Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hedrick on Hilbert's Hotel and the Actual Infinite (Part One)

The second premise of William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument reads:

  • The universe began to exist.

Typically, Craig presents four arguments in support of this premise: two scientific, two philosophical. Though the scientific arguments raise many interesting points, I think many would agree that the philosophical arguments do the heavy lifting. This is for the simple reason that current physical theories of the origin of the universe are incomplete and hence provide, at best, weak and defeasible support for the premise. The philosophical arguments are much stronger than this, purporting to provide an "in principle" argument for the truth of the premise.

One of the philosophical arguments relies heavily on a thought experiment from the mathematician David Hilbert. The thought experiment describes a hotel with an actually infinite number of rooms and guests. Serious reflection on this thought experiment is alleged (by Craig) to show that an actual infinite cannot exist. This is significant in that if the universe never began to exist, the set of events prior to this moment in time must be actually infinite.

This argument -- which will be formalised more precisely in a moment -- can be called the Hilbert's Hotel Argument (HHA) in honour of its motivating thought experiment. In a recent article entitled "Heartbreak at Hilbert's Hotel" Landon Hedrick has offered an interesting critique of the HHA. Over the next couple of posts, I want to look at what he has to say.

Hedrick's article is interesting for at least three reasons. First, it has a curious, and I think praiseworthy, rhetorical structure. Although Hedrick does not shy away from general and robust criticisms of the HHA, he nevertheless concedes a lot of ground to Craig, repeatedly granting certain premises arguendo, saving most of his argumentative muscle for a subtle internal critique of Craig's argument. The net result is a disarming, yet deceptively comprehensive dismissal of the HHA.

Second, the internal critique that Hedrick offers claims that Craig's commitment to a presentist A-Theory of time undercuts the forcefulness of the HHA. As many will know, Craig has repeatedly emphasised that the Kalam argument "from start to finish" relies on the A-Theory of time. This has led many to rebut the argument on the grounds that the A-Theory is flawed. But if Hedrick is right, these rebuttals are unnecessary, maybe even flawed.

Third, and this is slightly more personal in its interest, Hedrick first entered my consciousness through his blogging several years back. Though never a prolific blogger, he wrote some good pieces on his role in organising the Craig-Carrier debate on the resurrection, and he always struck me as a thoughtful, self-effacing guy. As someone who blogs, while at the same time trying to launch a scholarly career, it's always nice to see someone else making the transition.

Anyway, let's get down to business. In the remainder of this post, I will set out the HHA in more detail, and cover some of Hedrick's initial criticisms of it. I'll leave the argument from presentism for the next day.

1. The Hilbert's Hotel Argument
The HHA comes in two forms. The first of which reads like this (my numbering doesn't follow Hedrick's, he adds letters to code different arguments, but since I won't be going into all those different arguments in my series, I've chosen to ignore them):

HHA Type I
(1) An actually infinite number of things cannot exist. 
(2) A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things. 
(3) Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot exist.

Some further argumentation is required to seal the gap between (3) and the second premise of the Kalam argument, but it's pretty easy to see how that might go. You just add: if the universe did not begin to exist, there must be a beginningless series of events prior to the present moment. We'll come back to the link between the HHA and the Kalam a little later on anyway.

As you'll have noticed, HHA-I focuses specifically on the existence of an actually infinite number of things. The second version of the argument, which has been mooted by Craig in some of his work, tries to broaden its scope by dropping the reference to "things":

(1*) An actual infinite cannot exist. 
(2*) A beginningless series of equal past intervals of time is an actual infinite. 
(3*) Therefore, a beginningless series of equal past intervals of time cannot exist.

We won't be dealing with this version of the argument for a while, so keep it filed away in your brain for the time being. For the foreseeable future our main focus will be on HHA-I.

Before proceeding, a quick word about "actual" and "potential" infinities. Those who are familiar with the mathematical history will know that there is an important difference between the two concepts. This can be defined as follows:

Actual Infinite: "Is a collection of definite and discrete members whose number is greater than any natural number." (Craig, 2008). In other words, it is a set with an infinite number of members.
Potential Infinite: "Is a collection that is increasing toward infinity but never actually gets there." (Craig, 2008). In other words, it is a collection which ceaselessly grows in size, but never actually contains an infinite number of members.

The distinction is significant insofar as Craig only objects to the existence of an actual infinite. He's quite comfortable with the existence of potential infinite. Indeed, he thinks the future is a potentially infinite sequence of events. Thus, a classic move for Craig in these debates is to reject an opponent's counterexample by arguing that it appeals to a potential, not an actual infinite.

So why does Craig reject the existence of an actual infinite? The answer lies in his analysis of a set of thought experiments, of which the most famous and prominent is the Hilbert's Hotel thought experiment. In it, we are asked to imagine a hotel with an actually infinite number of guests and an actually infinite number of rooms. Such an entity would entail the existence of an actual infinite number of things. But could it really exist? No; a series of absurdities is thought to follow. Consider:

If one new customer checks to the hotel he/she can be accommodated even though the hotel is full. Simply move every guest in the hotel up one room (i.e. the guest in room 1 moves to room 2, the guest in room 2 moves to room 3, and so on). This way room 1 becomes available.
If an infinite number of guests arrives, they too can be accommodated. Simply move every guest to the room that's twice their current number (i.e. the guest in room 1 moves to room 2, the guest in room 2 moves to room 4, and so on). This empties out all the odd numbered rooms. Indeed, an infinite number of guests can keep checking into the hotel.
Odd things happen when people check out. If one guest checks out, thereby emptying one room, an infinite number remain (infinity minus one is still infinity). If all the guests in odd numbered rooms check out, an infinite number of guests will have left, but they will still leave behind an infinite number of guests. Nevertheless, if every guest in a room number greater than 3 checks out, only three are left.

Mathematicians use these examples to illustrate the fact that certain arithmetic operations are improperly applied to an actual infinite, but Craig uses them to argue that an actual infinite number of things cannot exist in the real world. If they did, absurdities such as those present in Hilbert's Hotel would arise. This suggests, to me at any rate, that Craig defends something like the following argument in order to defend premise (1) of HHA-I:

  • (4) If an actual infinite number of things existed, Hilbert's Hotel would be possible.
  • (5) But Hilbert's Hotel is not possible; it is absurd.
  • (2) Therefore, an actual infinite number of things cannot exist.

(Note: as an aside, one thing that slightly annoys me about Hedrick's article is how he names the different arguments. To my mind, this argument would be more properly called the "Hilbert's Hotel Argument" since it is actually about Hilbert's Hotel, and the argument that he calls the "Hilbert's Hotel Argument" would not since it is really just a general argument against the existence of an actual infinite. I toyed with the idea of re-naming them in this series of posts, but decided against it. It would create too great a chasm between my series and Hedrick's article, which might be confusing for those who wanted to read both.)

In the remainder of this post we'll consider how plausible Craig's defence of the HHA-I is.

2. Does Hilbert's Hotel rule out the existence of an actual infinite?
The first thing we need to do is see whether premise (1) of the HHA-I is properly defended. Craig thinks that the thought experiment does the job but is he right? In answering this question we begin to appreciate Hedrick's concessionary and disarming style.

Hedrick says we can grant that Hilbert's Hotel would be absurd. And since Craig uses very similar thought experiments with other concrete physical objects (e.g. the infinite library), we can grant that this conclusion holds for all concrete physical objects. The problem is that this doesn't rule out the existence of an actual infinite number of things.

Three counterexamples suggest themselves. First, what about the set of natural numbers? According to certain metaphysical views (Platonism), numbers are real objects, and there is an actual infinity of them. Second, what about other abstract objects such as propositions or properties? Surely there are an infinite number of them as well? For example, possible worlds can be understood as sets of propositions, and the notion that there is an actual infinite number of possible has found favour among some religious philosophers (e.g. Plantinga) and some not-so-religious philosophers (e.g. David Lewis). Third, some have even argued that physical space is made up of an actual infinite number of discrete points.

Now, Craig, of course, will reject these counterexamples. He will argue that Platonism is false because numbers aren't things, or there isn't an actual infinite number of them; He will argue that modal realism and cognate views are deeply implausible; or that the notion that space consists of an infinite number of points is unproven. But these counterarguments miss the point. If the alternative metaphysical theses listed above are true, then Hilbert's Hotel doesn't disprove the existence of an actual infinite number of things. The thought experiment only appeals to intuitions we have about concrete physical objects. It does not deal with abstract, non-physical objects, where arguably our intuitions are going to be much less reliable. Sure, the alternative metaphysical theses could be wrong, but to show this one must engage in some pretty abstruse and technical metaphysical arguments. There is no straightforward, intuitively appealing pathway from the thought experiment to premise (1), contrary to what Craig seems to think. To summarise this informally:

  • (6) An actual infinite number of things can (and indeed does) exist: there is an actual infinity of natural numbers; an actual infinity of propositions and properties; and an actual infinity of possible worlds.
  • (7) The metaphysical theories that support these examples are controversial, implausible or unproven.
  • (8) Fair enough, but you have the engage with the arguments for an against these metaphysical theories to support that conclusion; Hilbert's Hotel can't do all the work as it only deals with an actual infinite number of concrete physical objects.

This is a modest dialectic, with a modest conclusion, but it does undercut the force of Craig's use of Hilbert's Hotel.

3. Are past events "things"?
So much for premise (1) of HHA-I. In some ways, premise (2) is even more problematic and, indeed, oft-neglected in debates about the Kalam. The big difficulty is that premise (2) assumes that past events are things, much like rooms in an infinite hotel or books on the shelf of an infinite library. But is this remotely plausible?

For starters, it is worth noting that several leading philosophers have denied that events are things. Terence Horgan, for instance, writing on the topic back in 1978 said:

[I]t is a mistake to posit events at all...despite their initial appearances, there is no real theoretical need to posit events. So, since their elimination yields an important simplification of ontology, we should banish them from existence. 
(Horgan, 1978, 28)

More recently, Peter van Inwagen has taken a similar view:

There are, I would say, no events. That is to say, all statements that appear to involve quantification over events can be paraphrased as statements that involve quantification over objects, properties and times - and the paraphrase leaves nothing out. 
(Van Inwagen, 2009, 14)

Bizarrely enough, Craig agrees that this is a plausible view. Indeed, he seems to think that whatever it is that events are, they aren't "things" like books and hotel rooms. As he says himself:

"These things [i.e. events] are real in the sense that they are not illusory, but they are not, properly speaking, existents. 
(Craig, 2011, 220)

But if events aren't existents this creates significant problems for his defence of HHA-I. For if events are not objects like rooms and books, then the support that the Hilbert's Hotel thought experiment provides for premise (2) evaporates. The thought experiment only covered concrete physical things. Note, it doesn't get any better if we switch to HHA-II and its talk of "intervals of time" rather than "events". The problem there is that, unlike ordinary things, intervals of time don't come into and pass out of existence. They merely pass.

Leaving all this aside, problems remain when we consider premise (2) in light of Craig's stated views about the nature of events. In his lengthiest, most recent defence of the Kalam argument (Craig and Sinclair, 2009) he says that an event is simply any change. A change, as Hedrick notes, presumably involves something gaining or losing one or more properties. If that's right, a counter-thought experiment suggests itself:

Sphereworld: Imagine a past and future eternal world consisting of one sphere that alternates between green and red perpetually.

This world consists of one object, but an actual infinite number of events (the colour changes). On the face of it, this seems like a possible world. It involves no outright contradictions or apparent absurdities. Craig could perhaps deny its plausibility by arguing that it consists of an actual infinite number of things, much like Hilbert's Hotel. But, as Hedrick notes, this is an extremely counterintuitive interpretation of the thought experiment. At a stretch, you might say the world consists of three things: the sphere, and the two colours (which might be abstract objects). But you wouldn't say it consists of an infinite number. Counting the events as actual things feels bizarre. Furthermore, Sphereworld arguably comes pretty close to being a plausible view of reality: a finite number of things passing through an infinite number of changes. Indeed, Spinoza argued for something like this. He thought reality consisted of a single indivisible substance existing in an infinite number of modes.

To summarise this line of reasoning:

  • (9) One can plausibly argue that events are not "things", or that if they are "things" then they are very different from concrete physical objects like hotel rooms.
  • (10) Sphereworld seems like a non-absurd possible world: it consists of a finite number of things and an infinite number of events.

4. Interim Conclusion
Remember, this is just the warm-up. All Hedrick has done so far is suggest that support for premises (1) and (2) of HHA-I (and premise (2*) of HHA-II) is somewhat lacking. This is because the Hilbert's Hotel thought experiment doesn't apply to abstract objects like numbers or propositions; and because events are probably not "things" in the ordinary sense of the term. But Hedrick is still willing to grant these premises to Craig. That's because he thinks bigger problems are lurking when we combine the defence of the HHA with Craig's views about the ontology of time. We'll get to those problems the next day.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Ethics of Human Enhancement (Index to all Posts)

[Updated April 2016]

As some of you may have noticed, I've written quite a bit about the ethics of human enhancement over the past few years. For better or worse it has become one of my major research interests. This all started when I wrote a paper about human enhancement and criminal responsibility when completing my PhD (I now think that paper is terrible, but you can find it here). Subsequently, I wrote a (much better) article about the use of enhancement to improve the legitimacy of legal trials. Since then I have published a number of additional papers on human enhancement and the social implications thereof.

In the process of writing these papers, I read a number of books and papers and ended up writing a lot of blog posts. Here's a complete list, in reverse chronological order:

1. Will technological unemployment lead to human disenhancement? (November 2015)
Some people believe that, in the not too distant future, most jobs will be taken over by machines. What consequences does this have for human beings? Michele Loi has recently argued that it will lead to human disenhancement. He argues that this is true if you adopt either a welfarist or functionalist definition of human enhancement (terms that are explained in the post itself):

2. Interview about the Ethics of Moral Enhancement (May 2015)
A link to an interview I did on the Smart Drugs Smarts podcast about the ethics of moral enhancement. This was a fun conversation that took a number of interesting turns.

3. Enhancement and Authenticity: Is it all about being true to ourselves? (January 2015)
Erik Parens used to be prominent critic of human enhancement. A couple of years back, however, he wrote a book that took a more 'middle ground' attitude toward it. In this post, I look at one major section of the book in which he argues that many of the concerns about human enhancement can be reduced to concerns about authenticity:

4. Neuroenhancement and the Extended Mind (January 2015)
This post asks the question: can enhancements to our external environment count as neural/cognitive enhancements? To answer that question I look at Clark and Chalmers's extended mind hypothesis and Levy ethical parity principle. I conclude that there may be important qualitative differences between internal and external enhancers:

5. Do Cognitive Enhancing Drugs Actually Work? (September 2014)
My attempt to summarise the leading metanalyses and systematic reviews of the empirical work on cognitive enhancing drugs such as methylphenidate and modafinil. Obviously, this is a little bit out of date by now, but I'm not aware of any new studies that upset the conclusions reached in this post:

6. An Ethical Framework for the Use of Enhancement Drugs (August 2014)
This post takes a detailed look at a framework developed by Filippo Santoni di Sio, Philip Robichaud and Nicole Vincent for the use of enhancement drugs. The framework focuses on the distinction between outcome-oriented and practice-oriented activities, arguing that different ethical considerations apply in each case. I try to develop their thoughts into a flow chart for determining when and whether the use of enhancing drugs is ethically permissible:

7. Is a Longer Life a Happier Life? Stoicism and Happiness (May 2014)
This looks at stoic arguments against the proposition that a longer life is necessarily a happier life. Stoics believe that a life, once happy, does not become any happier by being longer. I find this to be an intriguing claim since I fancy myself to be something of a Stoic, but I'm not sure I'm convinced:

8. Thoughts on Truly Human Enhancement by Nicholas Agar (April 2014)
In 2013, Nicholas Agar released another book on the ethics of human enhancement. In this one, he argued against radical human enhancement on the grounds that it threatened certain internal goods that are intrinsic to human activities. I evaluated his arguments in a series of five posts. The link below provides links to each of these:

9. Can the Mind Stay Young Forever? (December 2013)
Is the dream of perpetual youth simply that? A dream? Michael Hauskeller argues as much in one of his papers. In these two posts I try to evaluate his arguments:

10, Life Extension and Distributive Justice (November 2013)
The extension of human lifespan is one obvious form of human enhancement. But is it a good idea? There are many facets to that question. One of them has to do with the distributive consequences of increased lifespan. Is it unfair to younger generations to expand the lifespan of older generations? This blogpost tries to answer some of those questions:

11. Interview on Enhancement in Sports and Education (August 2013)
This is an interview I did with Dan Fagella on the ethics of enhancement in both sports and education. Is enhancement cheating? Is it fair to use enhancement technologies? I present some of my thoughts on this topic:

12. Douglas on Moral Enhancement and Superficiality (July 2013)
There is some evidence to suggest that technologies could be used to directly manipulate our moral emotions, thereby encouraging us to engage in morally conforming behaviour. Is this a welcome development? Some argue it leads to a more superficial, less worthy type of moral behaviour. Thomas Douglas has responded to this critique. In these three posts I look at his response:

13. Can the Giftedness Argument be Salvaged? (April 2013)
Michael Sandel famously argued against human enhancement on the grounds that it undermined the giftedness of life. In other words, because it encouraged us to seek mastery over every aspects of our lives. But why is that a problem? Michael Hauskeller has tried to defend Sandel's claim with notable rigour. In this series of posts I analyse and evaluate his arguments.

14. Nagel on the Burden of Enhancement (March 2013)
If we grant that one result of enhancement is an increased number of choices, should we worry about the increased burdens associated with those choices? Saskia Nagel has suggested that we should. She makes two arguments. First, that enhancement exacerbates the problem of choice overload and thereby undermines well-being. Second, that enhancement increases the scope of responsibility. Though I reject the first argument, I think the second is quite interesting.

15. Is human enhancement disenchanting? (Feb. 2013)
When I first read the book Philosophers without Gods, I remember finding David Owens' essay "Disenchantment" to be quite anachronistic given its general antipathy toward atheism and naturalism. Still, it always good to have one's views challenged so I thought I might revisit that essay with a more critical eye. A key part of it is an argument against enhancement, which works from the somewhat nebulous notion that too much control over our lives leads to "disenchantment". I engage with and critique Owens's argument in this series of posts.
16. The Reversal Test and Status Quo Bias (Nov. 2012)
A bias toward the status quo could underlie opposition to many proposed plans and policies. This might be particularly so in the case of opposition to human enhancement. Ord and Bostrom have proposed a test for overcoming this bias. In this post, I try to explain how it works.

17. Doping and Competitive Advantage in Sport (Oct. 2012)
Performance enhancement in sport has been a long-standing source of philosophical interest. Though there is widespread opposition to the use of performance enhancers among elite athletes, it is difficult to find good arguments that supports this opposition. In this series I look at Eric Chwang's argument, which is based on the interests of the athletes themselves.

18. Eyewitness Enhancement and the Common Good (May-July 2012)
A few years back a pair of Dutch authors, Vedder and Klaming, argued that the enhancement of eyewitnesses might serve the common good. I looked at objections to their argument in a couple of posts. As it happens, responding to such objections was a major part of my own article "On the Need for Epistemic Enhancement".

19. Enhancement and Education: Lessons from the Kobayashi Maru (Jan 2012)
This post is a bit of self-indulgent fun, really. People have been concerned about student use of cognitive enhancers for some years, though I'm not sure why. In this post, I draw some lessons from this debate from an analysis of the infamous Kobayashi Maru test in the Star Trek universe. The main excuse for this is to outline some thoughts about the philosophy of rules and the goals of educational assessment.

20. Doping, Slippery Slopes and Moral Virtues (Jan 2012)
Back in late 2011, early 2012 I was on a bit of a roll writing posts about performance enhancement in sport. This is one of several posts I wrote at the time, looking at Michael McNamee's claim that the use of performance enhancers undermined some of the central virtues of sporting character. 

21. Overview of argument against Doping in Sport (Dec. 2011)
Arguments against the use of performance enhancers in sport generally settle into one of three categories: (i) harm arguments; (ii) fairness arguments; and (iii) integrity/authenticity arguments. This series of posts provides an overview of the structure and common pitfalls of each.

22. Tannjso on Enhancement and the Ethos of Elite Sport (Dec. 2011)
What is the ethos of elite sport? Might that ethos support the use of enhancement rather than challenge it? These are interesting questions and Tannjso's paper on the topic offers some useful insights. The paper is particularly noteworthy given the slightly unusual methodology it adopts. Instead of working from principles to conclusions, it works from a series of case studies. This makes for a refreshing break from some of the other papers I've read on this topic.

23. Schermer on Enhancement and Cheating (Dec. 2011)
A simple argument against enhancement in sports and education would claim that it is a form of cheating. But how persuasive can this argument be? Maartje Schermer's article offers a quick and useful treatment of this question. In this series, I analyse and evaluate her arguments.

24. Partridge on Performance Enhancement in Swimming (Nov. 2011)
Fairness arguments against the use of enhancement typically don't work. This is for the simple reason that if the goal is to achieve equality of opportunity among the participants to a sporting competition (or, indeed, the members of a society) then this can be achieved by levelling up or levelling down. That is, by banning or allowing enhancement. Are there any fairness argument that are not neutral between these two possibilities? Brad Partridge claims that there is at least one: the intertemporal fairness argument. I look at that argument in this post.

25. Harris on Chemical Enhancement (Oct 2011)
John Harris is a philosopher and lawyer based at the University of Manchester. He is among the most forceful and provocative advocates of human enhancement. In this post, I look at his argument in relation to the use of "smart drugs" among healthy adults.

26. Character and the Enhancement Debate (Jun 2011)
This was one of my early discussions of Sandel's giftedness argument, based on the treatment of that argument in Allen Buchanan's book Beyond Humanity? It has probably been superseded by my later series on Hauskeller's reconstruction of the giftedness argument, but still has some merit in that it deals with Sandel's original presentation.

27. Posts on Humanity's End by Nicholas Agar (May-June 2011)
Back in May and June of 2011 I started posting on Nicholas Agar's book Humanity's End. The book was a critique of radical human enhancement and presented a variety of arguments against things like mind-uploading, life extension and posthuman values. I covered nearly every chapter in Agar's book, with the exception of the last. This is much to my ongoing shame (I still have a draft post that I started to deal with the last chapter but I have never finished it and suspect I never will).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Recommendations ♯10 - Books on How to Write

(Series Index)

It’s been awhile since I did a book recommendation, so to make up the delay this post offers five recommendations in lieu of the usual one. This time round I’m recommending books about academic writing. Obviously, what with the blog and with my research work, I do a lot of writing. The majority of this writing is academic (i.e.research-based, and expository or persuasive) in nature.

Now, I don’t think I’m particularly good at writing — I won’t be winning awards for my elegant style any time soon — but I do think I’ve improved considerably over the years. And I’m convinced that the main reason for this is just the sheer amount of practice I’ve had. Indeed, if I were to offer somebody advice about how to improve their writing, it would simply be this: write a little bit everyday. Blogging is great for this, which is why I often encourage students to do it. Trying to express yourself clearly to an unknown audience is, I think, a surefire way to improve your style.

Still, practice by itself isn’t everything. Some guiding principles are necessary if you want to avoid ingraining bad habits, and books about writing can be great for finding these principles. It’s important, as well, that when you look for these guiding principles you don’t get too bogged-down in style guides and grammar books. They are significant, for sure, but there is so much more to writing than the words that end up on the page. In fact, those words are the last thing you need to worry about (literally): you need to have something to write about and get yourself to your writing desk before they arrive on the scene. With that in mind, some of the books I recommend below cover those initial phases of the writing process too.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my recommendations.

1. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Gregory Colomb
I’m one of those unfortunate people who was weaned into the world of academic writing on the infamous Elements of Style by Strunk and White. For some reason, that book is overwhelmingly popular among academic departments (particularly law departments). This is despite the authors’ rather questionable grasp of basic grammar.

Alas, it wasn’t until after I graduated that I was introduced to this, far superior, book. It offers excellent, sensible advice throughout, without being too prescriptive (a vice that is all-too-common among writers of style guides). It remains my go-to book whenever I think my style is getting clunky. There are eleven editions of it, as well the very similar Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. Any of them would be worthwhile (actually, I have a slight preference for the earlier editions -- as with all these things, there is a tendency for later editions to become bloated).

2. Philosophical Writing: An Introduction by A.P. Martinich
There are lots of books offering advice about how to write philosophical essays — and some pretty good webpages too — but this is still my favourite. It tells you what an argument is, offers tips on their analysis and evaluation, and shows you how to structure an essay. Although it is geared toward undergraduates in philosophy, I think anyone could benefit from it, even non-philosophers. Frankly, I would be delighted if the law students I taught read and put into practice the advice it offers. Many of them struggle to write good academic essays because they don’t know how to present and defend an argument. Say what you like about philosophy, even if it does nothing else, it can teach people that vital skill. And by showing how that skill directly translates into good essay writing, this book is as good a place as any to pick it up.

3. How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silva
We now move away from the structural and stylistic aspects of writing to the more mundane and procedural aspects. As I said above, writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is a difficult process. For the professional academic there are significant pressures to produce research articles, and to do this regularly requires discipline: you need to get up every day and do some writing. But how can you when you have other responsibilities, when your email is always a click away, and when the expected return from writing an article is both low (since rejection is common) and temporally distant (since there is a significant time lag between writing and publication)? This book is useful for its no-nonsense advice on how to overcome these (arguably specious) hurdles to writing. Two pieces of advice struck me as being particularly useful, so I thought I’d share them here:

1. Have a minimum daily writing target: Silva recommends two hours everyday; other books (see next recommendation) go as low as a mere 15 minutes. I personally prefer to target a number of words, usually aiming for 1,000 words per day. The important point is to set a minimum target that is pyschologically low enough to not seem insurmountable: that way you won’t create an obstacle for yourself. If you can stick to that minimum target you’d be amazed how much you can get done. I’ve even tried the 15 minute per day target and impressed myself with how productive such a short amount of time can be.
2. Make writing an essential, non-negotiable part of your daily schedule: Silva notes that many academics talk about trying to “find” time for writing in their otherwise busy schedules. Typically, they lament the fact that they can never find it (I know people like this). But, as Silva highlights, these very same people never talk about “finding” time for the classes they teach or the meetings they “have” to attend. Why not? Because these things are treated as essential, non-negotiable parts of their schedules. Why can’t writing be treated in the same way? As an academic, writing is just as crucial as teaching and attending meetings, probably even more so. So when you think about it, it’s silly to build writing time around these other commitments. Indeed, you should really try to build those other commitments (particularly meetings) around your writing time.

The one quibble I have about Silva’s book is that it is written for academic psychologists. So once he moves beyond the general tips on writing schedules and overcoming specious barriers to writing, the book becomes less and less useful for non-psychologists. Still, the first couple of chapters make the book more than worthwhile.

4. Writing your journal article in 12 weeks by Wendy Belcher
This continues the theme set by the previous book by providing a more “holistic” guide to the craft of writing. What I like about it is the comprehensive, algorithmic approach it takes to writing academic articles. It does pretty much exactly what it says on the cover, providing the reader with a step-by-step, twelve-week programme for writing a journal article. It’s written in workbook-style, so it’s full of exercises for you to complete as you read along, and it covers everything: picking a journal, identifying your thesis, writing the abstract, establishing structure, polishing the style, responding to reviewers comments, and dealing with rejection. I found it quite useful when I was starting out, and I still dip into it occasionally. Possibly my top recommendation because of the depth of coverage (warning: it is geared predominantly toward the humanities/social sciences).

5. Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword
I’m a little more “meh” about this book than the others. On the plus side, it features a nice empirically-motivated, “meta” discussion of what makes for good style in academic writing; it has some actual (though maybe questionable) data which debunks and confirms certain myths (e.g. writing in the passive is not unforgivable; lawyers write long articles); and it is broken into nice, bite-sized chapters. On the negative side, I didn’t find the advice it offered on good style to be particularly useful; and, frankly, I thought it was a little boring at times. Maybe this was more my problem than anything: I’ve read a lot of these things at this stage, and I’m familiar with most of the myth-debunking. Still, it fills the gap until Steven Pinker’s next book, which I’m definitely looking forward to.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Douglas on Moral Enhancement and Superficiality (Part Three)

(Part One, Part Two)

Suppose you are an athlete, training for the Olympic games. Your coach enters your changing room one morning and offers you a choice. You can either follow a rigorous training program for the next six months, or you can take a handful of magic pills and take the next six months off. Either way you'll be prepared for the Olympic games. Which should you choose?

I don't know what you think, but I reckon many people would say you should choose the rigorous training program. Why? Presumably because they think that the athletic achievement gained through the training program is more commendable, more praiseworthy, than that gained through the pill-taking.

Maybe that attitude is correct; maybe it isn't. It really doesn't matter because the question we are asking in this series is whether the same attitude should hold in the case moral enhancement. Suppose there are two pathways to moral conformity (i.e. conduct that conforms with the demands of morality). The first involves traditional moral deliberation: learning about moral principles, applying them to cases, evaluating countervailing principles and so on. The second involves the use of moral enhancement technologies: biomedical interventions that directly manipulate our moral emotions, thereby making us more inclined to behave morally. Is it less commendable, or less praiseworthy to follow the second path?

Thomas Douglas's article "Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth" addresses this question. It does so by critiquing four different arguments, each of which supports the conclusion that moral enhancement undermines the moral worth of our conduct (when compared with deliberative methods of achieving moral conformity). To date in this series, we've examined two of those arguments and highlighted their shortcomings. In this post, we'll consider the last two arguments: the moral effort argument; and the unreliability argument.

1. The Moral Effort Argument
Does the amount of effort it takes to achieve moral conformity increase its moral worth? Is moral enhancement too much of a quick fix? Before you answer those questions, consider the following two cases (taken from Douglas's article):

David's Case: David finds it easy to conform with the demands of morality. He was brought up in a loving nurturing family "where responsibility and moral sensitivity were encouraged and his role models seldom exhibited...objectionable moral attitudes." He also lives in a society that promotes moral virtues and moral reflection. To be clear, it is not that he automatically conforms with the demands of morality -- he still needs to engage in moral deliberation -- but the process is relatively easy for him.
Felix's Case: Felix was "raised in a dysfunctional family where violence was openly encouraged, bigoted attitudes were routinely expressed...and moral sensitivity was viewed as a sign of weakness". He also lives in a society that does not promote moral virtue and reflection, and which has adopted a questionable normative code. Nevertheless, Felix has managed to overcome these impediments and frequently engages in careful and sensitive moral deliberation. As a result, he is just as good as David at conforming his behaviour to the demands of morality.

Who's behaviour carries greater moral worth? David or Felix? Although both are equally good at conforming to the demands of morality, I suspect many people would say that Felix's behaviour is more morally worthy. What's more, the reason for saying this seems intimately linked to the amount of effort Felix has to put into it when compared to David.

There is an argument against moral enhancement lurking here. If it is true that more effort means more worth, then arguably the use of moral enhancement technologies means less worthy behaviour when compared to the use of traditional moral deliberation. After all, such technologies are expected to directly manipulate our moral emotions which makes it easier to conform with the demands of morality (i.e. it removes some of the psychological barriers to moral conformity). In doing so, the technologies bypass the more arduous and effortful process of moral deliberation.

To state this formally:

  • (12) The more effort that goes into a moral act the more praise is deserves.
  • (13) Morally conforming behaviour produced through the use of moral enhancement technologies requires less effort than morally conforming behaviour produced through deliberative methods.
  • (14) Therefore, morally conforming behaviour produced through the use of moral enhancement technologies deserves less praise than morally conforming behaviour produced through deliberative methods.

Is this argument any good? Douglas highlights two problems. First, despite the intuitive appeal of the "more effort = more worth", it does not seem likely that effort is necessary for moral worth. Second, going beyond this point, there are cases in which it more effort is not even sufficient for more worth.

On the first of these points, it can be argued that our intuitions about moral worth and effort are somewhat inconsistent. Indeed, there is a case for the view that morally conforming behaviour produced with a minimum of effort is highly praiseworthy. Consider the moral saint, who selflessly dedicates themselves to improving the lot of others. One of the things that is so admirable about their behaviour is that they don't fall victim to the psychological barriers and weaknesses that affect the rest of us. Furthermore, it seems silly to suppose that morally conforming behaviour like that of David's could not attract a high degree of moral praise, even if other behaviour attracts more. So, in other words, even if Felix is better than David, David is not so bad that we wouldn't like to have more people like him around.

  • (15) Effort does not seem necessary for high degrees of moral praise; indeed, sometimes it is the very effortlessness of morally conforming behaviour that makes it so admirable.

The second point -- that effort is not even always sufficient for praise -- is a trickier one to get across. Indeed, I'm not sure that Douglas does a great job of it so I'm going to try to simplify it here. To put it bluntly, if it were always and everywhere true that effort increased praise, people could do the most arbitrary and bizarre things to increase the worth of their behaviour. David, for example, could deliberately expose himself to moral corruption by enlisting in the Ku Klux Klan, imbibing as much of their bigoted beliefs as possible, and then arduously ridding himself of them. But surely that would just be gratuitous? It wouldn't make his subsequently conforming behaviour any more praiseworthy (it might even make it less praiseworthy).

The point, which Douglas thinks is generalisable, is that only nongratuitous effort will increase moral worth. In the case of Felix, the effort was nongratuitous because he was a victim of circumstances beyond his control; in the second case of David, the effort was gratuitous because he was voluntarily choosing to make things more difficult for himself. The claim then is that, on at least some occasions, the choice of a deliberative method of achieving moral conformity, over non-deliberative moral enhancement will be gratuitous rather than non-gratuitous. It will be arbitrarily making things more difficult for ourselves, and won't increase the moral worth of our conduct.

  • (16) Effort is not always sufficient for increased moral praise: only nongratuitous effort is sufficient, gratuitous effort is not.

This suggests that the moral effort argument fails.

2. The Unreliability Argument
The final argument against moral enhancement is, once more, distinctively Kantian in nature. In his Groundwork on the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant presents a famous thought experiment involving a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper, we are told, charges his customers a price that maximises his profit. As it also happens, the price is a fair one. Consequently, the shopkeeper's pricing policy conforms with the demands of morality.

But surely there is something unpraiseworthy about the way in which the shopkeeper achieves this conformity? After all, his moral conformity is brought about by accident; by the contingent coincidence of his profit motive with a fair price in one particular market at one particular moment in time. If he were to follow the profit motive across all markets, it is unlikely that this happy coincidence would always arise. To put it more succinctly: he is following an unreliable pathway to moral conformity, and this unreliability seems to detract from moral praiseworthiness.

Again, there is an argument against moral enhancement lurking here. One concern with enhancement vis-a-vis deliberation, is that by directly manipulating emotions and dispositions, enhancement simply makes it easier to conform with moral demands in particular cases and settings. It does not provide us with the moral knowledge needed to conform our conduct with moral reasons across different possible worlds. Take a simple example. Moral enhancement drugs might be able to reduce violent impulses. In many cases, this would ensure moral conformity. But, as we all know, there are certain circumstances in which violence is morally necessary. If the drugs simply reduce violent impulses across the board, they won't be able to produce moral conformity in those circumstances. They are too blunt and unreliable for that. Deliberation, on the other hand, doesn't suffer from the same shortcoming as its raison d'etre is to produce moral knowledge.*

To state the argument formally:

  • (17) In order for an action to warrant moral praise, it must be produced by a causal-psychological pathway that produces reliable moral conformity (i.e. conformity across different possible worlds).
  • (18) Morally conforming actions brought about by moral enhancement technologies are not produced by reliable causal-psychological pathways (certainly when compared to deliberative pathways).
  • (19) Therefore, morally conforming actions brought about by moral enhancement do not warrant moral praise.

There are two responses to this argument, both targetting the claims made in premise (18).
The first is, as Douglas puts it, an Aristotelian point about the link between moral action and moral knowledge. It could be that by regularly conforming our behaviour with moral demands, we acquire the kind of generalisable moral knowledge that the Kantian is looking for. In other words, even if the initial use of moral enhancement technologies does not produce reliable moral conformity, it will kick-start a process that leads to this. We learn by doing, as the saying goes. The problem here (ignoring the speculative aspect of it) is that this response still acknowledges some force to the criticism: there is still the initial unreliable phase of conformity.

  • (20) We may acquire moral knowledge by engaging in morally conforming behaviour; thus, enhancement technologies could kick-start our journey to a more reliable causal-psychological pathway to moral conformity.

This leads to the second response. This one points out that one of the ways in which moral enhancement might work is by removing the barriers to moral knowledge. It could be that one of things that prevents people from acquiring generalisable moral knowledge is the presence, in their minds, of distorting biases and emotions. My anger and self-love might prevent me from seeing the value of charity. If an enhancement technology could work by reducing or eliminating those biases, it might help to lift the veil of moral ignorance. Thus, I could almost directly and immediately attain the necessary moral knowledge.

One concern about this response is that removing psychological barriers is not actually guaranteed to produce moral conformity. It may be that even after my anger is sated, and my self-love eliminated, I fail to see the virtue of charity. But as Douglas points out, this doesn't put moral enhancement in a worse position than plain old deliberation. After all, deliberative methods of attaining conformity are not guaranteed to work either. Reading The Life you can Save doesn't always make people more generous and giving. So we'd have to call it a draw on this front.

  • (21) Enhancement technologies could remove the psychological barriers to acquiring moral knowledge, and thereby bring about reliable moral conformity.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, the development of technologies that can immediately and directly manipulate our moral emotions is an intriguing one. It promises increased instances of moral conformity, and this seems like a good thing. Despite this promise, some have objected that the kind of moral conformity that could be achieved with these technologies is superficial and less worthy that the kind of conformity achieved through traditional deliberative methods of moral reasoning.

Nevertheless, as we have seen in this series, these objections have little to recommend them. Either they rely on faulty beliefs about what is needed for moral worth, or they rely an impoverished conception of how enhancement technologies might actually work. In particular, they neglect the possibility of enhancement and deliberation being complements to one another, not alternatives. Enhancements may simply remove the barriers to proper deliberation.

I'd recommend checking out some of Thomas Douglas's other work if you are interested in this topic.

* Douglas presents a second reason for thinking moral enhancement may lead to unreliable conformity. He points out that the success of enhancement technologies may depend heavily on the degree to which a distorting emotion or trait is present. I won't get into that argument here.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Douglas on Moral Enhancement and Superficiality (Part Two)

Oxytocin Spray - A form of moral enhancement?

(Part One)

(This post is part of series on Thomas Douglas’s article “Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth”)

As you may have observed, I'm repeatedly drawn to the enhancement debate. I can't exactly say why. Prima facie, it doesn’t seem particularly interesting (from an intellectual perspective): after all, who could object to "enhancement"? But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Indeed, one of the alluring aspects of the debate has to do with the terminology in which it is couched.

This terminology is quite intricate, requiring a good deal of precision and care to master, but also quite deceptive, requiring a good deal of scepticism and critical reflection to overcome. One of the ways in which it is deceptive is that it employs novel, sometimes misleading, vocabulary for different sets of arguments. These distinct vocabularies can mask commonalities between the arguments and thereby hinder sound critical engagement.

The superficiality concern about moral enhancement, which is the subject matter of this series of posts, provides a good example of this phenomenon. Ostensibly, the concern is that improving our moral behaviour -- or rather increasing our moral "conformity" -- through the use of enhancement technologies leads to a superficial, less morally worthy, kind of behaviour when compared to other methods of moral improvement. While this argument comes with its own vocabulary (outlined in detail in part one), the vocabulary is put to work to describe and defend a classic, all-too-familiar type of moral argument.

I speak here of the "means-end" critique. This critique forms the basis of the consequentialism-deontology debate, with the former view holding that consequences are what matters when it comes to the moral evaluation of conduct (i.e. ends matter most); the latter holding that intrinsic properties of the conduct are what matter (i.e. means matter most). It also forms the basis of the authenticity objections to enhancement in other domains. Thus, one often hears repeated the charge that achievements or victories won through the use of performance enhancing drugs are "inauthentic", and thereby worthy of little, if any, of our respect. The commonalities between these kinds of critiques fascinate me because they crop up so often.

The means-end critique at the heart of the moral worth objection is conspicuous in the argument outlined at the end of the last post. As we saw, that argument (the “moral worth” argument) holds that: (a) if moral conformity is achieved through certain means (namely: if it bypasses our deliberative and reflective cognitive processes) then it is less worthy of moral praise than if it is achieved through the active use of our deliberative and reflective processes; and (b) moral enhancement technologies do indeed bypass these processes. In other words, it holds that the means matter when it comes to the moral worth of our conduct.

What we need to find out now is whether (a) and (b) are true. We can do that by formalising and evaluating four specific arguments, all of which are addressed by Douglas in his article. Today, we start things off by considering the motive of duty argument, and the causal history argument.

1. The Motive of Duty Argument
The classic Kantian view is that moral action must proceed from the right motives. In order for an agent to act "morally" he must act out of a motive of duty. In other words, when he donates money to charity, or when he donates blood to the sick, he must do so out of the belief that such conduct is morally required. As Kant himself might put it, the act cannot just conform to the moral law, it must be done for the sake of the moral law too.

These Kantian thoughts provide us with the basis for our first argument, which runs something like this (numbering is following on from part one):

  • (5) In order for action to warrant moral praise, it must be done from the motive of duty (i.e. the agent must conform with the demands of morality for the sake of morality).
  • (6) Morally conforming actions produced through moral enhancement technologies are not performed from the motive of duty.
  • (7) Therefore, morally conforming actions produced through moral enhancement technologies do not warrant moral praise.

The argument is valid, and we can probably grant the Kantian the first premise (5). The problem rests with premise (6). Why should we think that moral enhancement technologies prevent us from acting out of a motive of duty?

The reason goes back to our discussion of brute moral conformity in part one. As you'll recall, an agent achieves brute moral conformity whenever their actions conform with the available moral reasons, but they do not deliberate or reflect upon those reasons. The claim is that moral enhancement technologies will work largely by achieving brute moral conformity. Imagine the following case (from Douglas's article):

Andrew the Racist: Andrew is a doctor working in a multi-racial community. Unfortunately, Andrew was raised in a racist household and has a deep-seated emotional aversion to treating non-white patients. Andrew knows that this aversion is immoral, but can't seem to rid himself of it. That is, until he learns of a revolutionary new technology. By undergoing brain-scanning, doctors can isolate the "racist circuit" in his brain, and disrupt it through the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation. This will rid him of his racist prejudice, and allow him to conform with the demands of morality. He uses the technology and overcomes his aversion.

The suggestion could be that disrupting the “racist circuit” is a direct manipulation of Andrew’s affective states, not a change in his moral reasoning; that removing the emotional prejudice may make him more willing to perform the moral act, but it doesn’t change the reasons from which he acts. In other words, it doesn’t suddenly make him act from the motive of duty; it just removes an affective barrier he once had.

But why should we think that this wouldn’t allow him to act for morality’s sake? True; if he just wants to treat non-white patients for self-serving reasons (e.g. more money), then removing the affective barrier will not suddenly make him more act from the motive of duty. But if he already knows what morality demands, and would really like to act from the motive of duty, then removing the affective barrier could be exactly what he needs to meet the Kantian conditions for morally praiseworthy action. Indeed, we stipulated this in our description of the case. We said that Andrew knew his emotional aversion to non-white patients was immoral, and that he wanted to overcome it. So removing the emotional barrier actually freed him to act from the motive duty.

More generally, moral enhancement technologies that directly target the emotions need not necessarily lead to automatic, unreflective or unreasoned behaviour. They may simply remove the barriers that otherwise prevent deliberative, reflective and reasoned behaviour. Depending on the moral character of the agent, this could in turn allow them to act from a motive of duty. This rebuts premise (6):

  • (8) Moral enhancement technologies could work by eliminating the barriers that prevent people from acting out of the motive of duty, not by prompting unreasoned morally conforming behaviour.

To be sure, this isn’t a ringing endorsement of moral enhancement. But it does two important things. First, it diffuses the motive of duty argument to at least some extent. And second, it gives us a reason to prefer enhancement technologies that work in this way over ones that do prompt unreasoned moral conformity. That could be a guiding principle for the enhancement project.

2. The Causal History Argument
The motive of duty argument works because the proximate cause of an agent’s behaviour could be the motive of duty, even if the distal cause is something else. This was the fatal weakness in the argument. A stronger argument would put further restrictions on the causal history of an agent’s behaviour. It would claim that the more distal stretches of that causal history must exemplify properties that are disrupted by the use of moral enhancement technologies.

How might this work? Two suggestions here. First, one could argue that an action warrants less moral praise if the motivating reasons do not originate in the agent. Second, one could argue that an action warrants less moral praise if it is not deliberative “all the way down”. The second condition makes more sense once we critically evaluate the first. Before we do that, however, let’s formalise the argument:

  • (9) In order for an action to warrant moral praise (or, in order for it to warrant a greater degree of moral praise) it must either: (a) be guided by motivating reasons that originate in the agent; or (b) be guided by deliberative processes all the way down.
  • (10) Morally conforming actions produced through the use of enhancement technologies are neither: (a) guided by motivating reasons that originate in the agent; or (b) guided by processes that are deliberative all the way down.
  • (11) Therefore, morally conforming actions produced through the use of enhancement technologies warrant less or no moral praise.

Let’s take both suggested conditions in turn. (Note: this argument, and its analysis, has several affinities with the tracing and manipulation arguments that are found in the philosophy of responsibility — remember: always bear in mind the possible commonalities between different sets of arguments).

The first problem with condition (a) is that it is not clear that motivating reasons ever truly originate in the agent. It all depends on what we mean by “origination”. Certainly, if determinism is true, then ultimate origination is not a possibility: the agent cannot be a prime mover of his or her actions. But if we assume a more relaxed, compatibilistic account of origination, then it’s not clear that enhancement is that much of a problem. Take Andrew the Racist once again. He decides that he wants to rid himself of his emotional aversion to non-white people; he undergoes a course of TMS; this rids him of his aversion; and this allows him to conform with the demands of morality. Why can’t we say that the motivating reasons originated within him? After all, he made the original decision to make use of the enhancement. At best, this argument gives us reason to avoid the coerced use of moral enhancement, but we have reason to avoid coercion anyway.

  • (12) If an agent makes a decision to use moral enhancement technology in order to increase their moral conformity, then the motivating reasons for their conforming actions do originate in them.

That brings us to condition (b). This condition avoids the objection just mounted by stipulating that moral decision-making must be deliberative all the way down. In other words, it says that you shouldn’t have technological interventions in the midst of the causal-psychological history of an act. Such interventions would bypass deliberative processes for at least one link in the causal chain and thereby attract less moral praise.

But is this a plausible condition of moral praise? Is it plausible to say that Andrew’s conduct attracts less moral praise than it might otherwise have done because he did not use purely deliberative methods of moral improvement all the way down? Maybe. Maybe we could say that Andrew’s behaviour is less praiseworthy because he uses a quick fix for achieving moral conformity. The deliberative pathway may be more arduous, but it is all the more praiseworthy as a result. This brings us to the moral effort argument, which is actually worth discussing at some length. We’ll do that the next day, and wrap up the analysis of the moral worth argument by considering a fourth argument as well: the unreliability argument. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Douglas on Moral Enhancement and Superficiality (Part One)

Oxytocin Spray - A form of moral enhancement?

If you could take a pill that would make you more moral, would you do it? It sounds attractive. I know that I often fail to be as compassionate or as charitable as I ought to be. If there was some way for me to overcome these moral failings I would be inclined to take it. But if I took, say, a compassion-pill would my actions be tainted thereafter? Would they be less morally commendable than they might otherwise have been?

Thomas Douglas’s recent article “Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth” looks at these questions. To be precise, it looks at the complaint — made most clearly by the otherwise redoubtable defender of enhancement John Harris — that moral conduct achieved with the help of enhancement technologies is more superficial and less worthy than moral conduct achieved through traditional deliberative means. Douglas argues that Harris is wrong in thinking this.

Over the next few posts, I want to take a look at Douglas’s arguments. I start, in this post, by setting out some of the conceptual vocabulary needed to understand this debate. I then outline a general “superficiality” or “moral worth” objection to moral enhancement. In subsequent posts, I look at four specific versions of the objection.

1. Brute and Deliberative Moral Conformity
Three concepts need to be mastered in order to understand this debate. The first is the general notion of moral conformity. The second is the more specific notion of brute moral conformity. And the third is the contrasting notion of deliberative (or non-brute) moral conformity. The connections between these three concepts and that of moral enhancement will also need to be mapped out.

Let’s start with the general notion of moral conformity. It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that morality is a reason-giving enterprise. To say that giving money to charity is moral, or to say that torturing innocent children for fun is immoral, is to say that there are moral reasons for doing and forbearing from those activities. Moral conformity can then be defined as achieving harmony between one’s actions and the reasons supplied by morality. In other words:

Moral Conformity: An agent’s conduct, C, can be said to conform with morality if (and only if) C coincides with the moral reasons for engaging in C.

Full moral conformity is achieved whenever a course of action is at least as well supported by moral reasons as any alternative course of action. Such conformity can be achieved over longer or shorter periods of time.

The general notion of moral conformity is deliberately opaque. This is because there are very different ways in which such conformity can be brought about. If I point a gun at your head, and force you to hand over all your money to some well-deserving charity, then it could be said that your conduct conforms with the demands of morality. But that is quite different from the case in which you read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save, decide that the arguments within it are sound, and proceed to hand over your money to the same charity. There seems to be something less welcome or “moral” about the first case when compared to the second.

The difference between the two cases can be understood in terms of brute and non-brute (or deliberative) moral conformity. Brute conformity arises whenever your actions happen to coincide with moral reasons, but you do not deliberate and reflect upon those reasons. This is true in the first of the two cases. Non-brute, deliberative conformity arises whenever you actually reflect upon the relevant moral reasons and use them as the basis for your actions. This is true in the second of the two cases:

Brute Moral Conformity: An agent’s conduct, C, can be said to conform with morality in a brute manner if C coincides with the moral reasons for engaging in C, but the agent does not deliberate and reflect upon the moral reasons for engaging in C.
Deliberative Moral Conformity: An agent’s conduct, C, can be said to conform with morality in a deliberative manner if C coincides with the moral reasons for engaging in C, and the agent deliberates and reflects upon the moral reasons for engaging in C.

Our intuitive reaction to the two examples given above suggest that there might be important moral differences between the two kinds of conformity. In particular, our reaction suggests that there might be something inferior about brute moral conformity. The question at the heart of this debate is whether this is true and whether it has a knock-on effect on the desirability of moral enhancement.

2. Moral Enhancement
To this point I have been loosely referring to moral enhancement, and hinting that its merits and demerits form the basis of our debate. But what exactly is “moral enhancement”? The concept is vague. Technically, anything that improves moral conformity could be said to be a moral enhancement. For example, going out and buying yourself a copy of The Life You Can Save, reading it, and reflecting on its arguments might be deemed moral enhancement.

But while this is “technically” true, when people talk about moral enhancement — or about human enhancement more generally — they usually have in mind biomedical interventions that manipulate and alter neuro-psychological processes. Hence, the opening example of a compassion-pill is a paradigmatic example of moral enhancement: it is a psychopharmacological intervention that alters our affective states, which in turn alters and improves moral conformity.

You might think that moral enhancements of this sort are impossible, but you would be wrong. On the contrary, they are quite plausible. Consider Young et al’s experiments on the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to alter moral judgments. In these experiments TMS was used to disrupt neural activity in the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ). This was found to change the subjects’ judgments of blameworthiness. To be precise, those with disrupted RTPJ’s were less inclined to ascribe blame to people who intended to do harm but failed to do so.

Now, to be sure, this experiment does not clearly involve an improvement to moral behaviour. But it does show how modern technologies can alter and manipulate our moral judgments. If similar technologies can be adapted to improve moral conformity, then we would have a genuine case of moral enhancement. Indeed, we may have them already. People have, for instance, run experiments suggesting that nasal oxytocin sprays improve empathy and trust, which could be said to improve moral conformity. Furthermore, given that the “morality” of our behaviour is so context-dependent, there is reason to think that interventions that compromise moral behaviour in one context could improve it in another.

The debate then is that moral enhancement technologies might achieve increased moral conformity by brute rather than deliberative means. By directly manipulating and altering our conative and affective states, the worry is that deliberative mechanisms of moral reasoning are bypassed, and hence an inferior kind of moral conformity is brought about. Is this worry a serious one? That’s what we need to find out.

3. The Moral Worth Argument
To answer the question, an argument that supports the view that brute moral conformity is inferior to deliberative moral conformity is needed. One such argument is suggested to us by Kantian moral theory. We can call this the “Moral Worth Argument” (MWA).

The idea behind the MWA is that the causal-psychological history of an act counts towards it’s overall moral worth. Suppose there are two businessmen, each deciding to donate a portion of their income to Oxfam. The first one does so because he wants to make the world a better place, and he had read the blog 80,000 hours which advised him that the best way to do this was to pursue a high-earning career and then to donate a considerable portion of those earnings to effective charities. The second one does so for tax purposes. Whose conduct has greater moral worth?

Surely the first one. And surely the reason for this is that the first one conforms with moral reasons in the right kind of way. The causal-psychological history behind his act warrants more moral praise than the causal-psychological history of the second one’s act. This gives us the moral worth argument:

  • (1) An action A1 has greater moral worth than another action A2 whenever A1 is produced by a causal-psychological process that warrants greater moral praise.
  • (2) Actions produced through brute moral conformity warrant less moral praise than actions produced by deliberative moral conformity.
  • (3) Moral enhancement technologies work by achieving brute moral conformity, not deliberative moral conformity.
  • (4) Therefore, actions achieved through moral enhancement are less morally worthy.

This is the basic version of the argument. Much turns on how we flesh out its premises. In subsequent posts we will consider four more specific versions of it. Each of those arguments points to particular grounds for attributing moral praise/worth to an action, and suggests that action produced through moral enhancement fails to satisfy those grounds.

Douglas responds by claiming that each of these arguments is flawed, either because actions produced through moral enhancement could satisfy those grounds, or because those grounds are not persuasive. We’ll start to see how he does this in the next post by considering the first two arguments: the motive of duty argument, and the causal history argument.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Is Consequentialism Inescapable? (Part Two)

Philip Pettit

(Part One)

This series of posts is looking at the arguments in Philip Pettit’s paper “The Inescapability of Consequentialism”. Part one set out the core features of consequentialism and non-consequentialism (as Pettit sees them). I offer only the briefest of summaries here.

Consequentialism holds that the right alternative in any choice is a promotional function of the agent-neutral good. Non-consequentialism rejects this thesis, most commonly by imposing a set of constraints on action that do not require the promotion of the good. The long-standing debate in normative theory concerns which of these two approaches is correct. Cases can be constructed in which non-consequentialism seems right; but cases can also be constructed in which consequentialism seems right. Where does this leave us?

Pettit suggests it leaves us in a stalemate. His inescapability argument attempts to break that stalemate by reorienting our perspective on the theories. The inescapability argument suggests that, at a certain level of analysis, one cannot avoid consequentialist reasoning. I’m going to discuss the argument in four sections. First, I’ll offer my own formal reconstruction of the argument. Then, I’ll look at three objections to the argument addressed by Pettit.

1. The Inescapability Argument
As mentioned in part one, non-consequentialism adopts a partial and agent-centred account of moral assessment. For the non-consequentialist it really matters whether you are the agent performing an action or not. Thus, although the non-consequentialist can recognise the fact that, sometimes, the death of one person leads to greater overall good, they cannot sanction taking active steps to kill that person. Instead, they draw a distinction between killing and letting die, the former being impermissible and the latter being permissible. In this manner, non-consequentialism incorporates an identity-dependence criterion for moral assessment.

The key move in Pettit’s inescapability argument is to exploit this reliance on the identity-dependence criterion. As he sees it, the overarching focus on agential duties and agential assessments is a vulnerability in the non-consequentialist framework. Why? Because there are circumstances in which we must morally assess scenarios, and that do not turn on or implicate individual choices. In these scenarios non-consequentialism seems to run into a brick wall. It is at this point that consequentialism is inescapable.

The example Pettit uses to illustrate his argument is the assessment of political institutions. These are institutions that determine the options available to individual agents across a broad set of domains. They include institutions of marriage and civil partnership, civil respect, group incorporation, market exchange, and, of course, institutions of law-making and adjudication. Pettit argues that if our assessment of such institutions is to be something other that mere expressions of aesthetic preference, then we have to resort to consequentialism.

Let’s formalise this argument before commenting on it any further. The formalisation is, as always, my own take:

  • (1) Non-consequentialism holds that the moral assessment of options must be sensitive to the identity of the assessor/agent in those options (the identity-dependence criterion); this is the distinguishing characteristic of non-consequentialism.
  • (2) Therefore, non-consequentialism does not apply when assessing options that do not implicate or involve the choices of individual agents.
  • (3) There are important (morally salient) cases in which we have to assess options that do not implicate or involve the choices of individual agents, for example the assessment of political institutions.
  • (4) If our assessments of such cases is to be something other than the reflection of subjective preference, consequentialism is the only game in town.
  • (5) Therefore, in some morally salient cases — such as the assessment of political institutions — consequentialism is inescapable.

I’ve collapsed the first stage of the argument into a simple inference from a single premise to a conclusion. This is mainly because I don’t think that’s where the objections lie. The main objections, as I see them, come with premises (3) and (4). Is it really true that the assessment of political institutions does no implicate individual choice? And is it really true that there is no other way of assessing such scenarios?

Pettit’s initial gloss on this is as follows. The assessment of political institutions could be re-described so as to implicate individual choices, but this would miss the point of such assessments. For example, we could say that political institutions depend on the choices of some original group of founders, or we could say that political institutions depend on the ongoing choices and coordination of choices between groups of agents. In this sense, we could open up some room for non-consequentialism. But, argues Pettit, this ignores the fact that the moral merits of political institutions do not depend on such choices. It does not matter, for instance, whether the original founder (if such a person exists) was motivated by greed or malice; what matters is whether the institutions he or she founded are just or equitable and so on. In other words, the quality of such original choices, and the motivations behind them, is not what counts in the assessment of political institutions.

I’m not sure whether this is an argument so much as it is a stipulation. Pettit seems to be just making it a condition for the assessment of political institutions that they do not implicate individual choice. That trespasses on the territory of begging the question. Still, I sort of agree with him: I don’t think that the moral quality political institutions is a function of the choices of those who create them. But I doubt a non-consequentialist would agree.

Leaving that aside, there are three other objections to the argument worthy of consideration. Pettit addresses these at length in his article. I summarise and provide some comments below.

2. The Rule-Consequentialist Objection
A rule-consequentialist rejects the notion that the right alternative is, always and everywhere, a promotional function of the agent-neutral good. Instead, the rule consequentialist holds that we should opt for rules that, in the average, promote the agent-neutral good, even if they may mandate sub-optimal actions in particular cases.

Could the rule-consequentialist provide an alternative criterion for the assessment of political institutions? Intuitively, the notion has some appeal. One of the main things that political institutions do is to set rules and obligations for individual action. So why not choose those rules in accordance with the strictures of rule-consequentialism? Take the “institution” of civil marriage. It prescribes a set of rules that must be followed in order to enter into a legally recognised marital union. It is very tempting to say that we should pick the particular configuration of the institution that creates rules that, on average, lead to the optimal outcomes.

We can grant that this is an appealing notion. The problem is that it is straightforwardly consequentialist. After all, even though they may not be consequentialists about individual actions, the rule-consequentialist is still a consequentialist about rules. When selecting institutions which set rules, they would be doing so on the basis that the rules set down did the most to promote the agent-neutral good. Those rules may be non-consequentialist in character, but that doesn’t mean the assessment of the institution is non-consequentialist.

3. The Rule-Contractualist Objection
A somewhat similar, though arguably more subtle, objection comes from the contractualist school of thought. Roughly, contractualism holds that the right alternative in a given choice is the one that reasonable people can agree upon. The precise form of the “agreement condition” varies across different contractualist theories. One of the most famous comes from Thomas Scanlon. He holds that the principles of right action are the ones that cannot be reasonably rejected. Ostensibly, this is non-consequentialist in nature since people could reasonably reject the consequentialist principle.

Contractualism looms large in debates about political morality. Indeed, if I were to pick the one word that is most readily associated with political morality, I would pick “contractualism”. It seems plausible to suggest, then, that contractualism could provide a non-consequentialist basis for picking political institutions. Instead of looking to the institutions that do the most to promote the good, we should look for institutions that nobody can reasonably reject. That would seem to undermine premise (4) of the inescapability argument.

Pettit’s response to this is a little suspicious. He holds that such an approach to picking institutions would, contrary to what we have just said, be consequentialist in nature. This is because, unlike non-consequentialism proper, it assesses institutions from an impartial and agent-neutral perspective. I’ll just quote what he says here (“Nagel” refers to Thomas Nagel who has advocated a kind of political contractualism):

“But the political theory to which Nagel directs us is not like that [i.e. not non-consequentialist]. It holds up an ideal for any society or polity: that its norms and laws should conform to the principles for the enforced, general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject. And that ideal offers a neutral, identity-independent criterion for ranking systems of norms and laws — social and political institutions — on the basis of how far they realize it.

To put it more succinctly: “not reasonably rejectable” is just a good-making property of institutions, and contractualists are simply urging us to maximise that good-making property.

To make this plausible, it seems to me like Pettit has to collapse consequentialism into agent-neutrality. In other words, he has to say that any moral theory that holds to an agent-neutral system of evaluation is consequentialist. I guess that might be a legitimate move. But it seems like a stretch to me. I admit, however, that this may simply be because I find contractualism a plausible basis for political morality, and yet still think there are good-making properties other than “not reasonably rejectable” that are equally important, just not important in the political context. Maybe this just reveals confusion on my part.

4. The Group Agency Objection
The final objection is one that is close to Pettit’s heart. With the help of Christian List, he has written an entire book defending the possibility of group agents, i.e. individual corporate agents that are created through the aggregated behaviours of individual human beings. But, of course, if such group agents are possible, one has the basis for an objection to premise (3) of the inescapability argument.

How might this work? Well, very simply. Assume that the body politic is a group agent. Assume further that political institutions are chosen by this group agent. It would then follow that the assessment of political institutions does implicate individual choices. The group agent could be under non-consequentialist constraints, and those constraints could determine which institutions are morally acceptable and which are not.

Pettit has a rebuttal. As he sees it, there is a desideratum that any compelling normative theory of social arrangements must satisfy. The desideratum is that when assessing institutional options, the theory should enable us to consider all possible institutional forms. For example, when considering institutions of marriage, we should be able to consider institutions that recognise all different kinds of relationship: heterosexual, homosexual, polyamorous, polygynous, polygamous, and so on. We may reject some; but we should be able to consider all.

The group agency objections falls foul of this desideratum because it cannot allow us to consider institutional arrangements that require the death or destruction of the group agent. For example, if we assume the group agent is the democratic electorate, we cannot consider non-democratic institutions. This, Pettit submits, makes it an inadequate basis for the assessment of social institutions, and hence an unsuccessful reply to his argument.

5. Conclusion
To sum up, Pettit’s argument is that consequentialism is inescapable at a certain level of analysis. This is for two reasons. First, because non-consequentialism rules out the agent-neutral assessment of options. Second, because agent-neutral assessment is inescapable in at least some cases, particularly when it comes to assessing political institutions.

This argument works largely off the assumption that agent-neutral assessment is the hallmark of consequentialism. This might be questionable. It also works off the assumption that the assessment of political institutions is agent-neutral, which is debatable. Nevertheless, if the argument works, there is the question of its broader implications.

At first glance, the claim that consequentialism is inescapable at a certain level of analysis has no implications for other levels of analysis. In other words, we could be consequentialists about the assessment of political institutions, but non-consequentialists about the assessment of individual action. Pettit, however, suggests that his argument provides some support for a more global consequentialism. Specifically, he thinks that if we desire theoretical unity, we should prefer to apply the consequentialist model at all levels.