Monthly Archives: September 2007

Persons, things, and interests

Following on from some recent postings, TPM readers might be interested in news of further efforts to have a nonhuman animal given certain legal protections. (Details here.)  Animal rights activists are attempting to have a chimp legally recognized as a person under Austrian law.   

‘The question is:  Are chimps things without interests, or persons with interests?’ an animal rights group spokesman says.  I’m not sure what to think about animals and personhood, but I’m almost sure it’s a lot more complicated than this.

 Philosophers have been going on about the status of animals for a while, probably since Bentham noticed that animal pains should figure into our hedonistic calculations.  Philosophers don’t put the question quite as starkly as the spokesman does in the quotation above.  It smells a lot like a false dilemma.  The chimp might not be a person, but he might not be a thing either.  What counts as a person matters a lot in this connection, but the debate doesn’t stand or fall with our conclusions about personhood.  The premise, only persons have interests, might be false.  A conclusion you might draw, only persons matter in our ethical reflections, might be false too.  Some say that we have to get past our human talk of personhood if we want to extend the moral sphere to animals.

There is, anyway, a growing literature about the interests or moral standing of animals, plants, even ecosystems.  Animals, for their part, do seem to be up to something out there — mating, foraging, looking out for predators or prey, building nests.  If it’s going too far to say that they have interests, is it too much to suggest that they have ‘a good of their own’ in, I think Holmes Rolston’s turn of phrase?  Human beings are only one sort of thing with a particular notion of good applicable to them.  Maybe hamsters are another, with just as much a claim to ‘good’ as us.  Or maybe that’s just going too far.  I really don’t know.

There are some trees in California called ‘Bristlecone Pines’.  At least one is thought to be over 4,800 years old.  You can stagger yourself with the thought that it was getting on with its life in the Bronze Age, that it was there growing long before Socrates and the boys were going on about justice, long before Christ, long before Columbus stumbled onto the continent.  You can get the feeling that chopping it down for kicks would be wrong.  Not just callous, but morally wrong.  That’s an intuition I’m not arguing for, but maybe one that you have.  We both know the tree is not a person.  If it is wrong to cut the thing down for fun, what makes it wrong to do so?  Answering that question might help you think your way through debates like the one about the chimp’s personhood.  It might also make you wonder whether talk of his interests just misses the point.  Maybe what matters is him, whether or not he has interests, whether or not he’s a person.

Moral Hazard?

Here’s the script for a monologue I did for Sunday’s Broadcasting House programme, on the phrase of the week, “Moral Hazard”. A podcast of the programme is available here, until Sunday.

I always assumed a moral hazard was something like the danger of having a heart attack while on a sponsored charity run. Discovering it is actually to do with the affects of contracts on risk behaviour therefore came as something as a disappointment.
Such a distinctive phrase is wasted on the world of high finance, especially when there is a truly moral phenomenon that’s begging for a memorable name.
Here’s what moral hazard should mean. Every time we try to do the right thing, we risk making matters worse. To be a moral actor is to run the risk of screwing things up.
For example, say you have friend who is engaged in self-destructive behaviour, like substance abuse or obsessively watching daytime TV makeover shows. You cannot know in advance whether trying to help will stop them slumping even lower, or merely delay the inevitable hitting bottom that is a necessary prelude to genuine recovery. At the same time, not trying to help at all has its own risks. No matter how well-thought through and sincere your attempts at being good are, you might just makes things worse. That’s moral hazard. Or at last, it should be.
The trouble with this kind of moral hazard is that it is not the exception, it’s the rule. Very few attempts at altruism are more or less assured of a good outcome. Giving old clothes to poor people in Africa, for example, struck most people as an unambiguously good thing, until someone realised it was often putting local weavers and tailors out of business.
The law of unintended consequences makes moral certainty impossible. Try as we might to stay one step ahead, we so often find we’re actually two steps behind. For instance, you check your warm-hearted impulse to spare a dime for a beggar, because you reason the money will probably be spent on drugs, so the penniless addict resorts to stealing, all because you allowed your imperfect head to rule your heart.
Should we just give up on trying to be good then? That’s no answer: since refraining from altruism for altruistic motives is not always the best thing, inaction also risks making things worse than they otherwise would have been.
Moral hazard cannot be avoided: it’s everywhere. It’s just a shame the bean counters have got hold of the phrase first.

(Postscript: Is there in fact a decent phrase in moral philosophy for this already? It’s not moral luck, btw, although there are similarities.)

Insect Minds

orbweaver-spider.JPGOne of the most reviled views in the history of philosophy is Descartes’ view that animals are mere machines. The relevant texts are a trifle ambiguous, but he does seem to say that animals have no conscious life whatsoever. Your cat jumps off the couch and approaches his food because of signals in his brain, but without visual images or sensations of hunger. If it would give you pleasure to kick the cat, there’s no reason to hold back, so far as any feelings of pain are concerned.

I’ve always considered this staggeringly absurd. So it came as a surprise when I realized, a while back, that I’ve always been a bit of a Cartesian myself. I’ve always regarded insects and spiders (and especially cockroaches) as little mechanical creatures without conscious awareness.

I started seeing them differently all because of the film Microcosmos, which uses microcameras to capture the world of insects, spiders and other small creatures (you tube clip). In the movie, you can watch a beetle astutely roll a ball of dung up a hill; leaf ants carrying bits of leaves back to the colony; aphids being milked by ants, all super close-up.

Descartes’ view of cats seems so daft because their basic body plan and behavior are so similar to ours it’s a huge strain to think they don’t have any of our mental life whatever. But what we discover when we look at insects close-up is not so terribly un-catlike. Even the body plan of these invertebrates is not utterly alien.

Animal scientists are understandably wary of anthropomorphism. They don’t want to project human characteristics where they don’t belong. But the primatologist Franz DeWaal warns against the opposite tendency—anthropodenial. It really does seem to injure our human pride to suppose that animals are very much like us, to the point that we begrudge them too much.

In the case of insects there are further biases at work. Not only are insects “just animals” but they’re (eww!) insects. I confess that I used to find insects so repellant that I actually thought entomologists must be rather strange people. I have since repented, and the world of insects strikes me as utterly fascinating. (And I’d love to meet a good entomologist.)

So are insects conscious? I can’t say no or yes. It’s a further question how primitive or sophisticated that awareness might be, if it exists. Does the spider think—in the sense of having intelligence or insight? There’s a very sober but open-minded discussion of the question by two animal biologists (James and Carol Gould) in the new book Animal Architects.

The traditional idea about spiders (and all other animals) is that they are completely instinct-bound. That by no means implies they lack awareness—we do instinctive things with awareness all the time. But it does imply “without thought.” It turns out, though, that animals build webs, nests, dams, bowers, etc., with much more flexibility and adaptiveness than you’d expect. And that suggests an element of intelligence.

For example, you might be surprised to know, spider webs don’t all have the same number of radii. They are built to fit the specific niche. Also, when they are damaged, spiders repair them not in a rote way, but exactly as needed.

What is it like to be a spider? I don’t know. But I’m going to stop assuming there’s nothing at all that it’s like—as if the spider were a machine. I’m going to stop being a Cartesian. Now what about plants…?

Super Crunchers

I was on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves programme last night discussing a new book by Ian Ayres on how computers running statistical analyses are getting better at prediction than humans. Even doctors can’t diagnose as accurately as some computers, apparently.
Reaction to the book so far has been interesting, with many people clinging onto the “Ah, but computers can’t do that…” response, which merely invites the addition of “…yet” to reveal its weakness. The idea of computers making us dispensable is not the main worry, I think: it’s that if we are so predictable, our sense of free will is threatened. (I’m not sure about the link between predictability and the reality of free will, but that’s for another time.)
But what about the dispensability issue? A good few years ago I wrote an essay about this, in effect imagining the effect of really good super crunchers on how we would run society. Surprise surprise, I thought that it wouldn’t do philosophers out of a job (it’always other people’s work that requires no human insight….)
Here’s the core of the argument:

[The computers] could tell you how best to run the economy, but first you needed to tell it what you meant by ‘best’. ‘Best’ is a value judgement. What’s best in terms of increased GDP may not be best in terms of average citizen welfare. What’s best in terms of average citizen welfare may not be best in terms of social advancement. Politicians no longer had to decide on how best to achieve their goals, but they did need to decide on what these goals had to be.
To do his they had to address certain key questions, which in essence boiled down to the single question, ‘what sort of society do we want?’ This means deciding on priorities and trade-offs between competing social goods. Are we prepared to tolerate inequality for greater overall prosperity? If so, how much? How do we prioritize health, education and leisure? Do we want everyone to live as long and as healthily as possible or can we sacrifice a few years of life expectancy to make our society a more pleasant place to live in?
Seeing that these questions were now, not only the most important, but the only questions left for politicians to answer, it became increasingly important that they understood moral philosophy. Indeed, the whole of society needed to understand more moral philosophy, for now their voting intentions could be determined solely by considerations of what kind of society they wanted. They no longer needed to worry about the competence of their elected representatives to achieve their goals, since the computers would tell you whether they were achievable or not and, if they were, the computers could be trusted to get on with it. Voters only needed to worry about what those goals were.
It was no surprise, therefore, that faculties of computing were converted to faculties of philosophy. There are some questions which not even computers can answer.

The whole thing is still online here. (The sign off isn’t mine and defeats the main pay-off, and the “ORS” seem to be weird paragraph breaks.) The case is a bit more complex than the summary above, but I still think in essence, it’s right.

About Faith

It seems to me the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) are too hard on “faith”—believing without evidence.  If you believe in God without thinking you have a proof of his existence, or even a reasonably good argument, then your belief is a matter of faith.  Should anybody take you to task for that?  I think not.

A person who was willing to believe nothing “on faith” would have a rather scanty store of beliefs.  He or she would be missing some beliefs I take to be very important. 

For example—the belief that every human being matters.  Exactly why does everyone matter?  No doubt you could say a few intelligent things about it, but you’d soon find yourself not quite sure what the basis for the belief is. 

If you think about it long enough, you might start thinking maybe every human being doesn’t really matter.  I think you could find yourself completely perplexed for a while, but after all the perplexity died down, you might believe (I hope you would) that every human being matters. 

If that example doesn’t grab you, think about your own ultimate values.  What do you think is important?  Your convictions on those subjects probably have the character I’m talking about.  You’re committed, but it’s not easy to give the evidence and the arguments. 

Personally, I don’t have first hand experience of believing in God, but I’ve got quite a few “informants,” and from what I gather, believing in God can be like this. Faith is something akin to the stance that all of us take on one matter or another.

Here’s what I think the “new atheists” are right about.  There really is something pernicious about the phenomenon Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief” (in Breaking the Spell).  We do need to question the common  idea that believing (in God, in Jesus, whatever…) is virtuous.  That’s the attitude that makes a person struggle to maintain conviction in the face of doubts. 

A friend talks about being a Christian on her blog and writes about confessing all her doubts and questions to her mother, who responds “It’s OK to have questions, just so long as you believe.”  To believe even though you don’t have proof or good arguments is one thing—fine with me!  But to believe even when you’re starting to suspect you’re wrong?    

“Belief in belief” is implicit in the recent reportage about Mother Teresa’s doubts.  It turns out she was wracked with doubts all her life.  Is she to be admired for cleaving to belief anyway?  If believing no matter what is a virtue, then yes.  

The supposed virtue of faith seems to be modeled on the virtue of faithfulness—as in, staying true to your spouse despite temptation to stray.   But that’s a matter of loyalty, keeping promises, being honest.  That is a virtue.  Believing in the face of persistent doubt is something else entirely. 

I can see that important beliefs shouldn’t be thrown overboard upon the first hint of doubt.  Some beliefs are really commitments, in some sense.  But when doubts pile up, we surely need to let them have have their normal effect on conviction. 

I don’t think unbelievers should knock “faith.”  They should question “belief in belief.”  True believers—and I do know some–can have one without the other.

Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is one of the most interesting books I haven’t enjoyed in the last year. I didn’t enjoy it because the main point he makes is so irritating. He says we have to stumble on happiness because we don’t know what currently makes us happy or what will in the future.

One of his chapters starts with a revealing joke: Two psychology professors meet in a hallway. One says “You’re fine, how am I?”

It takes a scientist to figure out what makes me happy. How can that be? Surely that’s one thing I do know about myself, even if there are some deep dark corners of my unconscious.

What I would say is: I’m happiest when I’m with my children! Actually, I’d say something a little more complex—I’m the very, very happiest when I’m with my children after having spent the day reading, thinking, writing while they’re at school.

It turns out everyone with children says they’re happiest with their children (but never mind the rest). But then, if they’re subjected to a careful happiness study, that usually turns out to be false.

The way it works is you carry around a little gadget for a couple of weeks. It beeps at random times and then you have to write down what you’re doing and your happiness level. It turns out that people who say their kids make them happy are really happiest doing practically anything else.

But I know I’m different! I really do know that I feel happiest with my kids! Apparently everyone says that, but the happy-o-meter says otherwise.

People are also bad at predicting future happiness. A lot of the evidence is very mundane. People buy too many groceries on an empty stomach, thinking they will be happy with their purchase later on. Yes, we’ve all done that.

Much more surprisingly: you’d be wrong if you thought that a major medical problem will make you unhappy. Not so, says Gilbert. People adapt fairly quickly to even the worst eventualities and are rarely as unhappy as they think they’ll be.

One of the things we don’t know about ourselves is that the psyche provides a sort of immune system that gradually pulls us back to some emotional setpoint. We adapt, come up with rationalizations, when there are setbacks (I didn’t really want to get into Harvard!), and wind up right back where we were.

Don’t we more reflective types live “the examined life”? Aren’t we therefore probably better at knowing what makes us happy? Or, sad to say, are we just as benighted as everyone else?

(I discuss Stumbling on Happiness and two other recent books on happiness here. The other books are Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis and Darin McMahon’s Happiness.)

“I should but I’m not going to”

There’s a way of thinking about morality that is common and, I think, unhelpful. On this interpretation, if you should do something, then “end of story.” You really can’t coherently say “I should but I’m not going to” unless you’re willing to wail and self-flagellate. This way of thinking makes people very resistant to recognizing putative obligations. The feeling is that, once you admit you should do something, you’ve put yourself in a trap.

This sense that obligations trap us might be behind resistance to the view that it’s mandatory to give a lot to the extremely poor. If people are told they should make huge sacrifices, and given good arguments to that effect, they do tend to twist and turn every which way. Hardly anybody will say “I should, but I’m not going to.” In my experience, people will make glaringly bad arguments rather than just admit to not fulfilling an obligation. Arguments about meat-eating meet the same sort of resistance. Rare is the person who can say—yes, the arguments are great, but I just can’t give up meat right now.

Maybe it’s so hard to admit to wrongdoing because we don’t see enough differences between types of wrongdoing. I ought to give my own children adequate food and health care. If I don’t do that, I really am a creep and I really should loathe myself. But if I can’t bring myself to sacrifice things I deeply want every single time there’s a life at risk somewhere—and that’s all the time–I don’t think I should loathe myself. I should try harder. I should back off of the really silly luxuries. But I don’t need to utterly lose self-respect if I don’t always do what I should.

Same goes for meat eating. I should give it up rather than eat animals who lived miserable lives in factory farms. But if I can’t? Well, meat eating runs deep in a evolutionary, cultural and personal sense. Better to say “I should but I’m not going to” than come up with flimsy counterarguments.

Which obligations are “strict”—you comply or feel very, very bad? Which obligations are “softer”—we should comply, but we shouldn’t hate ourselves if we don’t? What’s the basis for this distinction? It seems like an underexplored question.

Forgiving paedophiles

I caught a fascinating programme on Radio Four last night which spoke to a man who had sexually abused his daughter and the wife who took him back into the family fold despite this.
The couple spoke so reasonably, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was all a bit, well, mad. But is this rational or moral of me?
The synopsis is roughly this. The man was aware of finding young girls sexually attractive, but just avoided situations in which he might be tempted to act on it. But then he did act on his desires with his eight-year-old daughter. We’re not told what the abuse was – just that it was “inappropriate touching”.
When the girl told the mother, after she had expressed some concern, the mother asked the girl what she wanted, which was for daddy to say sorry and not do it again. The mother asked if she wanted daddy to go away and the girl was adamant that she did not.
So the mother’s actions after this were all premised on the desire to respect her daughter’s wishes and keep the family together.
Of course, the social services saw it as a child protection and criminal matter, not an internal family problem, and the guy was convicted. But several years later, and after treatment, he’s back in the family house, and apparently everybody is happy.
But still, this seemed warped. Why?
Well, first of all I wonder why the mother still wanted to live as man and wife with a man who had sexually touched her daughter. That’s odd enough.
Then I was worried about the totally future-looking consequentialist nature of the couple’s thinking. It was as though what had happened in the past was in a sense irrelevant: all that mattered was putting things right in the future.
But this seems odd to me, and it perhaps reflects some unease I have over exclusively consequence-based thinking. The fact is that what happened cannot be just erased or cancelled out by fixing the future. We can’t just be amnesiacs about past wrong doings, can we? The world changed when the father touched his daughter, and it seems naive to think it could put back together again in something like its previous form.
Also, perhaps it is true that in this case it all worked out. But what a risk, surely? We have to act on what we can rationally expect is likely to happen, not on what is logically possible. Sure, I can imagine that this story is how they told it, but the mother was perhaps still foolish to hope it would turn out like this. (An extreme example of moral luck, perhaps.) Indeed, it worked out after the father was taken away, imprisoned and so on. What she had actually wanted was for him not to go away at all. So maybe it worked out despite the mother’s extremely forgiving attitude, not because of it.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to think, except that the couple’s rationales sound eerily suspect to me. My prejudice? Listen if you can, and let me know what you think, even if you can’t.

Babies in Baghdad

(Such a nice introduction. Julian, you’re way too kind. Making more sense than the bloggers—pshaw! But without further ado…)

An article in the paper caught my attention recently. It said the infant mortality rate in Baghdad was way, way up. Obstetricians are leaving Iraq and there’s nobody around to attend births. That was no huge surprise but what did seem amazing was the background fact—people in Baghdad are still having babies!

It’s just as surprising to notice the babies in pictures of Darfur refugees. People who live in extreme poverty, who have next to nothing to offer their children, still have babies (and a lot of them).

I’m not sitting around “tsk-tsk”ing about other people’s procreational decisions. What draws me to this topic is how puzzling it is whether it is or isn’t wrong to have a baby in a bad situation.

My first inclination is probably to say it’s wrong because it’s unfair to the children. I’m in the middle of reading a very detailed portrait of a bunch of teenagers in the Bronx who sell drugs, take drugs, commit all manner of crimes (Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc). When “Coco” gets pregnant a fourth time at the age of 20, you think “big mistake.” It seems like it’s not just stupid, but not right.

Then again, maybe it’s OK, at least as far as the babies are concerned. Even babies born in the worst situation are unlikely to have lives that are not worth living. They’re not harmed by their births, and some day they might even thank their parents for their existence.

These aren’t just questions about “them” but about “us”. Maybe you’re getting on in years, and you still want to have children. Should you still have them if you’re 40? 50? 60? 70? Even if it means having children with a much higher than average chance of becoming orphans?

A large fraction of the world’s population doesn’t even see reproduction as a choice (like Coco doesn’t), so the niceties about how to make the choice are utterly theoretical. Still, just on the level of theory, the question is interesting.

I just don’t think I can buy the most pro-procreation view. Existence might be a gift to just about any child, but we want to make the world a better place. Sometimes we do so by not having children. We do, after all, have a growing over-population problem. A reasonable standard, considering that there are too many people and not too few, is that every child should have a good chance of a good life.

For a lot of people it would be excruciating to aim that high. They’d have to postpone, limit, or even abandon having children. I understand that many people, for lots of reason, won’t do that…but as a philosophical matter, it’s hard for me to see what a more reasonable standard would be.

Introducing Jean

We have a new blogger joining the Talking Philosophy team, Jean Kazez. Jean’s been a frequent responder for some time now, often making more sense than the bloggers, so we thought it a good idea to get her over our side of the fence. Plus, she fulfils all our other desiderata, namely having a good philosophical brain and the ability to write well and clearly. You may have seen her piece “The Mommy Wars” in TPM recently, and she has also written a book, The Weight of Things, which Stephen Poole of the Guardian described as “Warmly written… lucid and humanely engaging.”
This should dispel any lingering doubt that a previous statement of our recruitment policy was not exactly serious, though it remains the case that we still all have PhDs and first names beginning with the letter J…