Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy
Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts

Monday, May 8, 2023

What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific "Truth"

John Horgan
Scientific American
Originally posted 23 May 12

Here are two excerpts:

Denying the view of science as a continual building process, Kuhn held that a revolution is a destructive as well as a creative act. The proposer of a new paradigm stands on the shoulders of giants (to borrow Newton's phrase) and then bashes them over the head. He or she is often young or new to the field, that is, not fully indoctrinated. Most scientists yield to a new paradigm reluctantly. They often do not understand it, and they have no objective rules by which to judge it. Different paradigms have no common standard for comparison; they are "incommensurable," to use Kuhn's term. Proponents of different paradigms can argue forever without resolving their basic differences because they invest basic terms—motion, particle, space, time—with different meanings. The conversion of scientists is thus both a subjective and political process. It may involve sudden, intuitive understanding—like that finally achieved by Kuhn as he pondered Aristotle. Yet scientists often adopt a paradigm simply because it is backed by others with strong reputations or by a majority of the community.

Kuhn's view diverged in several important respects from the philosophy of Karl Popper, who held that theories can never be proved but only disproved, or "falsified." Like other critics of Popper, Kuhn argued that falsification is no more possible than verification; each process wrongly implies the existence of absolute standards of evidence, which transcend any individual paradigm. A new paradigm may solve puzzles better than the old one does, and it may yield more practical applications. "But you cannot simply describe the other science as false," Kuhn said. Just because modern physics has spawned computers, nuclear power and CD players, he suggested, does not mean it is truer, in an absolute sense, than Aristotle's physics. Similarly, Kuhn denied that science is constantly approaching the truth. At the end of Structure he asserted that science, like life on earth, does not evolve toward anything but only away from something.


Kuhn declared that, although his book was not intended to be pro-science, he is pro-science. It is the rigidity and discipline of science, Kuhn said, that makes it so effective at problem-solving. Moreover, science produces "the greatest and most original bursts of creativity" of any human enterprise. Kuhn conceded that he was partly to blame for some of the anti-science interpretations of his model. After all, in Structure he did call scientists committed to a paradigm "addicts"; he also compared them to the brainwashed characters in Orwell's 1984. Kuhn insisted that he did not mean to be condescending by using terms such as "mopping up" or "puzzle-solving" to describe what most scientists do. "It was meant to be descriptive." He ruminated a bit. "Maybe I should have said more about the glories that result from puzzle solving, but I thought I was doing that."

As for the word "paradigm," Kuhn conceded that it had become "hopelessly overused" and is "out of control." Like a virus, the word spread beyond the history and philosophy of science and infected the intellectual community at large, where it came to signify virtually any dominant idea. A 1974 New Yorker cartoon captured the phenomena. "Dynamite, Mr. Gerston!" gushed a woman to a smug-looking man. "You're the first person I ever heard use 'paradigm' in real life." The low point came during the Bush administration, when White House officials introduced an economic plan called "the New Paradigm" (which was really just trickle-down economics).

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The scientific study of consciousness cannot, and should not, be morally neutral

Mazor, M., Brown, S., et al. (2021, November 12). 
Perspectives on psychological science.
Advance online publication.


A target question for the scientific study of consciousness is how dimensions of consciousness, such as the ability to feel pain and pleasure or reflect on one’s own experience, vary in different states and animal species. Considering the tight link between consciousness and moral status, answers to these questions have implications for law and ethics. Here we point out that given this link, the scientific community studying consciousness may face implicit pressure to carry out certain research programmes or interpret results in ways that justify current norms rather than challenge them. We show that since consciousness largely determines moral status, the use of non-human animals in the scientific study of consciousness introduces a direct conflict between scientific relevance and ethics – the more scientifically valuable an animal model is for studying consciousness, the more difficult it becomes to ethically justify compromises to its well-being for consciousness research. Lastly, in light of these considerations, we call for a discussion of the immediate ethical corollaries of the body of knowledge that has accumulated, and for a more explicit consideration of the role of ideology and ethics in the scientific study of consciousness.

Here is how the article ends:

Finally, we believe consciousness researchers, including those working only with consenting humans, should take an active role in the ethical discussion about these issues, including the use of animal models for the study of consciousness. Studying consciousness, the field has the responsibility of leading the way on these ethical questions and of making strong statements when such statements are justified by empirical findings. Recent examples include discussions of ethical ramifications of neuronal signs of fetal consciousness (Lagercrantz, 2014) and a consolidation of evidence for consciousness in vertebrate animals, with a focus on livestock species, ordered by the European Food and Safety Authority (Le Neindre et al., 2017). In these cases, the science of consciousness provided empirical evidence to weigh on whether a fetus or a livestock animal is conscious. The question of animal models of consciousness is simpler because the presence of consciousness is a prerequisite for the model to be valid. Here, researchers can skip the difficult question of whether the entity is indeed conscious and directly ask, “Do we believe that consciousness, or some specific form or dimension of consciousness, entails moral status?”

It is useful to remind ourselves that ethical beliefs and practices are dynamic: Things that were considered
acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable today.  A relatively recent change is that to the status of nonhuman great apes (gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and orangutans) such that research on great apes is banned in some countries today, including all European Union member states and New Zealand. In these countries, drilling a hole in chimpanzees’ heads, keeping them in isolation, or restricting their access to drinking water are forbidden by law. It is a fundamental question of the utmost importance which differences between animals make some practices acceptable with respect to some animals and not others. If consciousness is a determinant of moral status, consciousness researchers have a responsibility in taking an active part in this discussion—by providing scientific observations that either justify current ethical standards or induce the scientific and legal communities to revise these standards.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

To Each Technology Its Own Ethics: The Problem of Ethical Proliferation

Sætra, H.S., Danaher, J. 
Philos. Technol. 35, 93 (2022).


Ethics plays a key role in the normative analysis of the impacts of technology. We know that computers in general and the processing of data, the use of artificial intelligence, and the combination of computers and/or artificial intelligence with robotics are all associated with ethically relevant implications for individuals, groups, and society. In this article, we argue that while all technologies are ethically relevant, there is no need to create a separate ‘ethics of X’ or ‘X ethics’ for each and every subtype of technology or technological property—e.g. computer ethics, AI ethics, data ethics, information ethics, robot ethics, and machine ethics. Specific technologies might have specific impacts, but we argue that they are often sufficiently covered and understood through already established higher-level domains of ethics. Furthermore, the proliferation of tech ethics is problematic because (a) the conceptual boundaries between the subfields are not well-defined, (b) it leads to a duplication of effort and constant reinventing the wheel, and (c) there is danger that participants overlook or ignore more fundamental ethical insights and truths. The key to avoiding such outcomes lies in a taking the discipline of ethics seriously, and we consequently begin with a brief description of what ethics is, before presenting the main forms of technology related ethics. Through this process, we develop a hierarchy of technology ethics, which can be used by developers and engineers, researchers, or regulators who seek an understanding of the ethical implications of technology. We close by deducing two principles for positioning ethical analysis which will, in combination with the hierarchy, promote the leveraging of existing knowledge and help us to avoid an exaggerated proliferation of tech ethics.

From the Conclusion

The ethics of technology is garnering attention for a reason. Just about everything in modern society is the result of, and often even infused with, some kind of technology. The ethical implications are plentiful, but how should the study of applied tech ethics be organised? We have reviewed a number of specific tech ethics, and argued that there is much overlap, and much confusion relating to the demarcation of different domain ethics. For example, many issues covered by AI ethics are arguably already covered by computer ethics, and many issues argued to be data ethics, particularly issues related to privacy and surveillance, have been studied by other tech ethicists and non-tech ethicists for a long time.

We have proposed two simple principles that should help guide more ethical research to the higher levels of tech ethics, while still allowing for the existence of lower-level domain specific ethics. If this is achieved, we avoid confusion and a lack of navigability in tech ethics, ethicists avoid reinventing the wheel, and we will be better able to make use of existing insight from higher-level ethics. At the same time, the work done in lower-level ethics will be both valid and highly important, because it will be focused on issues exclusive to that domain. For example, robot ethics will be about those questions that only arise when AI is embodied in a particular sense, and not all issues related to the moral status of machines or social AI in general.

While our argument might initially be taken as a call to arms against more than one fundamental applied ethics, we hope to have allayed such fears. There are valid arguments for the existence of different types of applied ethics, and we merely argue that an exaggerated proliferation of tech ethics is occurring, and that it has negative consequences. Furthermore, we must emphasise that there is nothing preventing anyone from making specific guidelines for, for example, AI professionals, based on insight from computer ethics. The domains of ethics and the needs of practitioners are not the same, and our argument is consequently that ethical research should be more concentrated than professional practice.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Understanding "longtermism": Why this suddenly influential philosophy is so toxic

Émile P. Torres
Originally posted 20 AUG 22

Here is an excerpt:

But what is longtermism? I have tried to answer that in other articles, and will continue to do so in future ones. A brief description here will have to suffice: Longtermism is a quasi-religious worldview, influenced by transhumanism and utilitarian ethics, which asserts that there could be so many digital people living in vast computer simulations millions or billions of years in the future that one of our most important moral obligations today is to take actions that ensure as many of these digital people come into existence as possible.

In practical terms, that means we must do whatever it takes to survive long enough to colonize space, convert planets into giant computer simulations and create unfathomable numbers of simulated beings. How many simulated beings could there be? According to Nick Bostrom —the Father of longtermism and director of the Future of Humanity Institute — there could be at least 1058 digital people in the future, or a 1 followed by 58 zeros. Others have put forward similar estimates, although as Bostrom wrote in 2003, "what matters … is not the exact numbers but the fact that they are huge."

In this article, however, I don't want to focus on how bizarre and dangerous this ideology is and could be. Instead, I think it would be useful to take a look at the community out of which longtermism emerged, focusing on the ideas of several individuals who helped shape the worldview that MacAskill and others are now vigorously promoting. The most obvious place to start is with Bostrom, whose publications in the early 2000s — such as his paper "Astronomical Waste," which was recently retweeted by Musk — planted the seeds that have grown into the kudzu vine crawling over the tech sector, world governments and major media outlets like the New York Times and TIME.

Nick Bostrom is, first of all, one of the most prominent transhumanists of the 21st century so far. Transhumanism is an ideology that sees humanity as a work in progress, as something that we can and should actively reengineer, using advanced technologies like brain implants, which could connect our brains to the Internet, and genetic engineering, which could enable us to create super-smart designer babies. We might also gain immortality through life-extension technologies, and indeed many transhumanists have signed up with Alcor to have their bodies (or just their heads and necks, which is cheaper) frozen after they die so that they can be revived later on, in a hypothetical future where that's possible. Bostrom himself wears a metal buckle around his ankle with instructions for Alcor to "take custody of his body and maintain it in a giant steel bottle flooded with liquid nitrogen" after he dies.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Justice Alito's bad theology: Abortion foes don't have "morality" on their side

E. M. Freese & A. T. Taylor
Originally posted 26 JUL 22

Here is an excerpt:

Morality has thus become the reigning justification for the state to infringe upon the liberty of female Americans and to subjugate their reproductive labor to its power. An interrogation of this morality, however, reveals that it is underpinned by a theology that both erases and assumes the subjugation of female gestational labor in procreation to patriarchy. We must shatter this male-dominant moral logic and foreground female personhood and agency in order for every American to be equally free.

According to Alito, moral concern for "an unborn human being" apparently exempts pregnant people from the right to "liberty" otherwise guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. In other words, the supposed immorality of abortion is weighty enough to restrict bodily autonomy for all pregnant people in this country and to terrorize potentially pregnant females more broadly. This logic implies that pregnant people also lack 13th Amendment protection from "involuntary servitude," contrary to the strong argument made by legal scholar Michele Goodwin in a recent New York Times op-ed. Consequently, the court has now granted permission to states to force pregnant people to gestate against their will.

To be clear, the 13th and 14th Amendments are specifically about bodily autonomy and freedom from forced labor. They were created after the Civil War in an attempt to end slavery for good, and forced reproduction was correctly understood as a dimension of slavery. But Justice Alito asserts that abortion morality puts pregnant bodies in a "different" category with fewer rights. What, exactly, is the logic here?

At its heart, the theological premise of the anti-abortion argument is that male fertilization essentially equals procreation of a "life" that has equal moral and legal standing to a pregnant person, prior to any female gestation. In effect, this argument holds that the enormous female gestation labor over time, which is literally fundamental to the procreation of a viable "new life," can be ignored as a necessary precursor to the very existence of that life. On a practical level, this amounts to claiming that a habitable house exists at the stage of an architectural drawing, prior to any material labor by the general contractor and the construction workers who literally build it.

Abortion opponents draw upon the biblical story of creation found in the book of Genesis (chapters 1-3) to ostensibly ground their theology in tradition. But Genesis narrates that multiple participants labor at God's direction to create various forms of life through a material process over time, which actually contradicts a theology claiming that male fertilization equals instant-procreation. The real political value is the story's presumption of a male God's dominance and appropriation of others' labor for "His" ends. Using this frame, abortion opponents insert a "sovereign" God into the wombs of pregnant people — exactly at the moment of male fertilization. From that point, the colonization of the female body and female labor becomes not only morally acceptable, but necessary.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Reflective Reasoning & Philosophy

Nick Byrd
Philosophy Compass
First published: 29 September 2021


Philosophy is a reflective activity. So perhaps it is unsurprising that many philosophers have claimed that reflection plays an important role in shaping and even improving our philosophical thinking. This hypothesis seems plausible given that training in philosophy has correlated with better performance on tests of reflection and reflective test performance has correlated with demonstrably better judgments in a variety of domains. This article reviews the hypothesized roles of reflection in philosophical thinking as well as the empirical evidence for these roles. This reveals that although there are reliable links between reflection and philosophical judgment among both laypeople and philosophers, the role of reflection in philosophical thinking may nonetheless depend in part on other factors, some of which have yet to be determined. So progress in research on reflection in philosophy may require further innovation in experimental methods and psychometric validation of philosophical measures.

From the Conclusion

Reflective reasoning is central to both philosophy and the cognitive science thereof. The theoretical and empirical research about reflection and its relation to philosophical thinking is voluminous. The existing findings provide preliminary evidence that reflective reasoning may be related to tendencies for certain philosophical judgments and beliefs over others. However, there are some signs that there is more to the story about reflection’s role in philosophical thinking than our current evidence can reveal. Scholars will need to continue developing new hypotheses, methods, and interpretations to reveal these hitherto latent details.

The recommendations in this article are by no means exhaustive. For instance, in addition to better experimental manipulations and measures of reflection (Byrd, 2021b), philosophers and cognitive scientists will also need to validate their measures of philosophical thinking to ensure that subtle differences in wording of thought experiments do not influence people’s judgments in unexpected ways (Cullen, 2010). After all, philosophical judgments can vary significantly depending on slight differences in wording even when reflection is not manipulated (e.g., Nahmias, Coates, & Kvaran, 2007). Scholars may also need to develop ways to empirically dissociate previously conflated philosophical judgments (Conway & Gawronski, 2013) in order to prevent and clarify misleading results (Byrd & Conway, 2019; Conway, GoldsteinGreenwood, Polacek, & Greene, 2018).

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Technological seduction and self-radicalization

Alfano, M., Carter, J., & Cheong, M. (2018). 
Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 
4(3), 298-322. doi:10.1017/apa.2018.27


Many scholars agree that the Internet plays a pivotal role in self-radicalization, which can lead to behaviors ranging from lone-wolf terrorism to participation in white nationalist rallies to mundane bigotry and voting for extremist candidates. However, the mechanisms by which the Internet facilitates self-radicalization are disputed; some fault the individuals who end up self-radicalized, while others lay the blame on the technology itself. In this paper, we explore the role played by technological design decisions in online self-radicalization in its myriad guises, encompassing extreme as well as more mundane forms. We begin by characterizing the phenomenon of technological seduction. Next, we distinguish between top-down seduction and bottom-up seduction. We then situate both forms of technological seduction within the theoretical model of dynamical systems theory. We conclude by articulating strategies for combating online self-radicalization.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Technology in the Age of Innovation: Responsible Innovation as a New Subdomain Within the Philosophy of Technology

von Schomberg, L., Blok, V. 
Philos. Technol. 34, 309–323 (2021). 


Praised as a panacea for resolving all societal issues, and self-evidently presupposed as technological innovation, the concept of innovation has become the emblem of our age. This is especially reflected in the context of the European Union, where it is considered to play a central role in both strengthening the economy and confronting the current environmental crisis. The pressing question is how technological innovation can be steered into the right direction. To this end, recent frameworks of Responsible Innovation (RI) focus on how to enable outcomes of innovation processes to become societally desirable and ethically acceptable. However, questions with regard to the technological nature of these innovation processes are rarely raised. For this reason, this paper raises the following research question: To what extent is RI possible in the current age, where the concept of innovation is predominantly presupposed as technological innovation? On the one hand, we depart from a post-phenomenological perspective to evaluate the possibility of RI in relation to the particular technological innovations discussed in the RI literature. On the other hand, we emphasize the central role innovation plays in the current age, and suggest that the presupposed concept of innovation projects a techno-economic paradigm. In doing so, we ultimately argue that in the attempt to steer innovation, frameworks of RI are in fact steered by the techno-economic paradigm inherent in the presupposed concept of innovation. Finally, we account for what implications this has for the societal purpose of RI.

The Conclusion

Hence, even though RI provides a critical analysis of innovation at the ontic level (i.e., concerning the introduction and usage of particular innovations), it still lacks a critical analysis at the ontological level (i.e., concerning the techno-economic paradigm of innovation). Therefore, RI is in need of a fundamental reflection that not only exposes the techno-economic paradigm of innovation—which we did in this paper—but that also explores an alternative concept of innovation which addresses the public good beyond the current privatization wave. The political origins of innovation that we encountered in Section 2, along with the political ends that the RI literature explicitly prioritizes, suggest that we should inquire into a political orientation of innovation. A crucial task of this inquiry would be to account for what such a political orientation of innovation precisely entails at the ontic level, and how it relates to the current techno-economic paradigm of innovation at the ontological level.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Philosophy in Science: Can philosophers of science permeate through science and produce scientific knowledge?

Pradeu, T., et al. (2021)
British Journal of the Philosophy of Science


Most philosophers of science do philosophy ‘on’ science. By contrast, others do philosophy ‘in’ science (‘PinS’), i.e., they use philosophical tools to address scientific problems and to provide scientifically useful proposals. Here, we consider the evidence in favour of a trend of this nature. We proceed in two stages. First, we identify relevant authors and articles empirically with bibliometric tools, given that PinS would be likely to infiltrate science and thus to be published in scientific journals (‘intervention’), cited in scientific journals (‘visibility’) and sometimes recognized as a scientific result by scientists (‘contribution’). We show that many central figures in philosophy of science have been involved in PinS, and that some philosophers have even ‘specialized’ in this practice. Second, we propose a conceptual definition of PinS as a process involving three conditions (raising a scientific problem, using philosophical tools to address it, and making a scientific proposal), and we ask whether the articles identified at the first stage fulfil all these conditions. We show that PinS is a distinctive, quantitatively substantial trend within philosophy of science, demonstrating the existence of a methodological continuity from science to philosophy of science.

From the Conclusion

A crucial and long-standing question for philosophers of science is how philosophy of science relates to science, including, in particular, its possible impact on science. Various important ways in which philosophy of science can have an impact on science have been documented in the past, from the influence of Mach, Poincaré and Schopenhauer on the development of the theory of relativity (Rovelli [2018]) to Popper’s long-recognized influence on scientists, such as Eccles and Medawar, and some recent reflections on how best to organize science institutionally (e.g. Leonelli [2017]). Here, we identify and describe an
approach that we propose to call ‘PinS’, which adds another, in our view essential, layer to this picture.

By combining quantitative and qualitative tools, we demonstrate the existence of a corpus of articles by philosophers of science, either published in philosophy of science journals or in scientific journals, raising scientific problems and aiming to contribute to their resolution via the use of philosophical tools. PinS constitutes a subdomain of philosophy of science, which has a long history, with canonical texts and authors, but, to our knowledge, this is the first time this domain is delineated and analysed.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Why evolutionary psychology should abandon modularity

Pietraszewski, D., & Wertz, A. E. 
(2021, March 29).


A debate surrounding modularity—the notion that the mind may be exclusively composed of distinct systems or modules—has held philosophers and psychologists captive for nearly forty years. Concern about this thesis—which has come to be known as the massive modularity debate—serves as the primary grounds for skepticism of evolutionary psychology’s claims about the mind. Here we will suggest that the entirety of this debate, and the very notion of massive modularity itself, is ill-posed and confused. In particular, it is based on a confusion about the level of analysis (or reduction) at which one is approaching the mind. Here, we will provide a framework for clarifying at what level of analysis one is approaching the mind, and explain how a systemic failure to distinguish between different levels of analysis has led to profound misunderstandings of not only evolutionary psychology, but also of the entire cognitivist enterprise of approaching the mind at the level of mechanism. We will furthermore suggest that confusions between different levels of analysis are endemic throughout the psychological sciences—extending well beyond issues of modularity and evolutionary psychology. Therefore, researchers in all areas should take preventative measures to avoid this confusion in the future.


What has seemed to be an important but interminable debate about the nature of (massive) modularity is better conceptualized as the modularity mistake.  Clarifying the level of analys is at which one is operating will not only resolve the debate, but render it moot.  In its stead, researchers will be free to pursue much simpler, clearer, and more profound questions about how the mind works. If we proceed as usual, we will end up back in the same confused place where we started in another 40 years —arguing once again about who’s on first. Confusing or collapsing across different levels of analysis is not just a problem for modularity and evolutionary psychology.  Rather, it is the greatest problem facing early-21st-century psychology, dwarfing even the current replication crisis. Since at least the days of the neobehaviorists (e.g. Tolman, 1964), the ontology of the intentional level has become mingled with the functional level in all areas of the cognitive sciences (see Stich, 1986). Constructs such as thinking, reasoning, effort, intuition, deliberation, automaticity, and consciousness have become misunderstood and misused as functional level descriptions of how the mind works.  Appeals to  a central agency who uses “their” memory, attention, reasoning, and soon have become commonplace and unremarkable. Even the concept of cognition itself has fallen into the same levels of analysis confusion seen in the modularity mistake.  In the process, a shared notion of what it means to provide a coherent functional level (or mechanistic) description of the mind has been lost.

We do not bring up these broader issues to resolve them here.  Rather, we wish to emphasize what is at stake when it comes to being clear about levels of analysis.  If we do not respect the distinctions between levels, no amount of hard work, nor mountains of data that we will ever collect will resolve the problems created by conflating them.  The only question is whether or not we are willing to begin the slow, difficult — but ultimately clarifying and redeeming — process of unconfounding the intentional and functional levels of analysis. The modularity mistake is as good a place as any to start.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The trolley problem problem

James Wilson
Originally posted 20 May 20

Here is an excerpt:

Some philosophers think that ethical thought experiments either are, or have a strong affinity with, scientific experiments. On such a view, thought experiments, like other experiments, when well-designed can allow knowledge to be built via rigorous and unbiased testing of hypotheses. Just as in the randomised controlled trials in which new pharmaceuticals are tested, the circumstances and the types of control in thought experiments could be such as to make the situation very unlike everyday situations, but that is a virtue rather than a vice, insofar as it allows ethical hypotheses to be tested cleanly and rigorously.

If thought experiments are – literally – experiments, this helps to explain how they might provide insights into the way the world is. But it would also mean that thought experiments would inherit the two methodological challenges that attend to experiments more generally, known as internal and external validity. Internal validity relates to the extent to which an experiment succeeds in providing an unbiased test of the variable or hypothesis in question. External validity relates to the extent to which the results in the controlled environment translate to other contexts, and in particular to our own. External validity is a major challenge, as the very features that make an environment controlled and suitable to obtain internal validity often make it problematically different from the uncontrolled environments in which interventions need to be applied.

There are significant challenges with both the internal and the external validity of thought experiments. It is useful to compare the kind of care with which medical researchers or psychologists design experiments – including validation of questionnaires, double-blinding of trials, placebo control, power calculations to determine the cohort size required and so on – with the typically rather more casual approach taken by philosophers. Until recently, there has been little systematic attempt within normative ethics to test variations of different phrasing of thought experiments, or to think about framing effects, or sample sizes; or the extent to which the results from the thought experiment are supposed to be universal or could be affected by variables such as gender, class or culture. A central ambiguity has been whether the implied readers of ethical thought experiments should be just anyone, or other philosophers; and, as a corollary, whether judgments elicited are supposed to be expert judgments, or the judgments of ordinary human beings. As the vast majority of ethical thought experiments in fact remain confined to academic journals, and are tested only informally on other philosophers, de facto they are tested only on those with expertise in the construction of ethical theories, rather than more generally representative samples or those with expertise in the contexts that the thought experiments purport to describe.

The info is here.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Removing Confederate Monuments

Travis Timmerman
1000 Word Philosophy
Originally posted 19 June 20

Here are two excerpt:

1. A Moral Argument for Removing Confederate Monuments in Two Parts
Part 1:

(1) If some monument(s) unavoidably harms undeserving people, then there is moral reason to remove that monument.

(2) Public Confederate monuments unavoidably harm at least (i) those who suffer as a result of knowing the racist motivation behind the existence of most Confederate monuments and having those motivations made obvious by public Confederate monuments, and/or (ii) those who suffer as a result of being reminded of the horrors of the Civil War and the United States’ racist history by public Confederate monuments.

(3) Therefore, there is strong moral reason to remove public Confederate monuments.

If premises (1)-(2) are true, then the truth of (3) is logically guaranteed.

(1) should be uncontroversial since it follows from the more general claim that we have moral reason to avoid harming innocent people.

Part (i) of (2) is supported by the ample testimony of the groups fighting to remove Confederate monuments. Many know the history behind them, and are constantly reminded of the racist motivation for their creation, and suffer as a consequence.


3. Conclusion

The above argument is but one possible point of entry into this complex debate. If successful, it shows that we’re obligated to continue removing public Confederate monuments.

The Pro and Con arguments are here.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Toward equipping Artificial Moral Agents with multiple ethical theories

George Rautenbach and C. Maria Keet
arXiv:2003.00935v1 [cs.CY] 2 Mar 2020


Artificial Moral Agents (AMA’s) is a field in computer science with the purpose of creating autonomous machines that can make moral decisions akin to how humans do. Researchers have proposed theoretical means of creating such machines, while philosophers have made arguments as to how these machines ought to behave, or whether they should even exist.

Of the currently theorised AMA’s, all research and design has been done with either none or at most one specified normative ethical theory as basis. This is problematic because it narrows down the AMA’s functional ability and versatility which in turn causes moral outcomes that a limited number of people agree with (thereby undermining an AMA’s ability to be moral in a human sense). As solution we design a three-layer model for general normative ethical theories that can be used to serialise the ethical views of people and businesses for an AMA to use during reasoning. Four specific ethical norms (Kantianism, divine command theory, utilitarianism, and egoism) were modelled and evaluated as proof of concept for normative modelling. Furthermore, all models were serialised to XML/XSD as proof of support for computerisation.

From the Discussion:

A big philosophical grey area in AMA’s is with regards to agency. That is, an entity’s ability to
understand available actions and their moral values and to freely choose between them. Whether
or not machines can truly understand their decisions and whether they can be held accountable
for them is a matter of philosophical discourse. Whatever the answer may be, AMA agency
poses a difficult question that must be addressed.

The question is as follows: should the machine act as an agent itself, or should it act as an informant for another agent? If an AMA reasons for another agent (e.g., a person) then reasoning will be done with that person as the actor and the one who holds responsibility. This has the disadvantage of putting that person’s interest before other morally considerable entities, especially with regards to ethical theories like egoism. Making the machine the moral agent has the advantage of objectivity where multiple people are concerned, but makes it harder to assign blame for its actions - a machine does not care for imprisonment or even disassembly. A Luddite would say it has no incentive to do good to humanity. Of course, a deterministic machine does not need incentive at all, since it will always behave according to the theory it is running. This lack of fear or “personal interest” can be good, because it ensures objective reasoning and fair consideration of affected parties.

The paper is here.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Buddhist Ethics

Maria Heim
Elements in Ethics
DOI: 10.1017/9781108588270
First published online: January 2020


“Ethics” was not developed as a separate branch of philosophy in Buddhist traditions until the modern period, though Buddhist philosophers have always been concerned with the moral significance of thoughts, emotions, intentions, actions, virtues, and precepts. Their most penetrating forms of moral reflection have been developed within disciplines of practice aimed at achieving freedom and peace. This Element first offers a brief overview of Buddhist thought and modern scholarly approaches to its diverse forms of moral reflection. It then explores two of the most prominent philosophers from the main strands of the Indian Buddhist tradition – Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva – in a comparative fashion.

The info is here.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Consciousness is real

Image result for consciousnessMassimo Pigliucci
Originally published 16 Dec 19

Here is an excerpt:

Here is where the fundamental divide in philosophy of mind occurs, between ‘dualists’ and ‘illusionists’. Both camps agree that there is more to consciousness than the access aspect and, moreover, that phenomenal consciousness seems to have nonphysical properties (the ‘what is it like’ thing). From there, one can go in two very different directions: the scientific horn of the dilemma, attempting to explain how science might provide us with a satisfactory account of phenomenal consciousness, as Frankish does; or the antiscientific horn, claiming that phenomenal consciousness is squarely outside the domain of competence of science, as David Chalmers has been arguing for most of his career, for instance in his book The Conscious Mind (1996).

By embracing the antiscientific position, Chalmers & co are forced to go dualist. Dualism is the notion that physical and mental phenomena are somehow irreconcilable, two different kinds of beasts, so to speak. Classically, dualism concerns substances: according to René Descartes, the body is made of physical stuff (in Latin, res extensa), while the mind is made of mental stuff (in Latin, res cogitans). Nowadays, thanks to our advances in both physics and biology, nobody takes substance dualism seriously anymore. The alternative is something called property dualism, which acknowledges that everything – body and mind – is made of the same basic stuff (quarks and so forth), but that this stuff somehow (notice the vagueness here) changes when things get organised into brains and special properties appear that are nowhere else to be found in the material world. (For more on the difference between property and substance dualism, see Scott Calef’s definition.)

The ‘illusionists’, by contrast, take the scientific route, accepting physicalism (or materialism, or some other similar ‘ism’), meaning that they think – with modern science – not only that everything is made of the same basic kind of stuff, but that there are no special barriers separating physical from mental phenomena. However, since these people agree with the dualists that phenomenal consciousness seems to be spooky, the only option open to them seems to be that of denying the existence of whatever appears not to be physical. Hence the notion that phenomenal consciousness is a kind of illusion.

The essay is here.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

What Einstein meant by ‘God does not play dice’

Jim Baggott
Originally published November 21, 2019

Here is an excerpt:

But Einstein’s was a God of philosophy, not religion. When asked many years later whether he believed in God, he replied: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.’ Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, had conceived of God as identical with nature. For this, he was considered a dangerous heretic, and was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Einstein’s God is infinitely superior but impersonal and intangible, subtle but not malicious. He is also firmly determinist. As far as Einstein was concerned, God’s ‘lawful harmony’ is established throughout the cosmos by strict adherence to the physical principles of cause and effect. Thus, there is no room in Einstein’s philosophy for free will: ‘Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control … we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.’

The special and general theories of relativity provided a radical new way of conceiving of space and time and their active interactions with matter and energy. These theories are entirely consistent with the ‘lawful harmony’ established by Einstein’s God. But the new theory of quantum mechanics, which Einstein had also helped to found in 1905, was telling a different story. Quantum mechanics is about interactions involving matter and radiation, at the scale of atoms and molecules, set against a passive background of space and time.

The info is here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Can Ethics Be Taught?

Peter Singer
Project Syndicate
Originally published August 7, 2019

Can taking a philosophy class – more specifically, a class in practical ethics – lead students to act more ethically?

Teachers of practical ethics have an obvious interest in the answer to that question. The answer should also matter to students thinking of taking a course in practical ethics. But the question also has broader philosophical significance, because the answer could shed light on the ancient and fundamental question of the role that reason plays in forming our ethical judgments and determining what we do.

Plato, in the Phaedrus, uses the metaphor of a chariot pulled by two horses; one represents rational and moral impulses, the other irrational passions or desires. The role of the charioteer is to make the horses work together as a team. Plato thinks that the soul should be a composite of our passions and our reason, but he also makes it clear that harmony is to be found under the supremacy of reason.

In the eighteenth century, David Hume argued that this picture of a struggle between reason and the passions is misleading. Reason on its own, he thought, cannot influence the will. Reason is, he famously wrote, “the slave of the passions.”

The info is here.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Can Neuroscience Understand Free Will?

Brian Gallagher
Originally posted on July 19, 2019

Here is an excerpt:

Clinical neuroscientists and neurologists have identified the brain networks responsible for this sense of free will. There seems to be two: the network governing the desire to act, and the network governing the feeling of responsibility for acting. Brain-damaged patients show that these can come apart—you can have one without the other.

Lacking essentially all motivation to move or speak has a name: akinetic mutism. The researchers, lead by neurologists Michael Fox, of Harvard Medical School, and Ryan Darby, of Vanderbilt University, analyzed 28 cases of this condition, not all of them involving damage in the same departments. “We found that brain lesions that disrupt volition occur in many different locations, but fall within a single brain network, defined by connectivity to the anterior cingulate,” which has links to both the “emotional” limbic system and the “cognitive” prefrontal cortex, the researchers wrote. Feeling like you’re moving under the direction of outside forces has a name, too: alien limb syndrome. The researchers analyzed 50 cases of this condition, which again involved brain damage in different spots. “Lesions that disrupt agency also occur in many different locations, but fall within a separate network, defined by connectivity to the precuneus,” which is involved, among other things, in the experience of agency.

The results may not map onto “free will” as we understand it ethically—the ability to choose between right and wrong. “It remains unknown whether the network of brain regions we identify as related to free will for movements is the same as those important for moral decision-making, as prior studies have suggested important differences,” the researchers wrote. For instance, in a 2017 study, he and Darby analyzed many cases of brain lesions in various regions predisposing people to criminal behavior, and found that “these lesions all fall within a unique functionally connected brain network involved in moral decision making.”

The info is here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

How celebrity activists are changing morality in America

Image result for influencersCaroline Newman
Originally posted July 1, 2019

Here is an excerpt:

Q. What are some of the risks of viewing celebrities as moral authorities?

A. Many argue that celebrities have no right to speak out on these issues because they do not have traditional credentials in law, religion or philosophy. I do not believe that. While there is a risk that people will pay less attention to those traditional leaders, religious or otherwise, that might not be such a bad thing, given some of the scandals we have seen recently.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can now get on their soapbox and start making moral proclamations, often with little to back that up. Morality has become more of a free-for-all and the responsibility for determining morality rests on the shoulders of everyday Americans, who might find it easier to listen to celebrities they already like rather than conducting research themselves. However, this is arguably what we have done all along, with priests, rabbis, political leaders, etc.

Q. What are some of the benefits?

A. One important benefit is that ethics becomes part of everyday life and everyday discussions. It used to be that people who studied philosophy or religion were kind of off to the side. Now that people like Taylor Swift, Oprah or Colin Kaepernick are talking about very important moral issues; those issues and debates have become mainstream and, if not cool, at least more frequently talked about.

The info is here.

Editor's Note: Ugh.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Thomas Fisher on The Ethics of Architecture and Other Contradictions

Michael Crosbie
Originally posted June 21, 2019

Here is an excerpt from the interview between Michael Crosbie and Thomas Fisher:

MJC: Most architects don’t give serious consideration to ethics in their design work. Why not?

TF: The revision of AIA’s Code of Ethics requiring members to discuss the environmental impacts of a project with the client really gets at that. In the past, architects have been wary to have such discussions because it questions the power of the client to do whatever they want because they have the means to do so. Architects have been designing for people with power and money for a very long time. It’s easier to talk about aesthetics, function, or the pragmatics of design because it doesn’t question a client’s power.

MJC: “The pursuit of happiness” is a very strong idea in American culture. How do architects balance serving clients—in their “pursuit of happiness” through architecture—with the greater good of the community?

TF: In ethics, “the pursuit of happiness” is often misunderstood. Utilitarian ethics states that you strive to make the greatest number of people happy; the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham promoted “the greatest good for the greatest number.” But ethics is also about understanding how others view the world, and how our actions affect the lives and welfare of others. The role of professionals is to look after the greater good. Licensure is a social contract in which, in exchange for a monopoly in providing professional services, the professional is responsible for the larger picture. Designing to satisfy someone’s hedonistic “pursuit of happiness” without regard to that bigger picture is unethical behavior for an architect. It violates the social contract behind licensure. I think an architect should lose his or her license for an action like that. Such an action might not be illegal, but it’s unethical. Ethics is really about our day-to-day interactions with people in the realm of space, public and private.

The interview is here.