Category Archives: Philosophy

Gaming Newcomb’s Paradox II: Game Mechanics

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Newcomb’s Paradox was created by William Newcomb of the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The dread philosopher Robert Nozick published a paper on it in 1969 and it was popularized in Martin Gardner’s 1972 Scientific American column.

As a philosopher, a game master (a person who runs a tabletop role playing game) and an author of game adventures, I am rather fond of puzzles and paradoxes. As a philosopher, I can (like other philosophers) engage in the practice known as “just making stuff up.” As an adventure author, I can do the same—but I need to present the actual mechanics of each problem, puzzle and paradox. For example, a trap description has to specific exactly how the trap works, how it may be overcome and what happens if it is set off. I thought it would be interesting to look at Newcomb’s Paradox from a game master perspective and lay out the possible mechanics for it. But first, I will present the paradox and two stock attempts to solve it.

The paradox involves a game controlled by the Predictor, a being that is supposed to be masterful at predictions. Like many entities with but one ominous name, the Predictor’s predictive capabilities vary with each telling of the tale. The specific range is from having an exceptional chance of success to being infallible. The basis of the Predictor’s power also vary. In the science-fiction variants, it can be a psychic, a super alien, or a brain scanning machine. In the fantasy versions, the Predictor is a supernatural entity, such as a deity. In Nozick’s telling of the tale, the predictions are “almost certainly” correct and he stipulates that “what you actually decide to do is not part of the explanation of why he made the prediction he made”.

Once the player confronts the Predictor, the game is played as follows. The Predictor points to two boxes. Box A is clear and contains $1,000.  Box B is opaque. The player has two options: just take box B or take both boxes. The Predictor then explains to the player the rules of its game: the Predictor has already predicted what the player will do. If the Predictor has predicted that the player will take just B, B will contain $1,000,000. Of course, this should probably be adjusted for inflation from the original paper. If the Predictor has predicted that the player will take both boxes, box B will be empty, so the player only gets $1,000. In Nozick’s version, if the player chooses randomly, then box B will be empty. The Predictor does not inform the player of its prediction, but box B is either empty or stuffed with cash before the players actually picks. The game begins and ends when the player makers her choice.

This paradox is regarded as a paradox because the two stock solutions are in conflict. The first stock solution is that the best choice is to take both boxes. If the Predictor has predicted the player will take both boxes, the player gets $1,000. If the Predicator has predicted (wrongly) that the player will take B, she gets $1,001,000. If the player takes just B, then she risks getting $0 (assuming the Predicator predicted wrong).

The second stock solution is that the best choice is to take B. Given the assumption that the Predictor is either infallible or almost certainly right, then if the player decides to take both boxes, she will get $1,000.  If the player elects to take just B, then she will get $1,000,000. Since $1,000,000 is more than $1,000, the rational choice is to take B. Now that the paradox has been presented, I can turn to laying out some possible mechanics in gamer terms.

One obvious advantage of crafting the mechanics for a game is that the author and the game master know exactly how the mechanic works. That is, she knows the truth of the matter. While the players in role-playing games know the basic rules, they often do not know the full mechanics of a specific challenge, trap or puzzle. Instead, they need to figure out how it works—which often involves falling into spiked pits or being ground up into wizard burger. Fortunately, Newcomb’s Paradox has very simple game mechanics, but many variants.

In game mechanics, the infallible Predictor is easy to model. The game master’s description would be as follows: “have the player character (PC) playing the Predictor’s game make her choice. The Predictor is infallible, so if the player takes box B, she gets the million. If the player takes both, she gets $1,000.” In this case, the right decision is to take B. After all, the Predictor is infallible. So, the solution is easy.

Predicted choice Actual choice Payout
A and B A and B $1,000
A and B B only $0
B only A and B $1,001,000
B only B only $1,000,000

A less-than infallible Predictor is also easy to model with dice. The description of the Predictor simply specifies the accuracy of its predictions. So, for example: “The Predictor is correct 99% of the time. After the player character makes her choice, roll D100 (generating a number from 1-100). If you roll 100, the Predictor was wrong. If the PC picked just box B, it is empty and she gets nothing because the Predictor predicted she would take both. If she picked both, B is full and she gets $1,001,000 because the Predictor predicted she would just take one. If you roll 1-99, the Predictor was right. If the PC picked box B, she gets $1,000,000. If she takes both, she gets $1,000 since box B is empty.” In this case, the decision is a gambling matter and the right choice can be calculated by considering the chance the Predictor is right and the relative payoffs. Assuming the Predictor is “almost always right” would make choosing only B the rational choice (unless the player absolutely and desperately needs only $1,000), since the player who picks just B will “almost always” get the $1,000,000 rather than nothing while the player who picks both will “almost always” get just $1,000. But, if the Predictor is “almost always wrong” (or even just usually wrong), then taking both would be the better choice. And so on for all the fine nuances of probability. The solution is relatively easy—it just requires doing some math based on the chance the Predictor is correct in its predictions. As such, if the mechanism of the Predicator is specified, there is no paradox and no problem at all. But, of course, in a role-playing game puzzle, the players should not know the mechanism.

If the game master is doing her job, when the players are confronted by the Predictor, they will not know the predictor’s predictive powers (and clever players will suspect some sort of trick or trap). The game master will say something like “after explaining the rules, the strange being says ‘my predictions are nearly always right/always right’ and sets two boxes down in front of you.” Really clever players will, of course, make use of spells, items, psionics or technology (depending on the game) to try to determine what is in the box and the capabilities of the Predictor. Most players will also consider just attacking the Predictor and seeing what sort of loot it has. So, for the game to be played in accord with the original version, the game master will need to provide plausible ways to counter all these efforts so that the players have no idea about the abilities of the Predictor or what is in box B. In some ways, this sort of choice would be similar to Pascal’s famous Wager: one knows that the Predictor will get it right or it won’t. But, in this case, the player has no idea about the odds of the Predictor being right. In this case, from the perspective of the player who is acting in ignorance, taking both boxes yields a 100% chance of getting $1,000 and somewhere between 0 and 100% chance of getting the extra $1,000,000. Taking the B box alone yields a 100% chance of not getting the $1,000 and some chance between 0% and 100% of getting $1,000,000. When acting in ignorance, the safe bet is to take both: the player walks away with at least $1,000. Taking just B is a gamble that might or might not pay off. The player might walk away with nothing or $1,000,000.

But, which choice is rational can depend on many possible factors. For example, suppose the players need $1,000 to buy a weapon they need to defeat the big boss monster in the dungeon, then picking the safe choice would be the smart choice: they can get the weapon for sure. If they need $1,001,000 to buy the weapon, then picking both would also be a smart choice, since that is the only way to get that sum in this game. If they need $1,000,000 to buy the weapon, then there is no rational way to pick between taking one or both, since they have no idea what gives them the best chance of getting at least $1,000,000. Picking both will get them $1,000 but only gets them the $1,000,000 if the Predictor predicted wrong. And they have no idea if it will get it wrong. Picking just B only gets them $1,000,000 if the Predictor predicted correctly. And they have no idea if it will get it right.

In the actual world, a person playing the game with the Predictor would be in the position of the players in the role-playing game: she does not know how likely it is that the Predictor will get it right. If she believes that the Predictor will probably get it wrong, then she would take both. If she thinks it will get it right, she would take just B. Since she cannot pick randomly (in Nozick’s scenario B is empty if the players decides by chance), that option is not available. As such, Newcomb’s Paradox is an epistemic problem: the player does not know the accuracy of the predictions but if she did, she would know how to pick. But, if it is known (or just assumed) the Predictor is infallible or almost always right, then taking B is the smart choice (in general, unless the person absolutely must have $1,000). To the degree that the Predictor can be wrong, taking both becomes the smarter choice (if the Predictor is always wrong, taking both is the best choice). So, there seems to be no paradox here. Unless I have it wrong, which I certainly do.

 

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Transhumanism and The Journal of Evolution and Technology

This piece was first published over on the IEET site (and I’ve also just reblogged it at my personal blog, The Hellfire Club). It sets out briefly what The Journal of Evolution and Technology is all about, for those who might be interested.

I’ve had the honor of serving as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology (henceforth “JET”) since January 2008 – so it’s now approaching seven years! Where did the time go? Having been invited by Kris Notaro to write something about an aspect of transhumanism as it involves me professionally, I’m taking the opportunity to reflect briefly on JET and its mission. We have a great story to tell, and perhaps we should tell it more often.

JET was founded in 1998 as The Journal of Transhumanism, and was originally published by the World Transhumanist Association. In November 2004, it moved under the umbrella of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which, of course, seeks to contribute to understanding of the impact of emerging technologies on individuals and societies. This year, then, we are celebrating the first decade of the journal’s publication by the IEET.

My four predecessors in the editorial chair – Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson, Mark Walker, and James Hughes – have each contributed in distinguished ways to the transhumanist movement and transhumanist thought. They developed the journal as a leading forum for discussion of the future of the human species and whatever might come after it.

JET is now one of the IEET’s flagship operations. It maintains standards of scholarship, originality, intellectual rigor, and peer review similar to those of well-established academic journals. It differs in its willingness to publish material that comparable journals might consider too radical or speculative. The editors welcome high-quality submissions on a wide range of relevant topics and from almost any academic discipline or interdisciplinary standpoint.

We have a publication schedule that assigns one volume to each year, with an irregular number of issues per volume. Each issue contains a mix of articles, reviews, and sometimes other forms such as symposia and peer commentaries. We publish both regular issues – based on submissions received from time to time – and special issues. The latter may, for example, take the form of edited conference proceedings, or they may result from calls for papers on a designated topics.

Recent special issues have covered such topics as Nietzsche and European posthumanisms, machine intelligence, and basic income guarantee schemes in the context of technological change.

Generally speaking, we publish individual articles as they are received, peer-reviewed, and edited, which allows a quick turnaround from acceptance to publication. With our relatively modest resources and the challenges inherent in a journal with such a wide interdisciplinary agenda, we are sometimes slower than we’d wish in making initial decisions to accept or reject, but we strive to overcome those problems and we give careful attention at all stages to each submission that we receive. We work closely with authors to get published articles into the best possible form to communicate to a highly educated but diverse audience, and we’ve often received grateful thanks for our editorial input. In short, we have much to offer potential contributors who are producing research at the leading edge of transhumanist thought. If that sounds like you, please think of submitting to JET.

Central to our thinking, and implicit in the title “evolution and technology,” is the idea – increasingly familiar and plausible – that the human species stands at the threshold of a new form of evolution. This is very different from the slow Darwinian mechanisms of differential survival and reproduction. It is powered, rather, by new technologies that increasingly work their way inward, transforming human bodies and minds. According to this idea, technology can do more than merely give us tools to manipulate the world around us. It can actually alter us, and not just by shaping our neurological pathways when we learn to handle new tools. Our future may, in part, be the product of emerging technologies of human transformation, ranging from genetic engineering to pharmaceutical cognitive enhancement to such radical possibilities as mind uploading and all that it might imply.

This idea of a technologically mediated process of evolution is, of course, familiar to transhumanists, who envisage (and generally welcome) the emergence of intelligences with greater-than-human physical and cognitive capacities. Even outside the transhumanist movement, however, there’s an increasing familiarity with the general idea of a new kind of evolution, no longer the product of Darwinian mechanisms but driven by technology and deliberate choices.

At the same time, this idea, in all its forms, remains controversial. Even if we grant it our broad acceptance there remains much to debate. It is unclear just how the process might be manifested in the years to come, just where it might take us or our successors, and what downsides there might be. No serious person should doubt that there will be risks, possibly on a global scale, in any path of transition from human to posthuman intelligence.

The idea of technologically mediated evolution, perhaps with a great transition from human to posthuman, merits careful study from all available viewpoints. Among writers and thinkers who take the idea seriously, there are bound to be disagreements. To what extent is the process already happening? If it accelerates or continues over a vast span of time, will this be a good thing or a bad thing – or is it a phenomenon that resists moral evaluation? What visions of the human or posthuman future are really plausible: for example, does the idea of mind uploading make good sense when subjected to scientific and logical scrutiny? Reasonable answers to such questions range from radical transhumanist visions of sweeping, rapid, entirely desirable change to various kinds of skepticism, caution, or concern.

JET welcomes a spectrum of views on all this, and we have been willing to publish intellectually serious critiques of transhumanist views alongside radical manifestos by transhumanists. We are unusual, though, in providing a forum for radical proponents of new technology to develop their visions in detail, and with a rigor seldom found elsewhere. Their ideas are then available in their strongest form for scrutiny from admirers and critics alike.

As I said at the start, there’s a great story to tell about JET – the journal has a rich history and exciting prospects for the future. If you’re not familiar with what we do, please check us out!

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kNOwMORE, Sexual Violence & Brands

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Florida State UniversityPhoto credit: Wikipedia)

Florida State University, which is across the tracks from my own Florida A&M University, has had some serious problems with sexual violence involving students. One response to this has been the creation of a student driven campaign to address the problem with a brand and marketing:

 

Students developed the “kNOw More” brand to highlight the dual message of Florida State’s no tolerance stance on sexual violence and education efforts focused on prevention. Students also are leading marketing efforts for a campaign, “Ask. Respect. Don’t Expect,” aimed at raising awareness among their peers about obtaining clear consent for sexual activity and bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault or misconduct.

As an ethical person and a university professor, I certainly support efforts to reduce sexual violence on campuses (and anywhere). However, I found the use of the terms “brand” and “marketing efforts” somewhat disconcerting.

The main reason for this is that I associate the term “brand” with things like sodas, snack chips and smart phones rather than with efforts to combat sexual violence in the context of higher education. This sort of association creates, as I see it, some concerns.

The first is that the use of “brand” and “marketing efforts” in the context of sexual violence has the potential to trivialize the matter. Words, as the feminists rightly say, do matter. Speaking in terms of brands and marketing efforts makes it sound like Florida State sees the matter as on par with a new brand of FSU college products that will be promoted by marketing efforts. It would not seem too much to expect that the matter would be treated with more respect in terms of the language used.

The second concern ties back to a piece I wrote in 2011, “The University as a Business.” This essay was written in response to the reaction of Florida A&M University’s president to the tragic death of Florida A&M University student Robert Champion in a suspected hazing incident. The president, who has since resigned, wrote that “preserving the image and the FAMU brand is of paramount importance to me.” The general problem is that thinking of higher education in business terms is a damaging mistake that is harmful to the true mission of higher education, namely education. The specific problem is that addressing terrible things like killing and sexual violence in terms of brands and marketing is morally inappropriate. The brand and marketing view involve the ideas that moral problems are to be addressed in the same manner that one would address a sales decline in chips and this suggests that the problems are mainly a matter of public relations. That is, the creation of an appearance of action rather than effective action.

One obvious reply to my concerns is that terms such as “brand” and “marketing effort” are now the correct terms to use. That is, they are acceptable because of common use and I am thus reading too much into the matter.

On the one hand, that is a reasonable reply—I might be behind the times in terms of the terms. On the other hand, the casual acceptance of business terms in such a context would seem to support my view.

Another reply to my concerns is that the branding and marketing are aimed at addressing the problem of sexual violence and hence my criticism of the terminology is off the mark. This does have some appeal. After all, as people so often say, if the branding and marketing has some positive impact, then that would be good. However, this does not show that my concerns about the terminology and apparent underlying world-view are mistaken.

 

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Buffer Zones & Consistency

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In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.

Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.

While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.

One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court.  Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.

A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently.  Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.

One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.

My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).

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Facts & Sincerely Held Beliefs

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The Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States raised numerous issues including a rather interesting one regarding beliefs and facts. Oversimplifying things for the sake of brevity, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.

As I tell my students in my ethics class, a moral issue often involves three main components. The first consists of the relevant facts. Put very simply, a factual matter is such that the claim being made is true or false regardless of how we think or feel about its truth.  For example, the mass of an object is a factual matter. Factual matters can become rather complicated by the fact that one might need to sort out the key concepts before determining the truth of a factual claim. As such, it should be no surprise that the second consists of the relevant concepts. Sorting out this aspect of a moral dispute involves arguing in defense of the concepts—that is, presenting and defending definitions of the key terms. In the Hobby Lobby case, one of the key concepts is that of abortion. As noted above, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim that certain birth control methods are actually methods of abortion. This seems to be because the Hobby Lobby owners believe that life begins at conception and they seem to reject the notion that pregnancy begins at implantation.  This is, obviously enough, a rather important matter in regards to these methods being abortion or birth control.

If pregnancy begins at implantation (which is the scientific consensus), then the methods in question (specifically those which prevent implantation) do not involve abortion.  As such, the owners of Hobby Lobby would hold factual incorrect beliefs regarding these methods of birth control and this would undercut their moral position. After all, if those methods are not abortion and their moral opposition is based on a factual error, their moral opposition would thus be unfounded.

However, if pregnancy begins at conception (which is not the scientific consensus), then these methods do involve abortion. In this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby would be factually correct. This still leaves open the question of whether their moral claims are correct or not. After all, a person can be right about the facts but be wrong about the morality, which leads to the third component, that of morality.

Obviously enough, a moral issue has a moral component. In this case, the moral issue is whether or not abortion is morally wrong. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to believe this—but belief does not entail that a claim is true. After all, people sincerely believe false claims quite often. Fortunately for the owners of Hobby Lobby, they did not have to even argue that their moral beliefs are correct or even plausible—all that was required was establishing that their religious beliefs are sincere—that is, they believe what they claim to believe. Given the context, this is not unreasonable—after all, the issue addressed by the court was not whether abortion is morally wrong or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby did not even need to argue in defense of their factual claims and their concepts—that is, they did not need to make the case that pregnancy occurs at conception and that the methods in question cause abortions rather than serving as birth control (of the non-abortion sort).   Apparently, they merely needed to establish that they believe what they claim to believe. This raises an interesting general issue that goes beyond the specific Hobby Lobby case: should facts matter when considering cases involving value beliefs (such as religious or moral beliefs)?

On the one hand, it can be argued that the facts should not matter—at least in the sense of requiring that the beliefs in question be proven. This can be based on practicality: religious beliefs would be extremely difficult to prove and this would impose too great a burden on those bringing legal cases involving their values. Also, cases about belief are (as others have argued) not about the truth of the beliefs but about the right to hold said beliefs.

On the other hand, it can be argued that facts do matter—especially when the beliefs have an impact on other people. Returning to the case of Hobby Lobby, the idea is that the owners should not be required to follow the law because they are opposed to abortion and they believe that the birth control methods cause abortions. If it is claimed that it does not matter whether the owners are right or wrong about their factual claims, this establishes the general principle that the truth of the claims does not matter. This raises the question of how far this principle should extend.

In the Hobby Lobby case, to say that the facts are not relevant might not seem so serious. After all, the question of when life begins is one that is disputed and the Hobby Lobby owners could engage in a conceptual dispute over the definition of “abortion” in a plausible way. But, suppose that the principle that the facts do not matter, only the sincerity. This would entail that if the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that paying women the same as men caused abortions, then all that would matter would be the sincerity of their beliefs. The fact that such a claim would be obviously false and absurd would not matter—after all, once the principle that truth is irrelevant is accepted, then truth is irrelevant. As long as the owners could show they sincerely believed that equal pay for women would cause abortions, then the actual facts would not matter. This certainly seems to set a problematic precedent.

 

 

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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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Environmental philosophy conferences: To fly, or not to fly?

Can one justify, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, flying to conferences on environmental philosophy?
First, let me make clear that the issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to help stop dangerous climate change, is of secondary importance. The primary issue is political: collective action is what is really needed if we are to do enough to stop manmade climate change. If I choose not to fly, the actual positive impact on the climate resulting from my decision may be less than small: it may even be zero (if it sends a tiny price signal, by reducing demand for fuel, that others then burn up more readily because it is slightly cheaper than it would otherwise have been). Whereas, if I get involved in a successful collective effort to rein in emissions (e.g. a successful international climate treaty), that effort will have a very large impact, a guaranteed impact that cannot be bypassed by others’ short-term self-interested economic behaviour.
The issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to stop dangerous climate change, is then of secondary importance; but secondary importance is still a kind of importance. Furthermore, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, one needs to take a lead. Just as it was nauseating and self-defeating to see the world’s leaders flying into Copenhagen for that big famous failure of a climate conference, so the credibility of environmental philosophers is just inevitably somewhat tarnished if they turn up to their conferences by air.
And we need to show that another world is possible: we need to model doing things differently. (E.g. insisting on video-conferencing more, as I increasingly do; and helping to make this work.)
Which brings us back, and now directly, to the question that prompts this article: To fly, or not to fly?
One starting point for me, in relation to this difficult question, is to recall the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”, associated with the Hippocratic Oath. This dictum, as well as the moral prescriptions behind it, is taught to many doctors in medical school. The injunction of course does not bar them from (say) doing surgery. It certainly does bar them from doing unnecessary surgery. The thing that environmental philosophers need to ask themselves, if they are serious about fighting the war on dangerous climate change, is this: Is your journey really necessary?
There is a tremendous risk of self-deception here. It is so easy for human beings to think that what they are doing is very important, more so than what others are doing. One needs to ask oneself whether one can really be an environmental leader, and a morally self-respecting person, if one sends enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially injure or kill a present or future person. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking study by Craig Simmons et al laid out in the early chapters of The Zed Book, a study which should be much better-known than it is. It indicates that for every person currently living a high-carbon lifestyle, including flights etc, on average about 10 future people will suffer from manmade ‘natural’ disasters.
Environmental philosophy might change the world. The choices we as a civilization make really could depend on what wisdom we manage to achieve about ourselves and our place in the world. Does the end justify the means? Well, it certainly doesn’t if there is virtually no prospect of wisdom being achieved.
So those of us contemplating jetting off to a philosophy conference abroad really do need to ask ourselves how much good we would really be doing by going, and whether we can justify the harm that we are certainly responsible for if we go.
I do not say any of this lightly. I love conferences. I can’t do my job as a philosopher properly without going to some, even occasionally by air, although not as many and not as often as in the past. Conferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation. What’s needed is wisdom, and if philosophers lack the wisdom to help sustain our civilisation, then who has it?
But it does seem to me an extraordinary sign of the level of denial in relation to the climate crisis that hardly anyone seems to take the question of flying to conferences seriously
Let me give some examples. A few years ago, I said to the organisers of a conference in Florida on ‘Climate Philosophy’ that I wasn’t willing to fly to it. I hoped that we could organise my ‘giving’ my talk there via video-conference. They couldn’t manage this. To their credit, they did set up an audio-link for me to take questions, after someone else read my paper out.
Two summers ago I had a more discouraging experience. A Scandinavian environmental philosophy event later this year, ‘Climate Existence,’ was not even willing to consider my attending by remote means. It is depressing, when the organisers of a conference designed to look explicitly at how to stop ourselves climatically obliterating ourselves is not willing to consider how to minimise its own destructive impacts.
On the plus side, I will soon be ‘attending’ by video-conferencing facilities a conference in Copenhagen (yes, the very same Copenhagen!) where I will be giving a talk on environmental governance, just as 2 years ago I spoke ‘at’ a Conference in Australia on ‘Changing the climate: Utopia, dystopia and catastrophe’ (though on that occasion the skype malfunctioned and we were reduced to a video-link). And last year, I organised a very successful multiple-person video-link with a Conference at UEA, and an equally-successful Skype lecture beamed into UEA by Hilary Putnam.
The most surprising experience I had recently was arranging my attendance two years back at an EU event in Brussels on intellectual perspectives on biodiversity. The travel form assumed that I would be coming by plane! Of course, I went to that event by Eurostar. (If one can conveniently go to an environmental philosophy conference by train, then there is no excuse for plane-ing it.) What hope is there, if the organisers of an event on biodiversity – massively threatened by rising, dangerous emissions – do not even consider the possibility that international participants will come by means other than plane?
There is hope. Through technologies such as Skype and Oovoo, more and more people are getting used to video-conferencing as an effective way of interacting. I am hopeful that within a few years conference-organisers will be thinking of this, and it won’t be an awkward bolt from the blue when I say to them that I am keen to be there but preferably in electronic form.
To sum up, then. There are, of course, real losses if one chooses not to attend international conferences. Even if one does attend an event by means of new technology, there is no way of recreating by videoconference the feel, the informality, the networking opportunities that come from people being together in a place. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, the unprecedented dilemma that we face as a civilisation is how to expand our mutual empathy and concern, while reducing our entropic and environmentally-catastrophic impacts.
But certainly I think at least this: If philosophers do not ask themselves whether they can justify travelling to conferences by air, then who will?
My purpose in writing this piece would be served, if each reader were to ask themselves seriously the various questions that I have raised in the course of it. I close by briefly indicating the way that I try to answer them.
Aware of the above-mentioned tendency to self-deception, I endeavour to ask myself whether the benefit – I mean, a foreseen benefit in terms of philosophical advancement that may itself help people — for me and others of my attending a given conference by air are worth the down-side of the possible negative effect on future people of my doing so. I perform, in other words, a crude and rather imprecise utilitarian calculation, using the study by Simmons et al as an aide-memoire for the reality of the stakes. As noted above, the result of this is that I have drastically reduced my flying. Rather than being a habit and a norm, it has become a rare exception.

[[This is an updated version of a piece that appeared in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE a couple of years ago.]]

Religion as helpful precaution

http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management
Colleagues may find this article of mine, co-authored with Nassim Taleb, of interest. Suitably-provocative, perhaps, for philosophers, who are often inclined to think that religion is for morons, and that we are outgrowing it. Our case is that religion is probably on balance helpful to all of us (even philosophers: it is an absurd rationalistic delusion, an utter fantasy, to suppose that everything ought to be thought through from the beginning on every occasion, as some philosophers seem to suppose is an ideal), and that it might well be essential for species-survival / for the avoidance of ruin.

(I address the standard criticism – that lots of religion has been bad – here: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf , and in my book PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE.)

GM Food: Three Essential Considerations: Framing, Evidence, Precaution

[This article was co-authored by Phil Hutchinson myself. It appeared earlier this summer in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE. For those of you who missed it in print, here it is belatedly online.
Note: in the forthcoming issue of the magazine, there are what might be described as ‘follow-up’ articles by myself and (in a looser sense) by Nassim Taleb. Articles on precaution and uncertainty. [Advt.]]

We’ve moved on from “Frankenfood” scare stories. Haven’t we? Indeed, might we talk of GM food having its “Nuclear Power moment”? Just as prominent environmentalists such as Monbiot and Lynas took a decision to move from principled opposition to nuclear power to, along with Lovelock, promote the technology on pragmatic grounds, leaving their former activist fellow travellers feeling somewhat bewildered, and in some cases betrayed, one might be forgiven for believing that the same is now happening with GM crops. We will not here say anything further on the nuclear issue, though one might ultimately generate a position on this from what we propose below. However, on GM crops, Mark Lynas has certainly been very vocal in championing the GMO cause over the past year, both in the promotion of proposed new trials and in the criticism of those who oppose these. The rationale can appear, on the face of it, to be similarly pragmatic: population growth and climate-change related reductions in harvest yields will lead to increasing food shortages and food price-rises. Higher-yielding crops and crops with enhanced nutritional value are one, obvious, way to respond to such problems, and if GM crops might deliver higher yields and enhanced nutritional value, then it would seem sensible to forego principled, or certainly ‘knee-jerk’, objection to them and explore their potential. Right?
Would that it were so straightforward!
There are a wealth of considerations which should feed into our judgment on the proposed/alleged pragmatism of adopting GM crops. It is these, here, that we wish to focus on, and in particular those on which philosophy can shed some light. So, we will not here dwell, for instance, on the corporate dominance of most GM-research: on the profit-motive impelling the likes of Monsanto to gamble with our commons inheritance. There are powerful political arguments against GM, in connections such as this; we will largely leave these aside, in the present piece. We will divide the considerations that we shall focus on here into three categories: Framing, Evidence and Precaution.

Framing
Here’s the problem:
Global population growth + human-influenced climate-change-related lowering of crop yields = food crisis.
Framed this way it seems obvious: To solve the conundrum, we need to change the equation, so as to elicit a different outcome. We need to restrict population growth or reverse the crop yield decline such that it will compensate for the population growth.
But do we need to accept the equation? We would argue not. Indeed, it is the propensity to simplify the problem in a manner akin to this equation that is a key part of the problem. The equation prejudices one’s view of the problem by framing it in a particular way, because, while the global population does continue to grow, that population’s eating habits are also changing, becoming more western and meat-based. This is significant driver of food scarcity: feeding a cow maize and eating the cow is a very inefficient use of land, maize and water. The more meat we eat the more planets we require to provide our food, and extra, suitable planets are hard to find… . Moreover, while human-influenced climate change will affect crop yields, we can take steps to slow down that change rather than simply thinking in terms of adapting to the change as if it were inevitable.
The way ‘our’ equation frames the issue, if invoked to justify a pragmatic argument in favour of GM food, implies a false dichotomy: it implies that there are no other ways to enhance crop yields, rationalise food markets and supply-chains, radically reduce food waste, and rationalise consumption habits. Put another way, the proposed GMO solution to our problem can seem obvious and natural, or the most pragmatic one, because of basic liberal and individualist assumptions about the undesirability of seeking to change people’s (individuals) eating habits (desires, such as the desire to eat more meat). People have a right to eat what they want. Don’t they?
We can, and should, challenge the frames. At the very least, we should be cognisant of the way in which the argument tends to be framed, so that we might then subject that framing to rational scrutiny: is it obvious that when there is increased food stress, we should be handing more and more crop-worthy land (and food crops) over to beef production, all because we respect the ‘rights’ of consumers to buy more steak (or we respect the ‘market’)? Should we hand over more land for the growing of biofuels, because we (incorrectly) believe that will help us meet carbon targets and achieve energy security without infringing on the ‘rights’ of drivers as we allegedly would if we were to cap fuel/carbon emissions or to allow fuel prices to continue to escalate?
One of Lynas’s refrains, when pushed in a certain direction on these issues, is to respond to his disputant that they are advocating veganism; this response, delivered with a tacit sneer or an explicit chuckle, is sometimes accompanied by him ‘wishing them luck’ with that project. Changing eating habits, or simply trying to reverse recent global trends in eating habits, is just not seen as worth considering. We want our cake and we want to eat it, even if that means it is made with GM wheat.
Our response is to move beyond the hegemony of liberalism as a political philosophy. We urge that, at this point in history, it is particularly vital to challenge the cultural dominance of the idea of the ‘individual-as-consumer’ (home economicus), and of the alleged sacrosanctness of their choices and of choice itself.
In short: We need new frames. Only their illicitly-presumed absence can make GM look like a no-brainer.

Evidence
Our second category is evidence. We are all now becoming familiar with the mantra, in policy circles at least, that one’s proposals be evidence-based.
Quite right. But “what counts as evidence?” is an important question to be asked. And “what, in addition to the evidence, are also important factors in our deliberations?” is equally crucial.
So, you might see our section on Precaution, below, where we argue that precaution should always accompany evidence in the policy decision-making process. And we would also suggest that one beware of “evidence” being used as a buzzword or as Unspeak . Like “Freedom” and “Democracy”, “Evidence” is a “Hooray word”. Surely no one would/can be against evidence! But here’s the rub; if a word is so unremittingly good then people will use it to cover-up the bad, or to pass-off the not so good as good. German Democratic Republic anyone? (i.e. democracy that involves very few recognisably democratic institutions; where the _demos_, the people, have no role in policy). Cato Institute style Freedom anyone? (i.e. freedom that transpires to be the freedom of corporations to deny freedom to all kinds of non-corporate groups.).
But let us here consider the evidence in a recent widely-reported and high-profile case. A GM company in Hertfordshire, Rothamsted Research, made a press release in late January 2014. They were all over the British media, from an early morning slot on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on January 24th, where they talked-up the health benefits to humans of Omega 3 enhanced crops, to reports in all the newspapers and on TV news bulletins. Mark Lynas joined the party, and promoted their press release via Twitter, while also working as a kind of tweet-tag-team with the Rothamsted publicity department.
There were two stories wrapped up in one: one was a story about Omega 3 camelina; the other was a kind of meta-story about this being an obviously good-news and game-changing story about GM; one that even the most dyed-in-the-(non-GM)-wool Monsanto-haters would see was good news. The Today programme pushed both angles. Rothamsted must have been pleased.
See how the second story kinda shows how the Rothamsted press release was just swallowed by the same media, as if it were an easy to swallow Omega 3 fish oil capsule? Should journalists not rather have subjected the press release to some scrutiny?
Well, what’s not to like? Everyone knows that Omega 3 is a wonder-oil, which prevents all kinds of health problems. Health gurus, magazine covers, newspaper articles, food packaging, even some medically trained celebrity doctors, have all been telling us for over a decade now that Omega 3 oil is important: it prevents cancer, heart disease, and both increases and decreases the aggression of prostate cancer (no, really). It increases intelligence, both in a person eating it and in a foetus through a mother ingesting it while pregnant, though we assume the claim is that it increases intelligence later in life, since foetus-intelligence is a young science. Moreover, Omega 3 has been claimed to prevent all kinds of behavioural conditions in children and adolescents, and make school boys and prison inmates less aggressive. You can even polish the screen of your widescreen LED TV with it and thereby increase your popularity with all the neighbourhood cats. Yet not everyone has a taste for, or can afford, to eat the oily fish in which it is most readily found. If we cannot grow fish on trees, then how about the next best thing: grow fish genes inside a plant. Eureka. Meow.
Well, what’s the evidence? We mean: surely we’re not here basing our enthusiasm on over a decade of food industry and supplement purveyors’ propaganda about Omega 3 rather than well founded data, are we..? Well yes, it does seem that we might be. One might, for example, read the chapter of Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, where he discusses claims made for Omega 3. One might even conduct one’s own survey of RCTs, and even some meta-analyses of RCTs, on the claimed and widely assumed health benefits of Omega 3 oil supplements. Use Pub Med, etc. What one will find is the following:
a. There is NO conclusive evidence for health-related benefits of Omega 3 fish oil, which demonstrate it as beneficial when consumed separately from the fish, i.e. as a supplement.
b. Indeed, the evidence for it being beneficial when consumed as part of the fish is barely conclusive. Study after study notes something akin to the following: it is difficult to discern whether the good health of those studied emerges from the consumption of oily fish or from the overall diet and lifestyles enjoyed by those people who tend to eat a diet containing large amounts of oily fish.
c. There is NO evidence that we need fish oil omega 3 (EPA & DHA) over and above that which our bodies already convert from vegetable-based ALA Omega 3, which can be gained from things like flax, hemp, chia and green leafy vegetables, if we have a healthy diet.
In short: The past decade of Omega 3 hype has been market-driven, not evidence-driven.
Repeatedly, one finds there are good evidence-based reasons which count against GM-hype. Such reasons need to be developed specifically, in each case.
GM’s defenders will respond that there is at least scant evidence of harm from GM (unlike nuclear). This takes us to our next and final category of consideration. Absence of evidence of harm, even when genuine, is not evidence of absence of harm:

Precaution
Taking a gene from a fish and sticking it in a vegetable is reckless. It is to act in a way radically without natural precedent. Now, defenders of GM sometimes say that nevertheless there is an absence of evidence of harm from GM. But: Even if this is true, it is not good enough. The burden of proof is on them, the GM engineers, to provide evidence of absence of harm from GM. And that is what we don’t have, and what will be very difficult ever to get without taking an unconscionable risk. Because field trials expose the entire environment to the risk of contamination. They are not like controlled indoor laboratory trials.
There are powerful forces in our world today seeking to shift the burden of proof. These forces – which include the US and UK Governments — wish us to have to provide an ‘evidence-base’ against (e.g.) GM, an evidence-base of actual harm, before we act precautiously in respect of it. They wish, in effect, to abolish the Precautionary Principle and to replace it with a purely backward-looking methodology of ‘evidence-based’ interventions. Such an ‘evidence-based’ approach is valid when the stakes are not that high and when we can learn from tinkering and from study of the results. It is not valid when we may face ruin as a consequence. As is the case with GM (and also with geo-engineering, the next gamble that we will all soon be invited to embrace, on the extraordinary basis that there is as yet no evidence of harm from it!). One is cautious when one has reason to be so; when one has reason to believe there is a danger or a threat. The logic of precaution, we suggest, should be understood as follows: when what we do now has unpredictable though potentially catastrophic future consequences then we should exercise precaution. We are not exercising caution based on a perceived threat, but exercising precaution because we do not have good reason to believe there is an absence of threat, while also having reason to surmise that where a threat might materialise it would be significant.
Regarding GMO, we have not been provided with good reason to believe that there will not transpire to be a threat, even from field trials, much less a move to widespread farming, and that such a threat would be, should it transpire, be insignificant and reversible. These are then rational grounds for invoking precaution. While there is no directly-perceived threat to be cited in advance, we have no grounds for believing no threat will emerge, while having reasonable grounds for believing any such threat would be significant and probably irreversible. This is enough to rationally motivate invoking the precautionary principle.
We have a responsibility not to be blinded by science: to combat scientism. We have a responsibility to show the way beyond scientism, and to help science flourish in its true area of application. We have a responsibility to highlight the categorial distinction between science and technology: being pro-science, in its true sense, has no implications for whether one supports the social implementation of one or another particular form of technology or engineering.
We propose a more considered, rational approach, which resists the frenzy around ‘evidence-based’ approaches, when these are proposed separate from their frames and from rational precautionary considerations.
We have a responsibility to support responsible evidence-based methodology, where such methodology is appropriate: we have given an example of this above, vis a vis camelina. Another (not unrelated) genus of examples is the use of EBM to undercut the claim of various pharmaceuticals, as Ben Goldacre has helpfully done.
We have a responsibility to bring thought to bear on issues of framing, in the kind of way practiced by Lakoff, Poole, Crompton, and others. We have a responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom: e.g. the cultural ‘common-sense’ of liberal individualism in the West today. But not to carry such ‘scepticism’ into a deniallism about what science, in its correct area of application, teaches us: As Wittgenstein remarks in Culture and Value, the philosopher must avoid getting into the predicament of an incompetent (would-be) manager, trying to do others’ jobs for them.
Perhaps above all, we have a responsibility to speak truth to power concerning the would-be managerialist and profit-motivated replacement of long-term considerations of precaution with a covertly short-termist rhetoric of being ‘evidence-based’, a rhetoric that is ignorant of the philosophical issues around uncertainty and risk that are present and explored in the recent work of Nassim Taleb, among others (Cf. Read’s co-authored work with Taleb: e.g. http://econjwatch.org/articles/religion-heuristics-and-intergenerational-risk-management & http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf). And that underly the attitude of the likes of James Hansen to the climate threat facing our world at present: Philosophers and intellectuals more generally carry a heavy responsibility to not be tricked by rhetorics or ideologies of ‘evidence’ and ‘research’ into waiting to set out crucial warnings until it is too late.

On both evidential grounds, and precautionary grounds, the case for Omega-3 GM camelina is disastrously weak. To generalise: evidence-based thinking can undercut the case for GM, as well as sometimes supporting it. Precautionary thinking, a vital complement to (and more fundamental than) evidence-based thinking, will generally count as a heavy consideration against GM. When one adds in the power of reframing and of reflection on frames, as found initially in the work of Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Lakoff and Johnson, etc, then one has a powerful cocktail indeed in one’s hands. Our recommendation is: to drink it. Or perhaps better: to throw it.

Anyone Home?

English: man coming out of coma.

English: man coming out of coma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I tell my students, the metaphysical question of personal identity has important moral implications. One scenario I present is that of a human in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state. I say “human” rather than “person”, because the human body in question might no longer be a person. To use a common view, if a person is her soul and the soul has abandoned the shell, then the person is gone.

If the human is still a person, then it seems reasonable to believe that she has a different moral status than a mass of flesh that was once a person (or once served as the body of a person). This is not to say that a non-person human would have no moral status at all—I do not want to be interpreted as holding that view. Rather, my view is that personhood is a relevant factor in the morality of how an entity is treated.

To use a concrete example, consider a human in what seems to be a vegetative state. While the body is kept alive, people do not talk to the body and no attempt is made to entertain the body, such as playing music or audiobooks. If there is no person present or if there is a person present but she has no sensory access at all, then this treatment would seem to be acceptable—after all it would make no difference whether people talked to the body or not.

There is also the moral question of whether such a body should be kept alive—after all, if the person is gone, there would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep an empty shell alive. To use an extreme example, it would seem wrong to keep a headless body alive just because it can be kept alive. If the body is no longer a person (or no longer hosts a person), then this would be analogous to keeping the headless body alive.

But, if despite appearances, there is still a person present who is aware of what is going on around her, then the matter is significantly different. In this case, the person has been effectively isolated—which is certainly not good for a person.

In regards to keeping the body alive, if there is a person present, then the situation would be morally different. After all, the moral status of a person is different from that of a mass of merely living flesh. The moral challenge, then, is deciding what to do.

One option is, obviously enough, to treat all seemingly vegetative (as opposed to brain dead) bodies as if the person was still present. That is, the body would be accorded the moral status of a person and treated as such.

This is a morally safe option—it would presumably be better that some non-persons get treated as persons rather than risk persons being treated as non-persons. That said, it would still seem both useful and important to know.

One reason to know is purely practical: if people know that a person is present, then they would presumably be more inclined to take the effort to treat the person as a person. So, for example, if the family and medical staff know that Bill is still Bill and not just an empty shell, they would tend to be more diligent in treating Bill as a person.

Another reason to know is both practical and moral: should scenarios arise in which hard choices have to be made, knowing whether a person is present or not would be rather critical. That said, given that one might not know for sure that the body is not a person anymore it could be correct to keep treating the alleged shell as a person even when it seems likely that he is not. This brings up the obvious practical problem: how to tell when a person is present.

Most of the time we judge there is a person present based on appearance, using the assumption that a human is a person. Of course, there might be non-human people and there might be biological humans that are not people (headless bodies, for example). A somewhat more sophisticated approach is to use the Descartes’s test: things that use true language are people. Descartes, being a smart person, did not limit language to speaking or writing—he included making signs of the sort used to communicate with the deaf. In a practical sense, getting an intelligent response to an inquiry can be seen as a sign that a person is present.

In the case of a body in an apparent vegetative state applying this test is quite a challenge. After all, this state is marked by an inability to show awareness. In some cases, the apparent vegetative state is exactly what it appears to be. In other cases, a person might be in what is called “locked-in-syndrome.” The person is conscious, but can be mistaken for being minimally conscious or in a vegetative state. Since the person cannot, typically, respond by giving an external sign some other means is necessary.

One breakthrough in this area is due to Adrian M. Owen. Overs implying things considerably, he found that if a person is asked to visualize certain activities (playing tennis, for example), doing so will trigger different areas of the brain. This activity can be detected using the appropriate machines. So, a person can ask a question such as “did you go to college at Michigan State?” and request that the person visualize playing tennis for “yes” or visualize walking around her house for “no.” This method provides a way of determining that the person is still present with a reasonable degree of confidence. Naturally, a failure to respond would not prove that a person is not present—the person could still remain, yet be unable (or unwilling) to hear or respond.

One moral issue this method can held address is that of terminating life support. “Pulling the plug” on what might be a person without consent is, to say the least, morally problematic. If a person is still present and can be reached by Owen’s method, then thus would allow the person to agree to or request that she be taken off life support. Naturally, there would be practical questions about the accuracy of the method, but this is distinct from the more abstract ethical issue.

It must be noted that the consent of the person would not automatically make termination morally acceptable—after all, there are moral objections to letting a person die in this manner even when the person is fully and clearly conscious. Once it is established that the method adequately shows consent (or lack of consent), the broader moral issue of the right to die would need to be addressed.

 

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