Does the language in which we are thinking about an ethical dilemma affect our decisions? Researchers are finding that, yes, considering a moral problem in the language we learned as a child can yield different decisions from those we reach considering the same problem in another language in which we are fluent. (The specific languages do not seem to matter.)
"Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level “feeling,” and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity. ... An alternative explanation is that differences arise between native and foreign tongues because our childhood languages vibrate with greater emotional intensity than do those learned in more academic settings. As a result, moral judgments made in a foreign language are less laden with the emotional reactions that surface when we use a language learned in childhood."
The University of Kentucky Philosophy Graduate Student Association is sponsoring a day camp from July 9-13 (9 am-4 pm) on UK's Lexington campus for high school students devoted to the theme of justice. The camp is free, but because this is not a residential camp, families must provide their own housing and meals in addition to transportation. For more information, see www.uky.edu/hr/sites/www.uky.edu.hr/files/worklife/documents/ukworklife_2018summercamps_ukphilosophy.pdf
This article on human-robot relationships caught my attention because it tied in perfectly with a discussion my online science fiction class ("Who We Are & What We Dream: Comparative Science Fiction") was having in response to one of the short stories we'd read.
Would "relationships with robots would be fake and illusory: perceptual tricks, foisted on us by commercially driven corporations"? Or are we just deluded into thinking "biological tissue is magic" and that "there is little reason to doubt that a robot that is behaviourally and functionally equivalent to a human cannot sustain a meaningful relationship[?] There is, after all, every reason to suspect that we are programmed, by evolution and culture, to develop loving attachments to one another. It might be difficult to reverse-engineer our programming, but this is increasingly true of robots too, particularly when they are programmed with learning rules that help them to develop their own responses to the world."
Not an April Fools' joke: if you've decided you might actually be interested in the "brain in the vat" experience to extend your natural life, here's a new company that might interest you:
"Nectome is a preserve-your-brain-and-upload-it company. Its chemical solution can keep a body intact for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, as a statue of frozen glass. The idea is that someday in the future scientists will scan your bricked brain and turn it into a computer simulation. That way, someone a lot like you, though not exactly you, will smell the flowers again in a data server somewhere. This story has a grisly twist, though. For Nectome’s procedure to work, it’s essential that the brain be fresh. The company says its plan is to connect people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine in order to pump its mix of scientific embalming chemicals into the big carotid arteries in their necks while they are still alive (though under general anesthesia)."
Julian Baggini, the British philosopher whose thought experiments I often use with my "Philosophically Speaking" students, provides an interesting look at the role language plays in how we think about the things themselves and then considers specifically the difference between "consumers" and "citizens":
"When we think of ourselves as consumers ... we obscure another important identity we have: citizens. Whereas consumers are atomised, autonomous decision-makers, citizens are socialised members of society. Citizens do not see their sphere of influence as limited to who they personally trade with. Consumers value independence, citizens recognise our interdependence. Consumers demand and choose, citizens participate and create. Alexander and Ekkeshis [of the New Citizenship Project] point to research that suggests that when we are primed to think of ourselves as consumers we make more selfish choices and become less trusting than when we are primed to think of ourselves as citizens."
Those interested in the philosophy of mind or the mind-body problem might be interested in the new book by MIT professor of neurobiology Alan Jasanoff: The Biological Mind: How the Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are. This synopsis captures Jasanoff's thesis:
"To many, the brain is the seat of personal identity and autonomy. But the way we talk about the brain is often rooted more in mystical conceptions of the soul than in scientific fact. This blinds us to the physical realities of mental function. We ignore bodily influences on our psychology, from chemicals in the blood to bacteria in the gut, and overlook the ways that the environment affects our behavior, via factors varying from subconscious sights and sounds to the weather. As a result, we alternately overestimate our capacity for free will or equate brains to inorganic machines like computers. But a brain is neither a soul nor an electrical network: it is a bodily organ, and it cannot be separated from its surroundings. Our selves aren't just inside our heads--they're spread throughout our bodies and beyond."
Scientists seem to be getting closer to making real philosophy's famous "brain in a vat" thought experiment:
"Thomas DeMarse, a University of Florida professor of biomedical engineering, says his lab-grown rat 'brain' in a dish can fly a simulated F-22 fighter jet via an array of electrodes. DeMarse grew the 25,000-neuron 'brain' in a glass dish. The cells, cortical neurons cultured from a rat brain, sit atop a 60-electrode grid connected to a desktop computer. The neurons then form a two-way connection with the simulator software—much like how our brain gets input from the senses and in return instructs the body how to act. The simulator sends the neurons information about flight conditions—the plane’s attitude, for example—and the neurons return signals to the plane’s controls to alter its path. The process is repeated in a feedback loop, controlling the plane’s flight."
As researchers advance development of these "neuronal networks," might there be ethical considerations about the kinds of tasks disembodied "brains" should be put to? The article notes they could be used "as living computers to fly drones or perform operations hazardous to humans in disaster areas or war zones."
Most people who hear the name "Adam Smith" think of the "invisible hand" of the marketplace -- a phrase that appears once halfway through his 750+ page tome An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) -- and assume Smith was an economist. In fact, although Smith's subject in Wealth of Nations was political economy, he was a moral philosopher. This article provides a more nuanced understanding of Adam Smith's views on government, marketplaces, liberty, and the public good.
"It is certainly true that there are similarities between what Smith called ‘the system of natural liberty’, and more recent calls for the state to make way for the free market. But if we dig below the surface, what emerges most strikingly are the differences between Smith’s subtle, skeptical view of the role of markets in a free society, and more recent caricatures of him as a free-market fundamentalist avant-la-lettre. For while Smith might be publicly lauded by those who put their faith in private capitalist enterprise, and who decry the state as the chief threat to liberty and prosperity, the real Adam Smith painted a rather different picture."
Moral/political philosopher John Rawls is best known for his work on "justice" in the 1970s -- work I introduce in my "Philosophically Speaking" class and occasionally in my "Mission Possible: Global Issues, Leadership Choices" class -- but Rawls spent the last 20 years of his career considering the problems inherent in a democracy. This article from Philosophy Now (UK) provides a quick summary of Rawls's insightful (and prescient) 1993 work, Political Liberalism, which focuses on the democratically necessary ingredient of "reasonableness":
"Political Liberalism starts with the observation that the cultural environment of modern democracies contains diverse religious and philosophically-based moral doctrines. Rawls argues that this diversity is not surprising, since the protection of personal freedom that democratic societies promote naturally leads over time to increasing diversity in what he calls ‘the background culture’, that is, civil society – the space where we cultivate our personal ideals and goals. Highlighting that the background culture of modern democracies is marked by diversity is nothing new or particularly illuminating. Most of us only have to look around to see that. What is new, which Rawls appreciated with incredible insight, is that this mounting diversity introduces a particular justificatory problem for democracy. The problem can be stated as follows: if the beliefs that we hold are conflicting and irreconcilable, which of them can be used to justify the democratic system itself? Put differently, if I am not willing to endorse a political system based on your beliefs, and you are not willing to accept one based on mine, then how are we going to set any common rules to help us live together? ...
"As Rawls defines the term, an idea or person counts as politically reasonable if they exhibit two main characteristics: 1) They have to respect the principle of democratic justification – meaning that they have to propose terms of social cooperation that others might also endorse; and 2) They have to recognize what Rawls calls ‘the burdens of judgment’ – the fact that other citizens can arrive at different beliefs in their honest search for truth. Putting these two elements together, we can say that a politically reasonable person is one who offers reciprocal terms of cooperation, refraining from using political power to favor their own worldview or repress the views of other reasonable people. ...
"If you and I and others fundamentally disagree in our beliefs, but if we all uphold the requirements of reasonableness – if we respect the need for democratic justification and accept that people will forever have different fundamental beliefs – then there will be enough overlap amongst us to facilitate consensus at a political level. The fact that our thinking is reasonable is what ties us all together despite our fundamental disagreements. Exactly how each religious or secular tradition justifies to itself the need to respect the virtue of reasonableness is not political liberalism’s concern. What matters is that they do so somehow. For a democracy to be stable in the midst of irreconcilable diversity, the doctrines of its citizens need to be reasonable. ...
"Unreasonable citizens reject the idea that their obligations as citizens take precedence over their beliefs. ... Rawls recognized that if citizens fail to uphold reasonableness, the whole edifice of liberal democracy would be in peril. ... There is nothing political liberalism can say to those looking to elevate their own version of morality into the political sphere, other than flagging up the fact that they’re being politically unreasonable. ... Since we have little to say to unreasonable actors other than pointing out their lack of reasonableness – which is unlikely to make them lose much sleep – then the only thing left for political liberalism is 'the practical task of containing them – like war and disease – so that they do not overturn political justice'. By drawing the limits of what can be tolerated as reasonableness, political liberalism licenses the state to eradicate uncooperative fundamentalism within it like a disease."
But, as with all diseases, success in curing the body politic depends on catching the problem in time -- and agreeing to the cure.
How utilitarian are you? Researchers at Oxford University created this test to gauge how likely people were to agree with statements that espouse a "greatest good for the greatest number" approach to ethics. It's only nine questions long; give it a try! blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/test/how-utilitarian-are-you-the-oxford-utilitarianism-scale/
Often, the most intellectually challenging issues of moral philosophy are not right vs. wrong but right vs. right: how do we balance conflicting interests when rights collide? This article from Philosophy Now (UK) considers free speech vs. protections against hate speech.
"In this era of growing ethno-nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and America, and indeed, worldwide, debates over hate speech are intensifying. Decent people argue that the terrifying rhetoric of extreme right wing groups online and on the streets – and escalating confrontations – demonstrate the necessity of hate speech laws. Supporters of freedom of speech have responded that the non-coercive speech of all should be protected – including the free speech of racists, neo-Nazis, and bigots. In diverse liberal societies, they argue, it is inconsistent for the state, or even powerful social media platforms such as Facebook, to protect some expressions of ideas while banning others merely because some groups object to it. It is also likely, they argue, that hate speech laws or bans can be weaponized against their advocates, such that polemical ideas by minority activists or leftist radicals can also be prohibited when their right-wing or authoritarian enemies turn hate speech prohibitions to their own advantage.
The stalemated debate between these two positions suggests a sort of ‘incommensurability of values’ that Isaiah Berlin once wrote about – between liberty on the one side and human dignity and civic equality on the other. They’re all prized and recognized to have tremendously beneficial consequences when realized in law and in custom. Yet an increase in free speech often involves some diminishing of dignity. Freedom for the swaggering bully takes away equality and dignity for those at the bottom of the playground pecking order. Conversely, enforcing equality and respect for dignity involves some diminishment in liberty. The would-be bully keeps his thoughts and urges to himself, but perhaps so do many others, as the vigilant headmistress casts her shadow over a quieter, seemingly more egalitarian playground.
I want to suggest that a compromise between freedom and dignity over the problem of hate speech might be possible. My approach is inspired by a philosophy called perfectionism. Perfectionists typically hold that there are objective values or goods whose promotion contributes to morally valuable ways of life, nurturing the ‘better angels’ of human nature; and also that objective moral value means some ways of life are more valuable than others. Many (but not all) moral perfectionists think that the state has a role in promoting the better ways of life by passing legislation and distributing resources to enhance different goods or promote different values, in areas such as welfare, education, the arts and sciences, employment, and civic morality. For such perfectionists, laws against hate speech make sense in terms of promoting more mutually-respectful ways of living in diverse societies."
In 1974, philosopher Robert Nozick introduced his famous "experience machine" thought experiment:
"Imagine you live in a world where you have access to an ‘experience machine’ that generates every imaginable sensation. There are no limits to the experiences you can have, from eating a favourite dish, going on an exotic holiday, having a chat with an old friend or famous person, or happily falling in love. By plugging into this machine, you can experience everything you desire. Such machines could evidently generate immense pleasure for the person plugged in, creating a degree of happiness rarely, if ever, lived in the real world. And since you’re made to forget that you’ve been plugged in, this happiness can be without even realising that the experiences producing it are not of a real world. The only moment when the person is aware of plugging in is when making the choice to connect to the machine. After that, blissful ignorance sets in and the subject forgets it ever happened. Everything from that moment onwards feels as real as it possibly could. The only catch is that you would have to stay plugged in."
This article from Philosophy Now questions Nozick's claim -- and our claims -- that we wouldn't want to plug into the experience machine. philosophynow.org/issues/122/To_Connect_Or_Not_To_Connect
Do you know a K-12 student interested in issues surrounding the question of "truth"? (Does it exist? How would we know? What is the difference between knowledge and belief? Are there degrees of truth? Does truth matter?) Questions, a journal that publishes the philosophical work of K-12 students, is soliciting submissions for its upcoming issue on "truth." Entries are due April 30. For more information, see www.plato-philosophy.org/journal-questions/
Are you "entitled to your opinion"? In this article, Australian philosophy professor Patrick Stokes argues that, no, it's not that simple:
"The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.
"Firstly, what’s an opinion?
"Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.
"You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. ...
"So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?
"If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven. But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred."
How does alcohol consumption affect moral decision making? A study conducted among bargoers in Grenoble, France, found that the higher a person's blood alcohol level, the more likely he or she would be to throw the switch in the trolley problem, killing one person to save five. Does that mean inebriation turns people into utilitarians? Or that alcohol shuts down social cognition circuitry, reducing concern for the one to be sacrificed? Or just that higher-order cognition is impaired and ethical decision-making when inebriated comes down to "going for it" and hoping everything works out? Regardless of the reason, the study suggests alcohol consumption affects not only motor skills and reaction times but also the ethical choices we would make even if our motor skills and reaction times were not impaired. www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/the-cold-logic-of-drunk-people/381908/
Consciousness is a central concern to philosophers who specialize in the philosophy of mind. A new paper, on which the excerpt below is based, challenges our beliefs about the meaning of consciousness:
"Everyone knows what it feels like to have consciousness: it’s that self-evident sense of personal awareness, which gives us a feeling of ownership and control over the thoughts, emotions and experiences that we have every day. Most experts think that consciousness can be divided into two parts: the experience of consciousness (or personal awareness), and the contents of consciousness, which include things such as thoughts, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, intentions, memories and emotions. It’s easy to assume that these contents of consciousness are somehow chosen, caused or controlled by our personal awareness – after all, thoughts don’t exist until until we think them.
"But ... [we] suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated 'behind the scenes' by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. All this happens without any interference from our personal awareness, which sits passively in the passenger seat while these processes occur. Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them.
"If this sounds strange, consider how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before; how thoughts and emotions – welcome or otherwise – arrive already formed in our minds; how the colours and shapes we see are constructed into meaningful objects or memorable faces without any effort or input from our conscious mind. ...
"[A]s a passive accompaniment to non-conscious processes, we don't think that the phenomenon of personal awareness [the experience of consciousness] has a purpose, in much the same way that rainbows do not. Rainbows simply result from the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight through water droplets -- not of which serves any particular purpose."
This recent article from Science News caught my attention because it tied in perfectly with a discussion my students and I were having in my online science fiction class, but it is also an excellent example of contemporary discussions in bioethics:
"Until recently, that sort of fiddling with human DNA was only science fiction and allegory, a warning against a new kind of eugenics that could pit the genetic haves and have-nots against each other. At a symposium sponsored by the Hastings Center on October 26 before the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco, ethicists and journalists explored the flip side of that discussion: whether parents have a moral obligation to make “better” babies through genetic engineering. ... For Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, the answer is yes. Parents are morally obligated to take steps to keep their children healthy, he says. That includes vaccinating them and giving them medicine when they’re ill. Genetic technologies are no different, he argues."
This thoughtful article from the BBC (UK) looks at the ethical choices programmers face in designing driverless cars, autonomous weapons, even caregiving robots:
"What kind of ethics should we programme into the car? How should we value the life of the driver compared to bystanders or passengers in other cars? Would you buy a car that was prepared to sacrifice its driver to spare the lives of pedestrians? If so, you're unusual. Then there's the thorny matter of who's going to make these ethical decisions. Will the government decide how cars make choices? Or the manufacturer? Or will it be you, the consumer? Will you be able to walk into a showroom and select the car's ethics as you would its colour? "I'd like to purchase a Porsche utilitarian 'kill-one-to-save-five' convertible in blue please…""
Kids Philosophy Slam has released its 2018 essay contest topic: "Truth or deceit: which has a greater impact on society?" The contest is open to all K-12 students, including international students, with different contest categories by age. The deadline for submissions is March 9. www.philosophyslam.org/
Next Thursday is World Philosophy Day :-D. In 2002, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared the third Thursday in November each year to be World Philosophy Day. Why does the UN think it's worthwhile to promote the study of philosophy? According to UNESCO, World Philosophy Day was created in part to "foster philosophical analysis, research and studies on major contemporary issues, so as to respond more effectively to the challenges that are confronting humanity today and to raise public awareness of the importance of philosophy and its critical use in the choices arising for many societies from the effects of globalization or entry into modernity." www.un.org/en/events/philosophyday/
Colloquially, at least, we tend to think of a statement as logical or illogical. But within philosophy, there are multiple logics. This article provides a brief overview of developments in logic, from the ancient to the contemporary. blog.oup.com/2016/07/history-of-logic/
In honor of Halloween, I am sharing the only philosophy thought experiment I know involving a spider :-). Moral philosophy is concerned with questions about life choices, what it means to live a "good life," and right conduct, which we often take to mean doing the right thing. But sometimes doing the right thing may mean doing nothing at all. In his book The View from Nowhere, contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel shares an anecdote about a spider to demonstrate that because we don't know what it's like to be someone else, we can't always know what is best for someone else:
One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men's room in 1879 Hall, a building that houses the Philosophy Department. When the urinal wasn't in use, he would perch on the metal drain at its base, and when it was, he would try to scramble out of the way, sometimes managing to climb an inch or two up the porcelain wall at a point that wasn't too wet. But sometimes he was caught, tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent. He didn't seem to like it, and always got out of the way if he could. But it was a floor-length urinal with a sunken base and a smooth overhanging lip: he was below floor level and couldn't get out.
Somehow he survived, presumably feeding on tiny insects attracted to the site, and was still there when the fall term began. The urinal must have been used more than a hundred times a day, and always it was the same desperate scramble to get out of the way. His life seemed miserable and exhausting.
Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. None of the other regulars did anything to alter the situation, but as the months wore on and fall turned to winter I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision to liberate him. I reflected that if he didn't like it on the outside, or didn't find enough to eat, he could easily go back. So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.
He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened. I pushed him an inch or two along the tiles, right next to the urinal, but he still didn't respond. He seemed to be paralyzed. I felt uneasy but thought that if he didn't want to stay on the tiles when he came to, a few steps would put him back. Meanwhile he was close to the wall and not in danger of being trodden on. I left, but when I came back two hours later he hadn't moved.
The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor.
PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) has released the topic for this year's high school essay contest, which draws on epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge: "What is truth? What makes a claim -- that is, something we think, believe, hear, say, or read -- true or false?" The essay contest is open to all high school students in the U.S. Entries are due by Jan. 31, 2018. www.plato-philosophy.org/high-school-essay-contest/
University of Manchester philosophy professor Helen Beebee recently noted in an article for IAI News (UK), "It's no coincidence that a lot of philosophers are big fans of science fiction ... [and] if you're a science fiction fan, you're probably a philosopher at heart." The movie Blade Runner, the sequel of which is in theaters now, is a case in point. Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick sci fi novella "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," considers philosophical questions surrounding the issue of personal identity. For many of us, our identity, our sense of self, is linked to the issue of memory: if our bodies and our brains were switched (a la Freaky Friday, among others), most of us believe "we" would be where are brains are, our brains being the repository of our memories and whatever else we believe makes us *us*. In the original Blade Runner, the replicant Rachael finds out her memories are not actually hers, forcing a fundamental re-think of who she is. (Incidentally, students in my online lit class, "Who We Are & What We Dream: Comparative Science Fiction," just read a different Philip K. Dick story this week.)
Want to be a millionaire? Study philosophy :-). This year's Berggruen Prize, a $1 million prize in philosophy funded by German-American billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, has been awarded to Cambridge moral philosopher Onora O'Neill for her work on issues relating to informed consent, standards of justice, obligations during famine, trust, and who is responsible for securing human rights. www.nytimes.com/2017/10/03/arts/onora-oneill-berggruen-prize.html
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