion. Although I usually enjoy writing such introductions, they can become tiresome. In addition to this, the fragmented format allows for easy revision and expansion of the series. Again, this is unlike my previous efforts. Why so? Well, primarily because I found the academic literature on the ethics of cryogenics to be rather sparse. Indeed, I only managed to locate one academic article on this topic (as well as some internet resources):

David Shaw, “Cryoethics: Seeking Life After Death” (2009) Bioethics, 23(9): 515-521

So I’m going to base my initial draft of the series on Shaw’s article, along with my own elaborations thereof. But I’m hoping that by publishing the series here, I might be presented with some additional resources to consider and arguments to address. That way, I can expand on what I initially say and build a fairly comprehensive database of arguments for and against cryonic suspension.

My goal is to write one entry per week in this series. I’m hoping this is a reasonable and attainable goal. I haven’t always been the best at completing the series I start — indeed, regular readers may note that I’ve essentially abandoned the custom of announcing series in advance of writing them, preferring now to cobble series together from previously written material — but I feel more confident about completing this particular one because the workload on the individual posts should be relatively low.

2. Cryogenics and Disorienting Dilemmas
Why am I doing this? I think it’s worth emphasising here that I come to this issue as a non-advocate. In other words, unlike many of those writing about cryogenics on the internet (at least, unlike many of the people I have read) I’m not writing this series with the explicit aim of convincing you that you ought to have yourself cryogenically suspended. Instead, I’m writing it with the explicit aim of dispassionately analysing the arguments for and against cryogenics.

That said, I do have something of a bias when it comes to this topic. The bias is my belief in the positive role that it can play in teaching students critical thinking skills. In his book, Teaching for Critical Thinking, Stephen Brookfield says that critical thinking is a process that consists of four stages: (1) identifying the assumptions that frame our thinking and determine our actions; (2) checking out the degree to which these assumptions are accurate and valid; (3) looking at our ideas and decisions from multiple perspective; and (4) in light of all this, making informed decisions. And although we may quibble with this four-stage model, I think Brookfield’s definition captures the important elements of critical thinking. It is a skill-set which all educators should try to inculcate.

In outlining some of the techniques that teachers can use to inculcate the skills of critical thinking, Brookfield highlights (chapter 3) the potential of disorienting dilemmas. These can be defined in the following manner:

Disorienting Dilemma: Any decision-making problem (real or hypothetical) that forces you to reassess or think differently about something which you previously have taken for granted.

Such dilemmas get their name from the notion that they are so unsettling that they “diorient” you from your worldview. They are important in teaching critical thinking in that they tend to be a highly effective way in which to encourage the four-stage process outlined above. Strictly speaking, they need not always be dilemmas since that term connotes a decision-making problem in which there are two possible courses of action. They could be trilemmas, or quadrilemmas or whatever. In the case of cryogenics there is a dilemma to contend with: should you freeze yourself or not? (We'll talk about the precise nature of that dilemma in more detail in the first proper entry of the series).

It is my contention that this dilemma can be genuinely disorienting. A proper consideration of the issues that bear upon it, will force you to confront assumptions of fact and value. What’s more, it will force you to think seriously about the degree of confidence that you place in your moral and factual beliefs.

It is thus because of its potential to serve as a disorienting dilemma, and not because of some desire for eternal or prolonged life, that I am enthusiastic about analysing the case for cryogenic suspension. This might seem slightly odd to cryo-enthusiasts, but it’s how I feel about it.

3. The Index Proper
I think there’s been quite enough stage-setting in this post, it’s time to get on with the main event: the index to the series itself. As I said above, in this first draft of the series, I’m going to be using David Shaw’s article on cryoethics as my basic guide to the topic. And since Shaw’s article looks solely at the ethics of cryonics, I will avoid, for the time being at least, considering the technological feasibility of cryonics. I may consider this at some future point, but such an eventuality is unlikely for two main reasons: (i) it’s well outside my own area of expertise and (ii) as we shall see, the technological feasibility of cryonics does not need to be particularly strong for the main arguments to work.

There is one complication surrounding the term “ethics” that is worth mentioning here. In his article, Shaw draws a distinction between prudential and ethical arguments. A prudential argument being one that works from the premise that every person acts in accordance with (their perception) of their own self-interest, and a moral argument being one that works from some premise based on an objective value (e.g. “we ought to maximise human welfare”). If I were in a metaethical mood, I might challenge that distinction on various grounds, but since I’m not in that mood right now, I won’t. I will just use the phrase “the ethics of cryonics” to refer to both the moral and prudential arguments surrounding cryogenics. It might be worth bearing that in mind as you read along.

Anyway, at last, the index.

Series Index

0. The Cryonics Dilemma Considered

1. You should not freeze yourself
1.1 The Loneliness Argument
1.2 The High Cost Argument
1.3 The Opportunity Cost Argument
1.4 The Unproven Technology Argument
1.5 The Non-Physicalist Argument
1.6 The “Revival is Unlikely” Argument
1.7 The “Revival Before Cure” Argument
1.8 The "Life will be Boring" Argument
1.9 The Environmental Cost Argument
1.10 The Better Causes Argument
1.11 The Organ Donation Argument
1.12 The Death-Definition Problem
1.13 The Slippery Slope Argument

2. You Should Freeze Yourself
2.1 The Future Benefit Argument
2.2 The Time Travel Argument
2.3 The Wager Argument

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Recommendations ♯2: Contemporary Theories of Liberalism

(Series Index)

It’s been a slow week on the blogging front (busy on other fronts though), so the best I can do to fill the gap is to come up with another book recommendation. If you have any book recommendations you’d like to share, please do so in the comments section.

Gerald Gaus is one of my favourite political philosophers. His work on the theory of justificatory liberalism, in his 1996 book Justificatory Liberalism and his more recent magnum opus The Order of Public Reason, is provocative, original and rigorous. Admittedly, one of my chief reasons for liking his work is that his opinions seem to chime well with my own, so I’m definitely biased here. But I can only speak from the perspective of my web of beliefs and from that perspective his characterisation of the structural problems of liberal democracy, and his attempted resolution of same seems about right to me.

There are three main virtues to Gaus’s writing. First, he has a gift for conceptual clarification, rendering the often heated and fuzzy terminology of political theorists more perspicuous and stable. Second, he has gift for explanation, helping the reader to understand difficult and often diverse ideas and concepts in depth, not just in abstract. And third, he is rigorous and formal when evaluating the arguments of others and when developing his own.

All three virtues are on display in his book Contemporary Theories of Liberalism, which is today's book recommendation. It provides an excellent introduction to and survey of what Gaus calls “post-Enlightenment” theories of liberalism. This a term that deserves some unpacking. All liberal theories are, to some extent, premised on the idea that government should respect human freedom and enhance human welfare (whatever these things might be). In his opening chapter, Gaus divides such theories into two camps: the Enlightenment theories and the post-Enlightenment theories. In the first camp, there are those theories that believe the use of reason will allow us to achieve a convergence in moral and political views. Thus, all rational adults will agree upon the preferred shape and form of political organisation and the preferred content of public policy. In the second camp, there are those theories that believe human reason is unlikely to lead to a convergence in moral and political views, and that the job of political theorists is to work around these differences.

Following this opening chapter, Gaus proceeds to describe and evaluate seven different post-Enlightenment theories of liberalism. These are:

1. Berlin’s Pluralism: This is the view that values are plural, intransitive, and incommensurate. As a result, it is impossible to identify preferred forms of existence or government.

2. Hobbesian Modus Vivendi: This is the view (associated with the work of John Gray but with its origins in Hobbes) that politics is simply a matter of discovering a working compromise (modus vivendi) between the radically divergent worldviews of rational individuals.

3. Collective Reasoning Theories: This is a family of views that propose there is a distinct form of reasoning (“collective” as opposed to “private/individual”) for dealing with social coordination problems such as those inherent in the post-Enlightenment view.

4. Deliberative Democracy Theories: This is the view that the essence of a liberal democratic society is that it provides a set of processes and mechanisms for public deliberation. This view is most closely associated with the work of Jurgen Habermas.

5. Judgment Aggregation Theories: This is a family of views proposing that one way in which to solve the problem of plural values is through aggregating divergent individual votes and using the results of the aggregation as the basis for public policy. This, of course, is the essence of democracy, but it turns out there are a number of complications associated with the method of judgment aggregation.

6. Rawlsian Liberalism: This is the view that, contrary to the radical pluralists, there is a shared liberal conception of justice, which can be arrived at from different starting points. This gives rise to a unique view of the nature and purpose of public reason.

7. Justificatory Liberalism: This is Gaus’s own view. It maintains that the proper function of a liberal government is to justify its coercive policies to morally equal persons. It also proposes how this might be done.

While discussion of each of these theories is excellent, two sections of the book stood out in particular for me. The first was the careful attempt to define and tease out the implications of value pluralism in Chapter 2, and the second was the overview of judgment aggregation theories in Chapter 6. I’ve used both in some of my own writing and in my classes.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. It’s short, but not superficial; fair, but not dispassionate; and rigorous, but not dull. It would serve well as a textbook for a course in contemporary political theory and as general reading for anyone interested in the area. It allows you to see that there is some pretty interesting, and highly sophisticated work being done in political philosophy these days, work that should not be ignored.