Epicurus and the Ethics of Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

If philosophy is not only an academic, theoretical discipline but a way of life, as many Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought, one way of evaluating a philosophy is in terms of the kind of life it entails.

On that score, if we’re playing the game of choose your favorite ancient philosopher, I would say I’m most inspired by the vision of Epicurus. This is not because he had compelling arguments for his views. The fragments of original texts that we have, and the unreliability of many of the commentaries of his contemporaries, leave us with little knowledge of his actual arguments. What is attractive about Epicurus is the vision of a good life that emerges from his work and life.

Unlike Plato and Aristotle at their academies or Stoic sages who populated the ruling class (or endured crushing hardship from the wrong side of that boot), Epicurus presided over “The Garden.” In that tranquil private space outside Athens, he and his followers gathered to enact a humble life of modest pleasure enjoying the bounty of the harvest with friends in conversation. The ideal was that even people of limited means could live a life of contentment and ease if they thought clearly about the nature of pleasure, grasped the need for moderation, and rejected superstitious religious and political beliefs that caused psychological turmoil. Read more »

Robots, Emotions, and Relational Capacities

by Fabio Tollon

The Talon Bomb Disposal Robot is used by U.S. Army Special Forces teams for remote-controlled explosive ordnance disposal.

I take it as relatively uncontroversial that you, dear reader, experience emotions. There are times when you feel sad, happy, relieved, overjoyed, pessimistic, or hopeful. Often it is difficult to know exactly which emotion we are feeling at a particular point in time, but, for the most part, we can be fairly confident that we are experiencing some kind of emotion. Now we might ask, how do you know that others are experiencing emotions? While, straightforwardly enough, they could tell you. But, more often than not, we read into their body language, tone, and overall behaviour in order to figure out what might be going on inside their heads. Now, we might ask, what is stopping a machine from doing all of these things? Can a robot have emotions? I’m not really convinced that this question makes sense, given the kinds of things that robots are. However, I have the sense whether or not robots can really have emotions is independent of whether we will treat as if they have emotions. So, the metaphysics seems to be a bit messy, so I’m going to do something naughty and bracket the metaphysics. Let’s take the as if seriously, and consider social robots.

Taking this pragmatic approach means we don’t need to have a refined theory of what emotions are, or whether agents “really” have them or not. Instead, we can ask questions about how likely it is that humans will attribute emotions or agency to robots. Turns out, we do this all the time! Human beings seem to have a natural propensity to attribute consciousness and agency (phenomena that are often closely linked to the ability to have emotions) to entities that look and behave as if they have those properties. This kind of tendency seems to be a product of our pattern tracking abilities: if things behave in a certain way, we put them in a certain category, and this helps us keep track of and make sense of the world around us.

While this kind of strategy makes little sense if we are trying to explain and understand the inner workings of a system, it makes a great deal of sense if all we are interested in is trying to predict how an entity might behave or respond. Consider the famous case of bomb-defusing robots, which are modelled on stick insects. Read more »

Stoicism: Is it Therapy or Philosophy?

by Dwight Furrow

One of the more remarkable developments in popular philosophy over the past 20 years is the rebirth of stoicism. Stoicism was an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy founded around 300 BCE by the merchant Zeno of Citium, in what is now Cyprus. Although, contemporary professional philosophers occasionally discuss Stoicism as a form of virtue ethics, most consider it to be a minor philosophical movement in the history of philosophy with limited influence. Yet it has captured the attention of the non-professional philosophical world with many websites and online communities devoted to its practice. Some estimate membership in these communities at about 100,000 participants. Stoicism has also played a seminal role in the development of cognitive/behavioral therapy in psychology.

The puzzle is why Stoicism is now having its moment—because it is genuinely weird.

To be sure, Stoic ethics gives some good advice. One central tenet is that we place far too much value on external things such as wealth, popularity, or prestige at the expense of moral virtue. In an age of celebrity worship, groveling for likes on social media, and a mad dash for cash, none of which does much to promote happiness, we could surely use more focus on what really matters in life. But this sort of advice isn’t unique to Stoicism. It is hard to imagine any mainstream ethical theory not condemning our fascination with bling, careerism, and greed. Nevertheless, the Stoic reasoning on these ethical matters is distinctive and important because it deeply shapes the practical advice that has made it so popular. Read more »

The Value of Metaphysics

by Dwight Furrow

Among the ideas in the history of philosophy most worthy of an eye-roll is Aristotle’s claim that the study of metaphysics is the highest form of eudaimonia (variously translated as “happiness” or “flourishing”) of which human beings are capable. The metaphysician is allegedly happier than even the philosopher who makes a well-lived life the sole focus of inquiry. “Arrogant,” self-serving,” and “implausible” come immediately to mind as a first response to the argument. It’s not at all obvious that philosophers, let alone metaphysicians, are happier than anyone else nor is it obvious why the investigation of metaphysical matters is more joyful or conducive to flourishing than the investigation of other subjects.

Is there an insight here to be salvaged? Can this implausible argument about the glorious lives of metaphysicians be separated from the rest of Aristotle’s argument that philosophy is not only a way of life but the quintessentially superior way of life?

Aristotle argued that the activity of all beings is governed by their characteristic function which drives developmental processes. Reason is the characteristic function of human beings, and it’s the perfection of our capacity to reason so that we come to know the truth about a subject matter that constitutes flourishing. All human activity is directed toward this goal of flourishing although most human beings haven’t grasped its true nature or lack the necessary habits and self-control to achieve it. Thus, our pursuit of it is confused. Read more »

A Neoliberal COP-out

by Fabio Tollon

From a heat dome in North America, people drowning in their basements in New York, and a climate famine in Madagascar, you would think we would have started to take the climate crisis seriously. This is to say nothing of the volumes of scientific evidence that support the theory that we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe and are in the middle of an extinction event. With this backdrop, you would be forgiven for thinking that an event with the purpose of addressing this crisis would propose significant changes to our current production and consumption patterns. As luck would have it, we seem to inhabit the worst of all possible worlds, where such a common-sense expectation is not met.

The 26th Conference of the Parties (or, COP26) promised much but delivered little. Before the event, there was a genuine sense that this might be a turning point in the fight against climate catastrophe: maybe world leaders could come to together and, for once, put the long-term welfare of our planet and those who inhabit it over short-term profit. Unfortunately, what emerged from COP26 was not very much of anything. Although the so-called Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed to at COP26, “moves the needle” it is nowhere near enough to stop global warming from exceeding the critical threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (our current pathway is for an increase of  2.4°C).

What remains clear (and what was reinforced at COP) is that there remains a gigantic disconnect between what is needed to get a handle on the climate crisis and what is being proposed. Talks of $100bn in aid from the developed to the developing world fall far short of what is actually required. John Kerry, the chief American negotiator, echoed this point by claiming that it is not billions that we need, but trillions (between $2.6tn and $4.6tn, per year). Read more »

How Can We Be Responsible For the Future of AI?

by Fabio Tollon 

Are we responsible for the future? In some very basic sense of responsibility we are: what we do now will have a causal effect on things that happen later. However, such causal responsibility is not always enough to establish whether or not we have certain obligations towards the future.  Be that as it may, there are still instances where we do have such obligations. For example, our failure to adequately address the causes of climate change (us) will ultimately lead to future generations having to suffer. An important question to consider is whether we ought to bear some moral responsibility for future states of affairs (known as forward-looking, or prospective, responsibility). In the case of climate change, it does seem as though we have a moral obligation to do something, and that should we fail, we are on the hook. One significant reason for this is that we can foresee that our actions (or inactions) now will lead to certain desirable or undesirable consequences. When we try and apply this way of thinking about prospective responsibility to AI, however, we might run into some trouble.

AI-driven systems are often by their very nature unpredictable, meaning that engineers and designers cannot reliably foresee what might occur once the system is deployed. Consider the case of machine learning systems which discover novel correlations in data. In such cases, the programmers cannot predict what results the system will spit out. The entire purpose of using the system is so that it can uncover correlations that are in some cases impossible to see with only human cognitive powers. Thus, the threat seems to come from the fact that we lack a reliable way to anticipate the consequences of AI, which perhaps make us being responsible for it, in a forward-looking sense, impossible.

Essentially, the innovative and experimental nature of AI research and development may undermine the relevant control required for reasonable ascriptions of forward-looking responsibility. However, as I hope to show, when we reflect on technological assessment more generally, we may come to see that just because we cannot predict future consequences does not necessary mean there is a “gap” in forward looking obligation. Read more »

GPT-3 Understands Nothing

by Fabio Tollon

It is becoming increasingly common to talk about technological systems in agential terms. We routinely hear about facial recognition algorithms that can identify individuals, large language models (such as GPT-3) that can produce text, and self-driving cars that can, well, drive. Recently, Forbes magazine even awarded GPT-3 “person” of the year for 2020. In this piece I’d like to take some time to reflect on GPT-3. Specifically, I’d like to push back against the narrative that GPT-3 somehow ushers in a new age of artificial intelligence.

GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a third-generation, autoregressive language model. It makes use of deep learning to produce human-like texts, such as sequences of words (or code, or other data) after being fed an initial “prompt” which it then aims to complete. The language model itself is trained on Microsoft’s Azure Supercomputer, uses 175 billion parameters (its predecessor used a mere 1.5 billion) and makes use of unlabeled datasets (such as Wikipedia). This training isn’t cheap, with a price tag of $12 million. Once trained, the system can be used in a wide array of contexts: from language translation, summarization, question answering, etc.

Most of you will recall the fanfare that surrounded The Guardians publication of an article that was written by GPT-3. Many people were astounded at the text that was produced, and indeed, this speaks to the remarkable effectiveness of this particular computational system (or perhaps it speaks more to our willingness to project understanding where there might be none, but more on this later). How GPT-3 produced this particular text is relatively simple. Basically, it takes in a query and then attempts to offer relevant answers using the massive amounts of data at its disposal to do so. How different this is, in kind, from what Google’s search engine does is debatable. In the case of Google, you wouldn’t think that it “understands” your searches. With GPT-3, however, people seemed to get the impression that it really did understand the queries, and that its answers, therefore, were a result of this supposed understanding. This of course lends far more credence to its responses, as it is natural to think that someone who understands a given topic is better placed to answer questions about that topic. To believe this in the case of GPT-3 is not just bad science fiction, it’s pure fantasy. Let me elaborate. Read more »

Tax and the Ethical Community

by Chris Horner

Just about everybody knows what tax is for, and why they need to pay it. Most do so, with varying degrees of reluctance. A few do all they can to avoid paying it, using legal, and sometimes illegal methods. There is a sense that those who do dodge paying tax are doing something wrong, a sense that can be hard to articulate. I want to try to clarify and support people’s sense about tax avoidance as wrong. And I want to suggest why the issue of tax is importantly connected to our lives as social beings.  Why it’s not just about the cash, in other words. 

A lot of a people don’t like paying tax. But they obey the law, and in most cases see the link between the things the state provides and the tax they pay. But they wish they didn’t have to pay it. This is understandable, but misguided. It arises because of a misunderstanding about what tax is, and more than that, a failure to see what one’s place is in the social fabric: a sign that something has done wrong with the way we lead our collective lives. This failure creates an atmosphere in which tax avoidance comes to seem reasonable.

Tax avoidance should be viewed not only as wrong, but as a symptom of a social pathology. It concerns our nature as social creatures, and what it means to be free. Now, while there’s general agreement that there is a big difference between tax evasion (illegal: breaching the law to escape tax), and tax avoidance (legally minimising one’s tax liabilities), there is a lot of confusion about what one’s duties are here. Is it enough to not break the law? I say it isn’t. We should have the right attitude to tax, and failure to have that right attitude indicates something is amiss with the society we live in. I am not considering here the principled decision to withhold tax on ethical or political grounds. That is another matter and one with ramifications that I can’t get into now. I am just considering the general attitude to paying tax in the first place. Read more »

Are We Asking the Right Questions About Artificial Moral Agency?

by Fabio Tollon

Human beings are agents. I take it that this claim is uncontroversial. Agents are that class of entities capable of performing actions. A rock is not an agent, a dog might be. We are agents in the sense that we can perform actions, not out of necessity, but for reasons. These actions are to be distinguished from mere doings: animals, or perhaps even plants, may behave in this or that way by doing things, but strictly speaking, we do not say that they act.

It is often argued that action should be cashed out in intentional terms. Our beliefs, what we desire, and our ability to reason about these are all seemingly essential properties that we might cite when attempting to figure out what makes our kind of agency (and the actions that follow from it) distinct from the rest of the natural world. For a state to be intentional in this sense it should be about or directed towards something other than itself. For an agent to be a moral agent it must be able to do wrong, and perhaps be morally responsible for its actions (I will not elaborate on the exact relationship between being a moral agent and moral responsibility, but there is considerable nuance in how exactly these concepts relate to each other).

In the debate surrounding the potential of Artificial Moral Agency (AMA) this “Standard View” presented above is often a point of contention. The ubiquity of artificial systems in our lives can often lead to us believing that these systems are merely passive instruments. However, this is not always necessarily the case. It is becoming increasingly clear that intuitively “passive” systems, such as recommender algorithms (or even email filter bots), are very receptive to inputs (often by design). Specifically, such systems respond to certain inputs (user search history, etc.) in order to produce an output (a recommendation, etc.). The question that emerges is whether such kinds of “outputs” might be conceived of as “actions”. Moreover, what if such outputs have moral consequences? Might these artificial systems be considered moral agents? This is not to necessarily claim that recommender systems such as YouTube’s are in fact (moral) agents, but rather to think through whether this might be possible (now or in the future). Read more »

YouTube: Designed to Seduce?

by Fabio Tollon

In 2019 Buckey Wolf, a 26-year-old man from Seattle, stabbed his brother in the head with a four-foot long sword. He then called the police on himself, admitting his guilt. Another tragic case of mindless violence? Not quite, as there is far more going on in the case of Buckey Wolf: he committed murder because he believed his brother was turning into a lizard. Specifically, a kind of shape-shifting reptile that lives among us and controls world events. If this sounds fabricated, it’s unfortunately not. Over 12 million Americans believe (“know”) that such lizard people exist, and that they are to be found at the highest levels of government, controlling the world economy for their own cold-blooded interests. This reptilian conspiracy theory was first made popular by well-known charlatan David Icke.

What emerged from further investigation into the Wolf murder case was an interesting trend in his YouTube “likes” over the years. Here it was noted that his interests shifted from music to martial arts, fitness, media criticism, firearms and other weapons, and video games. From here it seems Wolf was thrown into the world of alt-right political content.

In a recent paper Alfano et al. study whether YouTube’s recommender system may be responsible for such epistemically retrograde ideation. Perhaps the first case of murder by algorithm? Well, not quite.

In their paper, the authors aim to discern whether technological scaffolding was at least partially involved in Wolf’s atypical cognition. They make use of a theoretical framework known as technological seduction, whereby technological systems try to read user’s minds and predict what they want. In these scenarios, such as when Google uses predictive text, we as users are “seduced” into believing that Google knows our thoughts, especially when we end up following the recommendations of such systems. Read more »

Moral Relativism and the Concrete Universal

by Chris Horner

Photograph taken by author
                                                                                                                                    

There are some notions, ideas and arguments, that no matter how often they are exposed as fallacious, are rebutted and refuted, seem to recur again and again. Moral relativism is one of them.[1] Put simply, this is the view that one’s moral judgments are delimited by the culture or period in which one lives, so that it is impossible to make meaningful moral judgments about other times and places, since they had or have criteria for what is good or bad that may be quite different from one’s own. It seems to be stuck on ‘repeat’. The perennial nature of such ideas ought itself to make us pause before we repeat the ritual of refutation. We need to ask, what, exactly, the attraction is  – what is it about the idea that seems to make it so irresistibly attractive and inevitable? Rather than an error to be corrected by better reasoning, it looks more like a symptom. Moral relativism never seems to go away, no matter how often philosophers try to swat it. The same is true of a related notion – ethical subjectivism (the view that  moral judgments rest on personal taste, or emotions and nothing more). So rather than just show for the umpteenth time why the arguments for moral relativism are flawed, it would be better to go on to ask why they have this quality of eternal recurrence. There is an insight at the bottom of the idea that has got twisted, and its ‘symptomatic’ aspect has something to do with the nature of alienation in modern society. Read more »

A Shift In The Ethical Ground

by Chris Horner

The statue of  Edward Colston, 17th century slave trader, is dumped into Bristol Harbour.

There are times when customary evils become outlandish and intolerable. Then there is a call for irreversible ethical change, a transformation of more than the way we judge this or that, times in which which old laws are struck down and new ones framed. I want to suggest that a change in the structure of feeling occurs, when the ethical substance of our lives is transformed. This can happen at a glacial pace, or – as now -very quickly indeed. In Lenin’s famous remark ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. 

In such a time as this, people are mobilised in new ways; symbols like statues and flags that might once have been barely registered take on the significance of exemplars. And an act of cruelty that might once have been part of the drab monotony of unchangeable oppression takes on a paradigmatic, mobilising force. Then everything seems to be moving. Of course, one can see change as merely exchanging one kind of ethical outlook for another, with no way of choosing which is best, the view of the moral relativist. ’They thought X was OK back then, and we don’t. Whose to say who is right?’  This is quite mistaken. For a start there were people ‘back then’ who condemned slavery, the subordination of women, empire and much more. The society of the past, as now, did not speak with one voice: it had dissidents, reformers and heretics. Nor is the past hermetically sealed off from the present: we are what they became.  Read more »

What counts as cheating in sport? And why?

by Emrys Westacott

Baseball has always been a thinking person’s game. Like cricket, it seems able to offer an infinite variety of complicated situations demanding subtle analysis, and these are deliciously frozen for everyone to consider and reconsider during the tense, drawn out intervals between moments of active play. Moreover, although afficianados know the rules well, novel problems can always arise. One such puzzler, amusing and thought-provoking, arose in a 2018 game between

You can watch the incident here. Mets third baseman Todd Frazier ran to catch a foul ball, fell over the barrier into the crowd, and immediately surfaced holding the ball aloft. The umpire ruled it a fair catch. Video replays showed, however, that Frazier had not actually caught the ball that the batter hit. The ball he held up in triumph was an imitation baseball that had been lying on a bench close to where he fell over the fence.

Here’s the question: Did Frazier cheat? Most people to whom I have put this question immediately answer “yes.” I then ask: which rule did he break? A little thought makes it clear that he didn’t break any rule. There is no rule against holding up a rubber ball after missing a catch. And there is certainly no rule requiring players to let umpires know if a decision they’ve made is mistaken. What Frazier did could even, arguably, be compared to “framing,” the strategy catchers use when they subtly shift their catching glove to make the umpire think that a pitch is a strike when in fact it’s a ball.

But even when rules are broken, we may not want to describe an action as cheating. Read more »

Are we being manipulated by artificially intelligent software agents?

by Michael Klenk

Someone else gets more quality time with your spouse, your kids, and your friends than you do. Like most people, you probably enjoy just about an hour, while your new rivals are taking a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes each day. But save your jealousy. Your rivals are tremendously charming, and you have probably fallen for them as well.

I am talking about intelligent software agents, a fancy name for something everyone is familiar with: the algorithms that curate your Facebook newsfeed, that recommend the next Netflix film to watch, and that complete your search query on Google or Bing.

Your relationships aren’t any of my business. But I want to warn you. I am concerned that you, together with the other approximately 3 billion social media users, are being manipulated by intelligent software agents online.

Here’s how. The intelligent software agents that you interact with online are ‘intelligent agents’ in the sense that they try to predict your behaviour taking into account what you did in your online past (e.g. what kind of movies you usually watch), and then they structure your options for online behaviour. For example, they offer you a selection of movies to watch next.

However, they do not care much for your reasons for action. How could they? They analyse and learn from your past behaviour, and mere behaviour does not reveal reasons. So, they likely do not understand what your reasons are and, consequently, cannot care for it.

Instead, they are concerned with maximising engagement, a specific type of behaviour. Intelligent software agents want you to keep interacting with them: To watch another movie, to read another news-item, to check another status update. The increase in the time we spend online, especially on social media, suggests that they are getting quite good at this. Read more »

What’s so bad about smugness?

by Emrys Westacott

Elaine: “I hate smugness. Don’t you hate smugness?

Cabdriver, “Smugness is not a good quality.”

So goes a popular snippet from Seinfeld. In a 2014 article in The Guardian titled “Smug: The most toxic insult of them all?” Mark Hooper opined that “there can be few more damning labels in modern Britain than ‘smug.'” And CBS journalist Will Rahn declared, in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, that “modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing [is] its unbearable smugness.”

But what is smugness? What, exactly, do people find objectionable about it? And is it really such a terrible moral failing, worthy of being described as “unbearable”?

What is smugness?

For an immediate graphic example of smugness, just look at a picture of Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson smirking in front of 10 Downing Street. For a less stomach-churning way of getting an initial handle on the concept, consider a few concrete instances. Here are four:

  • Someone on a very high income says, “Yes, I am well compensated, but I like to think I’ve earned it, and that I’m worth it. As a general rule, I think it’s fair to assume that pay reflects merit.”
  • A parent whose children have been admitted to prestigious universities, talking to one whose child is at a less selective college, says, “It’s nice to know that one’s kids will be taught by real experts in the field, and that their classmates will be at their intellectual level.”
  • A punter who has won $500 at the race track backing a rank outside can’t help smirking at the crestfallen faces of his friends who all backed the favorite.
  • A couple regularly preen themselves on their healthy and ecologically responsible eating habits.

Smugness is not arrogance. Arrogant people typically display a sense of their own importance and superiority with little subtlety: they strut; they are dogmatic; they are dismissive of others. Smugness shares with arrogance a high degree of self-satisfaction and a sense of some kind of superiority over others, but it typically manifests itself quietly and indirectly, without brashness. Muhammad Ali, who called himself “The Greatest,” was undeniably sure about his own superiority as a boxer, and he was called many things–arrogant, loud-mouthed, lippy–but I don’t recall anyone describing him as smug. Read more »

Do our moral beliefs need to be consistent?

by Emrys Westacott

We generally think it desirable for our moral and political opinions to be logically consistent. We view inconsistency as a failing. Why?

I'm not talking here about consistency between a person's beliefs and their actions. Failing to practice what we preach is the sort of inconsistency we call hypocrisy, and it's easy to see why we disapprove of that. Hypocrites are less trustworthy and predictable than people whose actions accord with their stated opinions. Nor am I talking about remaining consistent over time, never altering or abandoning one's earlier convictions. That's the sort of “foolish consistency” that Emerson ridiculed as “the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I'm talking about logical consistency between beliefs. Why do we care about this? Exposing inconsistency is a standard move in many an ethical argument. Take the debate about abortion, for instance. A standard argument for viewing abortion as immoral is that it is essentially no different from infanticide, which, as it is the premeditated killing of an innocent human being, meets the definition of murder. Note the form of the argument: if you think murder is wrong, then, to be consistent, you should think infanticide is wrong, in which case, to be consistent, you should think that abortion is wrong. On the other side, a common justification for permitting abortion rests on the idea that a woman has property rights over her own body. Essentially, the argument runs: if you agree that a woman's body is her own property, then consistency requires you to accept that she can do with it as she pleases, and if you agree that the fetus is a part of her body, then consistency requires you to accept that she can do as she pleases with the fetus.

Or take Peter Singer's well-known argument for why all of us who can afford to should give more to help the needy. We all agree it would be wrong to not save someone from drowning just because we didn't want to ruin our shoes. Well, Singer argues, if we think that, then we should also accept that we have a duty to save human lives if we can do so by making similar minor sacrifices–and many of us can do this by donating our disposable income to charity. Whether these lives are close by or far away is irrelevant. Again, the underlying strategy here is an appeal to consistency. If you think x, then you ought, for the sake of consistency, to think y. Many other arguments about moral matters take this form.

But why do we value consistency? In science and in our everyday beliefs about the way things are, there is a straightforward answer. Inconsistent beliefs, taken together, form a contradiction: a proposition that has the form “p and not p.” We assume that reality does not contain contradictions (an assumption first articulated by Parmenides). So we infer that an inconsistent set of beliefs cannot possibly be an accurate description of the way things are.

Read more »

Food Fights: Are They about Mouth Taste or Moral Taste?

by Dwight Furrow

Human beings fight about a lot of things—territory, ideology, religion. Food fights play a special role in this fisticuff economy—they fill the time when we are between wars. Beans or meat alone in a proper chili? Fish or fowl in a proper paella? Vegetarians vs. carnivores. Locavores vs. factory farms. These are debates that divide nations, regions, and families. But they are nothing new. Taboos against eating certain foods have always been a way of marking off a zone of conflict. Kosher and halal rules have little justification aside from the symbolic power of defining the Other as disgusting.

PizzaConflict persists even when food is intended as entertainment. The competition for global culinary capo continues to heat up. The French jealously guarded their supremacy for centuries until supplanted by the upstart Spanish with their molecular concoctions, only to be cast out by the Norwegians who have convinced us of the savor of weeds. Meanwhile the Italians wait for the fennel dust to settle, confident that in the end we always return to pizza and pasta.

The dishes we consume or refuse express our style, our values, and the allegiances to which we pledge. And so it has always been. “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” wrote the gourmand Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Food not only has flavor; it apparently has a “moral taste” as well that informs our self-image as individuals and as members of communities or nations. This “moral taste” is no fleeting or inconsequential preference. It matters and matters deeply. The vegetarian not only prefers vegetables and sees herself as a vegetarian but is taking a moral stance, takes pride in the stance, sees it as a project, a commitment superior in value to the alternatives. The Italian feels the same about eating Italian. It means slow eating, communal eating, la dolce vita. A Genoan's taste for pesto is not merely a preference for the combination of garlic, olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano but a moral taste that carries meaning. Contemporary foodies exhibit a similar zealous commitment. The search for the best barbeque in town is not merely a search for a good meal, but a quest for a peak experience, a realization of a standard, a moral commitment to refuse the taste of the ordinary.

Read more »

Saintly Simulation

by Evan Selinger

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 17 08.14My colleague Thomas Seager and I recently co-wrote “Digital Jiminy Crickets,” an article that proposed a provocative thought experiment. Imagine an app existed that could give you perfect moral advice on demand. Should you use it? Or, would outsourcing morality diminish our humanity? Our think piece merely raised the question, leaving the answer up to the reader. However, Noûs—a prestigious philosophy journal—published an article by Robert J. Howell that advances a strong position on the topic, Google Morals, Virtue, and the Asymmetry of Deference”. To save you the trouble of getting a Ph.D. to read this fantastic, but highly technical piece, I’ll summarize the main points here.

It isn’t easy to be a good person. When facing a genuine moral dilemma, it can be hard to know how to proceed. One friend tells us that the right thing to do is stay, while another tells us to go. Both sides offer compelling reasons—perhaps reasons guided by conflicting but internally consistent moral theories, like utilitarianism and deontology. Overwhelmed by the seeming plausibility of each side, we end up unsure how to solve the riddle of The Clash.

Now, Howell isn’t a cyber utopian, and he certainly doesn’t claim technology will solve this problem any time soon, if ever. Moreover, Howell doesn’t say much about how to solve the debates over moral realism. Based on this article alone, we don’t know if he believes all moral dilemmas can be solved according to objective criteria. To determine if—as a matter of principle—deferring to a morally wise computer would upgrade our humanity, he asks us to imagine an app called Google Morals: “When faced with a moral quandary or deep ethical question we can type a query and the answer comes forthwith. Next time I am weighing the value of a tasty steak against the disvalue of animal suffering, I’ll know what to do. Never again will I be paralyzed by the prospect of pushing that fat man onto the trolley tracks to prevent five innocents from being killed. I’ll just Google it.”

Let’s imagine Google Morals is infallible, always truthful, and 100% hacker-proof. The government can’t mess with it to brainwash you. Friends can’t tamper with it to pull a prank. Rivals can’t adjust it to gain competitive advantage. Advertisers can’t tweak it to lull you into buying their products. Under these conditions, Google Morals is more trustworthy than the best rabbi or priest. Even so, Howell contends, depending on it is a bad idea.

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Tripping Over the Bulges: What Really Matters Morally

by Tauriq Moosa

How should we tackle things we believe are wrong and should be illegal, when it seems their very status of being ‘illegal’ gives rise to the problems we oppose. It’s not drugs per se that bothers us, but the violence and destruction that can arise. It’s not sex itself that’s a problem, it’s how we consider sex and apply it to policy decisions. But using our emotions and knee-jerk reactions and letting it simmer within policies can have disastrous effects for us.

I’ve written before that I don’t quite understand the so-called inherent moral problem of necrophilia. Sure, the deceased’s loved ones might be upset, offended and so on. But aside from these interests, what else should we be concerned about? Health reasons, you say? Well, that’s a problem even for living and consensual partners in sex acts, given STD’s, trust, promiscuity and so on. What makes necrophilia particularly a problem?

The main thing about acts of necrophilia, it seems to me, is revulsion. What makes it particularly potent is the combination of ‘sex’ with death. Sex, for many people, is fraught with moral problems – but, as I’ve briefly highlighted above with necrophilia – it’s not particular to sex with dead bodies or sex with live bodies. Both are apparently problematic. It’s how people consider sex in general.

I don’t quite understand why sex should be considered morally problematic in itself. It is not. Just as driving a car is not problematic in itself: Sure, we can kill others and ourselves, and usually we have partners involved, but that doesn’t mean driving a car is automatically morally problematic. Sex offers pleasure and pain, like most of life. I think that many people are still caught up in absolute right and wrong ways to conduct themselves in and toward sex, instead of realising that like most human actions, sexual relations are dynamic and varied. The ways we approach sex more often has terrible consequences than the results of consensual sex between rational persons.

Consider recently a story in the M&G about prosecuting 12- to 16-year-olds engaged in consensual sex acts.

Recently, children's rights activists were outraged when it emerged that National Prosecution Authority head Menzi Simelane had used the Act to authorise the prosecution of at least two groups of children between the ages of 12 and 16 for having consensual sex — six learners from Mavalani High School in Limpopo and three pupils from Johannesburg.

Simelane did withdraw the charges, but compelled the children to complete something called a “diversion programme”. The problem is the Sexual Offences Act which “makes it illegal for any person to engage in ‘consensual sexual penetration’ with children between the ages of 12 and 16.” It has excellent justification of course: “This Act was designed to address the sexual abuse of children [my emphasis]” – but many of you will no doubt see the arising problem: “But in effect also makes it illegal for youngsters of those ages to have sex.”

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Removing the Blades from Hume’s Guillotine

by Tauriq Moosa

David-Hume-Scotland-17111776-289536 Hume’s Guillotine: “One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. This thesis, which comes from a famous passage in Hume's Treatise [says]: there is a class of statements of fact which is logically distinct from a class of statements of value. No set of statements of fact by themselves entails any statement of value. Put in more contemporary terminology, no set of descriptive statements can entail an evaluative statement without the addition of at least one evaluative premise. To believe otherwise is to commit what has been called the naturalistic fallacy.”

– John Searle, ‘How to Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”’, The Philosophical Review, 1964

Beware, people. This is a long piece. Even I’m uncertain about it. Here we go then.

1.

Major ethicists like Immanuel Kant and indeed – to an extent – Thomas Aquinas sought to establish a rational basis for deriving moral considerations. Why rationality above other justifications? Consider: one and one is two. This is a statement that appears to hold true regardless of the state of the world, whether we’re dreaming or awake (as Descartes famously pointed out in his Meditations), whether we’re in pain, and so on. However there is an implicit assumption being made here, too: that if we do agree that one and one is two, we who agree to this statement are rational agents; that is, beings who accept the constraints and rules of logic and rationality.

This appears to only beg the question: Why should anyone accept that one and one is two? (This problem so vexed the young Bertrand Russell, that he nearly mentally destroyed himself as an adult trying to establish conclusively that one and one is two.) As Sam Harris has said, how do you convince a person not interested in rationality to use rationality? As soon as you start making rational arguments, you’ve already lost.

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