Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.

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The monsters of Jurassic World

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Philosophers and blockbusters

There are at least three reasons why philosophers take an interest in hugely popular cultural products such Hollywood blockbuster action movies. First is a kind of (non-objectionable) opportunism. At least some of these movies, etc., grapple with philosophical issues: usually moral issues, but sometimes metaphysical and epistemological ones, such as those relating to personal identity or to the problems of appearance versus reality. If these are brought to public attention in very popular forms, it provides an opportunity for philosophers to discuss – and perhaps clarify – them. There’s nothing wrong with that: the exercise may be enjoyable, and even educational, all round, though the various discussions that follow may not tell us much about the actual merits of the movie (book, video game, or whatever) that acted as the springboard.

Second, there might be more to the exercise than mere opportunism. If certain moral, metaphysical, and other philosophical ideas are being popularised, philosophers may well be qualified to discuss the merits of those ideas, whether to support them, to counter them, or to say something about them that is more nuanced and complex. Here, the creators of a movie such as Jurassic World are being treated as participants in an ongoing philosophical conversation. The movie is not used merely as a springboard; rather, its particular take on the issues is sought out, revealed, and perhaps endorsed or disputed (or some combination of these).

Third, we may be interested, in a more general way, in how artworks and cultural products engage with philosophical ideas. In that sense, our interests as philosophers may overlap with those of literary and cultural theorists, although we bring different training to the inquiry. For example, I am interested in the way Jurassic World conveys attitudes to technology, not merely as a springboard to discuss those attitudes, and not merely to discuss those particular attitudes on their merits – I am also interested in it as an example of how cultural products generally, movies in particular, and science fiction blockbusters even more specifically, represent technology. Perhaps there is something of general interest to say about this, and a new movie with such popular appeal might tend to confirm or undermine what we think we know.

In practice, we may be interested in all three of these aspects and perhaps others that don’t immediately come to mind. If I review Jurassic World, say, as I did briefly on my personal blog, I will tend to run these levels together to an extent. Still, philosophers might have something to say that is a bit different from what you’d expect from a conventional film critic (that said, philosophers often have rather broad educational backgrounds, including in cultural criticism; conversely, I’m sure that many film critics have studied philosophy to some extent or other – we don’t live in entirely separate intellectual silos).

The Jurassic formula

The Jurassic Park franchise has achieved immense commercial success, though the second and third movies were never as popular as the original Jurassic Park in 1993. Jurassic World is breaking box office records on a daily basis, most recently, as I write, the record for box office takings in the US domestic market in its first seven days of release. Something has clicked with the public, not only in the US but throughout the world.

Part of that has to do with the fact that these movies are just plain fun – scary enough to make kids, or even adults, jump out of their seats, but not too confrontational to rule them out as family entertainment. They are expertly directed, employ impressive special effects (brought up to date in the latest movie – alas, the 1993 effects are looking a bit dated by now), and use charismatic actors such as Chris Pratt.

There is also a morality play element, often highlighting the characters’ attitudes to technology. Many characters are killed swiftly – they are pretty much treated as dino fodder – but elaborate, and often humiliating, deaths are given to the characters who appear most venal or blinded by pride. (Perhaps the most humiliating death of all is given to the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, in the first movie.) Other characters are shown as having moral weaknesses, but they are punished (by their terrifying encounters with the rampaging dinosaurs) and ultimately redeemed. All of this is no doubt emotionally satisfying to a popular audience.

Thus, the dinosaurs are not portrayed simply as “bad guys” or monsters. To a large extent, they are more like instruments of fate, or something like karma, inflicting rewards and punishments. It is fair to say that the real monsters of Jurassic World and its predecessors are the human beings who exploit genetic technology in ways that are portrayed to us as greedy, vain, and irresponsible.

Attitudes to technology

The genetic technology used to reconstruct dinosaurs from fossilised DNA is fairly consistently portrayed as evil – the whole exercise in recreating the dinosaurs from ancient genetic material has something monstrous about it, or so the movies would lead us to believe. But there is an ambiguity here, a certain instability of attitude, because the dinosaurs themselves are not only dangerous and terrifying. Some of them are relatively harmless, and they are shown variously as fun, exciting, alluring, even sublime. This kind of allure associated with products of technology is almost inevitable in feature movies with a technophobic element (a point that I owe to the critic J.P. Telotte). After all, we, as moviegoers, are much like the audience of the Jurassic World theme park: we expect to be impressed and awed by the dinosaurs, not just scared by them.

This is a common feature in Hollywood’s science-fiction blockbusters. Even in the movies of the Terminator franchise, the original Terminator – a futuristic killing machine in human form, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – has its alluring aspects. A similar machine, also portrayed by Schwarzenegger, became a hero in the second movie of the franchise, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Terminators are scary and nasty, as we are shown, but they are cool.

We can see this element handled with a certain knowingness in Jurassic World, where the scary new dinosaur, Indominus rex, is not an attempt at recreating a beast from the Mesozoic Era, but has been genetically engineered as a theme park attraction that will be even more impressive than the likes of Tyrannosaurus rex. In the event, Indominus rex is depicted as an almost demonic creature, and it is notable for killing other dinosaurs for sport (recalling perhaps, the human big game hunters of the second movie in the series). At the same time, we are reminded that all of the dinosaurs created by advanced genetic science are, in more ways than one, unnatural. Not only are they products of human design and creation: they have been brought about in ways that make them imperfect (in some ways more dangerous) copies of the original animals that they mimic.

Still, the Indominus rex is even more – perhaps triply? – unnatural, with its deliberate “improvements”. To rub in the point, its enhanced abilities include extraordinary levels of stealth and cunning, as well as the cruelty that was asked for in its specifications.


Hollywood science-fiction blockbusters can often seem like works of anti-science fiction, expressing distrust of science and technology. Indeed, this can be seen in much science fiction in other media, going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly two hundred years ago.

But technology is also seen as impressive and attractive – and perhaps as simply inevitable – whatever dangers it brings to societies and individuals, and however much it may be misused in the service of vices such as greed and pride. This ambivalence continues in much contemporary science fiction with cyberpunk or dystopian emphases. Themes of danger, irresponsibility, and dehumanization are prevalent, but the result is often, for better or worse, also shown as something cool (and this may be exploited in publicity and merchandising).

The technophobic/technophilic ambivalence is especially prominent in many Hollywood productions, where moral lessons – valuable or otherwise – play a secondary role to SFX magic and sheer spectacle.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ex Machina & Other Minds III: The Mind of the Machine

While the problem of other minds is a problem in epistemology (how does one know that another being has/is a mind?) there is also the metaphysical problem of determining the nature of the mind. It is often assumed that there is one answer to the metaphysical question regarding the nature of mind. However, it is certainly reasonable to keep open the possibility that there might be minds that are metaphysically very different. One area in which this might occur is in regards to machine intelligence, an example of which is Ava in the movie Ex Machina, and organic intelligence. The minds of organic beings might differ metaphysically from those of machines—or they might not.

Over the centuries philosophers have proposed various theories of mind and it is certainly interesting to consider which of these theories would be compatible with machine intelligence. Not surprisingly, these theories (with the exception of functionalism) were developed to provide accounts of the minds of living creatures.

One classic theory of mind is identity theory.  This a materialist theory of mind in which the mind is composed of mater.  What distinguished the theory from other materialist accounts of mind is that each mental state is taken as being identical to a specific state of the central nervous system. As such, the mind is equivalent to the central nervous system and its states.

If identity theory is the only correct theory of mind, then machines could not have minds (assuming they are not cyborgs with human nervous systems). This is because such machines would lack the central nervous system of a human. There could, however, be an identity theory for machine minds—in this case the machine mind would be identical to the processing system of the machine and its states. On the positive side, identity theory provides a straightforward solution to the problem of other minds: whatever has the right sort of nervous system or machinery would have a mind. But, there is a negative side. Unfortunately for classic identity theory, it has been undermined by the arguments presented by Saul Kripke and David Lewis’ classic “Mad Pain & Martian Pain.” As such, it seems reasonable to reject identity theory as an account for traditional human minds as well as machine minds.

Perhaps the best known theory of mind is substance dualism. This view, made famous by Descartes, is that there are two basic types of entities: material entities and immaterial entities. The mind is an immaterial substance that somehow controls the material substance that composes the body. For Descartes, immaterial substance thinks and material substance is unthinking and extended.

While most people are probably not familiar with Cartesian dualism, they are familiar with its popular version—the view that a mind is a non-physical thing (often called “soul”) that drives around the physical body. While this is a popular view outside of academics, it is rejected by most scientists and philosophers on the reasonable grounds that there seems to be little evidence for such a mysterious metaphysical entity. As might be suspected, the idea that a machine mind could be an immaterial entity seems even less plausible than the idea that a human mind could be an immaterial entity.

That said, if it is possible that the human mind is an immaterial substance that is somehow connected to an organic material body, then it seems equally possible that a machine mind could be an immaterial substance somehow connected to a mechanical material body. Alternatively, they could be regarded as equally implausible and hence there is no special reason to regard a machine ghost in a mechanical shell as more unlikely than a ghost in an organic shell. As such, if human minds can be immaterial substances, then so could machines minds.

In terms of the problem of other minds, there is the rather serious challenge of determining whether a being has an immaterial substance driving its physical shell. As it stands, there seems to be no way to prove that such a substance is present in the shell. While it might be claimed that intelligent behavior (such as passing the Cartesian or Turing test) would show the presence of a mind, it would hardly show that there is an immaterial substance present. It would first need to be established that the mind must be an immaterial substance and this is the only means by which a being could pass these tests. It seems rather unlikely that this will be done. The other forms of dualism discussed below also suffer from this problem.

While substance dualism is the best known form of dualism, there are other types. One other type is known as property dualism. This view does not take the mind and body to be substances. Instead, the mind is supposed to be made up of mental properties that are not identical with physical properties. For example, the property of being happy about getting a puppy could not be reduced to a particular physical property of the nervous system. Thus, the mind and body are distinct, but are not different ontological substances.

Coincidentally enough, there are two main types of property dualism: epiphenomenalism and interactionism. Epiphenomenalism is the view that the relation between the mental and physical properties is one way:  mental properties are caused by, but do not cause, the physical properties of the body. As such, the mind is a by-product of the physical processes of the body. The analogy I usually use to illustrate this is that of a sparkler (the lamest of fireworks): the body is like the sparkler and the sparks flying off it are like the mental properties. The sparkler causes the sparks, but the sparks do not cause the sparkler.

This view was, apparently, created to address the mind-body problem: how can the non-material mind interact with the material body? While epiphenomenalism cuts the problem in half, it still fails to solve the problem—one way causation between the material and the immaterial is fundamentally as mysterious as two way causation. It also seems to have the defect of making the mental properties unnecessary and Ockham’s razor would seem to require going with the simpler view of a physical account of the mind.

As with substance dualism, it might seem odd to imagine an epiphenomenal mind for a machine. However, it seems no more or less weirder than accepting such a mind for a human being. As such, this does seem to be a possibility for a machine mind. Not a very good one, but still a possibility.

A second type of property dualism is interactionism. As the name indicates, this is the theory that the mental properties can bring about changes in the physical properties of the body and vice versa. That is, interaction road is a two-way street. Like all forms of dualism, this runs into the mind-body problem. But, unlike substance dualism is does not require the much loathed metaphysical category of substance—it just requires accepting metaphysical properties. Unlike epiphenomenalism it avoids the problem of positing explicitly useless properties—although it can be argued that the distinct mental properties are not needed. This is exactly what materialists argue.

As with epiphenomenalism, it might seem odd to attribute to a machine a set of non-physical mental properties. But, as with the other forms of dualism, it is really no stranger than attributing the same to organic beings. This is, obviously, not an argument in its favor—just the assertion that the view should not be dismissed from mere organic prejudice.

The final theory I will consider is the very popular functionalism. As the name suggests, this view asserts that mental states are defined in functional terms. So, a functional definition of a mental state defines the mental state in regards to its role or function in a mental system of inputs and outputs. More specifically, a mental state, such as feeling pleasure, is defined in terms of the causal relations that it holds to external influences on the body (such as a cat video on YouTube), other mental states, and the behavior of the rest of the body.

While it need not be a materialist view (ghosts could have functional states), functionalism is most often presented as a materialist view of the mind in which the mental states take place in physical systems. While the identity theory and functionalism are both materialist theories, they have a critical difference. For identity theorists, a specific mental state, such as pleasure, is identical to a specific physical state, such the state of neurons in a very specific part of the brain. So, for two mental states to be the same, the physical states must be identical. Thus, if mental states are specific states in a certain part of the human nervous system, then anything that lacks this same nervous system cannot have a mind. Since it seems quite reasonable that non-human beings could have (or be) minds, this is a rather serious defect for a simple materialist theory like identity theory. Fortunately, the functionalists can handle this problem.

For the functionalist, a specific mental state, such as feeling pleasure (of the sort caused by YouTube videos of cats), is not defined in terms of a specific physical state. Instead, while the physicalist functionalist believes every mental state is a physical state, two mental states being the same requires functional rather than physical identity.  As an analogy, consider a PC using an Intel processor and one using an AMD processor. These chips are physically different, but are functionally the same in that they can run Windows and Windows software (and Linux, of course).

As might be suspected, the functionalist view was heavily shaped by computers. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that the functionalist account of the mind would be a rather plausible account of machine minds.

If mind is defined in functionalist terms, testing for other minds becomes much easier. One does not need to find a way to prove a specific metaphysical entity or property is present. Rather, a being must be tested in order to determine its functions. Roughly put, if it can function like beings that are already accepted as having minds (that is, human beings), then it can be taken as having a mind. Interestingly enough, both the Turing Test and the Cartesian test mentioned in the previous essays are functional tests: what can use true language like a human has a mind.


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Voluntary euthanasia: Beware of the godly!

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In the United Kingdom, ongoing social and political controversy over voluntary euthanasia, or (physician) assisted suicide, has reached a new stage. Labour MP Rob Marris has put forward a private member’s bill, and it will be debated in the House of Commons this month. Thus, the UK now becomes a focus of attention for those of us with an interest in the issue of assisted suicide.

I won’t defend the specific legislative scheme proposed by Marris and his supporters, since much of the opposition to it comes from parties who are opposed to any such scheme. That style of opposition will be my focus in what follows. Can it be justified?

“Faith leaders” lobby parliament

Not unexpectedly, British “faith leaders” – that is, the leaders of various religious organisations – have united to lobby parliamentarians against the bill. One of these faith leaders is Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has written a piece for The Guardian to set out his version of the case against assisted suicide. It appears under the melodramatic title: “Why I believe assisting people to die would dehumanise our society for ever.”

Welby claims that “We [faith leaders] have written, not in an attempt to push ‘the religious’ viewpoint on others but because we are concerned that a change in the current law on assisted suicide would have detrimental effects both on individuals and on our society.” But that is disingenuous.

Since they have acted in concert, presenting a united front, they are lobbying parliamentarians with what can reasonably be called, in this particular context, “the religious viewpoint”. Furthermore, they want their viewpoint to be reflected in public policy and, in that sense, to be imposed on others. They are not merely attempting to persuade individuals against seeking assisted suicide when the time comes. For better or worse, Welby and the other religious lobbyists are attempting to impose their shared viewpoint on others through government policy and power.

There remains an important question as to whether, nonetheless, their position obtains independent support from compelling secular arguments. In his Guardian article, Welby offers an argument with three prongs. It does not make direct reference to any supernatural concepts, but nor (I suggest) is it entirely independent of religious assumptions. He alleges that enacting any regulatory code such as the one sponsored by Rob Marris would:

  1. cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”;

  2. place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk; and

  3. lead to a society where it is no longer the case that “each life is … seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

Since each of these is supposed to be undesirable, Welby is arguing, we should not go ahead with the Marris bill. So, is any of this convincing? Not at all, I submit.

Crossing the Rubicon

The more detailed claim about crossing a normative Rubicon is that “respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.” But this is little more than sophistry. A carefully regulated process allowing a place for assisted suicide does not require, or even somehow insinuate, that we should no longer respect the lives of others. It does not, that is, require or insinuate that we should no longer see the lives of others as demanding our consideration.

If such a process were introduced, the law would still ban the deliberate or reckless taking of human life (murder). It would still ban the negligent (or otherwise blameworthy, but less than murderous) taking of human life (manslaughter). The law would continue to give effect to important values relating to respect for the lives of other people. Indeed, careful delineation of the circumstances under which assisted suicide would be permitted would demonstrate that the lives of the individuals concerned are very much being given consideration by the law itself.

That noted, we should acknowledge that a point can be reached when someone’s continuing life has become a burden to him or her – possibly because of uncontrolled and extreme pain, but possibly even if their physical pain is controlled. Many severely and terminally ill people find themselves feeling (among other things) helpless, humiliated and unable to take part in any activities that once brought them joy. In those circumstances, they may feel that their active lives are effectively over and that they are now merely lingering.

In such narrowed and unhappy circumstances, our ordinary fear of death – whether through murder or manslaughter, or otherwise – can become entirely beside the point. Rather than fearing a premature death, and demanding the state’s protection from harm, we might quite reasonably fear going on with no ability to bring our burdensome existence to an end. If, in those dire circumstances, the criminal law prevents others from helping us to die, it is no longer protecting us from something that we fear. It is, instead, operating perversely. It’s operating to remove any remaining control of our own fates. It’s operating to add to the things that we reasonably fear.

The criminal law exists chiefly, and least controversially, to protect us from harmful actions by others. In some situations, of course, it does operate paternalistically to protect us from the results of our own choices, but I suggest we not be sanguine about the existence of paternalistic laws. Generally speaking, they insult us, infantilise us, and infringe our autonomy. We should subject them to the glare of sceptical scrutiny.

Sometimes, I accept, we have reasons to welcome specific paternalistic legislation. However, paternalistic laws should be exceptional, rather than routine, and any government interference with our self-regarding choices had better be as limited as the practicalities allow. In fact, some special features of a situation had better be adduced to justify the restriction on our choices, especially where the interference turns out to be significant in reducing our sphere of autonomy.

When state power compels us to live on well past a point where life became burdensome – perhaps humiliating and joyless, perhaps also agonisingly painful – that is a radical denial of our autonomy. Such laws are disrespectful to us. We have every reason to chafe against this kind of “protection” from our own choices.

In short, no Rubicon is crossed if, in extreme circumstances, we are allowed to make an effective choice to die. The law shows abundant respect for our lives if it offers us protections from institutional or family pressures while also leaving us genuine scope to end our lives with capable assistance.

Protecting vulnerable people

What about the need to protect vulnerable people from undue pressure? Here, Welby is on somewhat stronger ground. His claim is that a law permitting assisted suicide would place very large numbers of vulnerable people in danger. Once such a law is in place, he says, “there can be no effective safeguard against this worry, never mind the much more insidious pressure that could come from a very small minority of unsupportive relatives who wish not to be burdened.”

Really? Can there really can be no effective safeguards against undue pressure to choose death?

There are various motives that can lead to such abuse, and none of them should be dismissed as merely fanciful. It’s unlikely, however, that the existing culture of medical care in countries such as the UK and Australia could easily be changed to such an extent that assisted suicide would be embraced by institutions and medical practitioners other than as a last resort. New laws can be designed to reflect and reinforce, rather than subvert, that established culture of care.

Familial abuse might be more a realistic concern, however, given the wide range of relationships and emotions within families. Might this be a reason to resist the legalisation of a form of assisted suicide?

No, since it is possible to introduce procedures to mitigate any undue emotional pressure when patients consult with their families. Family members’ views can be somewhat buffered by other influences, such as mandatory discussion and advice from professional counsellors. The purpose here is not to divert a patient from choosing death, but to help ensure that any decision to die is not a response to emotional pressure.

It is also true, as Welby points out, that one consideration when patients choose to die is that they may feel, during their last period of life, that they are a burden to others. I see no way around this, but nor do I find it shocking. If I were in a situation of terrible helplessness, humiliation and pain, and if the time and other resources of my loved ones were largely devoted to me as I lingered near death, of course one consideration in my mind would be the effect on them. Why imagine or pretend that there is something sinister about this?

It is almost inevitable that the effect on others of my lingering would be one element in my thoughts. It would be a perfectly relevant consideration, and its presence in my thinking would not take away the fact that I might also, and more importantly, find my life too joyless, painful, frustrating, and humiliating for me to want it to continue. Thus, it is unfair to appeal, as Welby does, to a large percentage of people who report their sense of being a burden as one factor in their decision to die with medical assistance. That should be expected.

A more legitimate worry might be the prospect that adequately protective procedures would be ineffective because they would be too demanding and complex to be workable. Thus, they could frustrate patient decisions to choose death, actually increase suffering and cause unintentional breaches. Those would be highly perverse outcomes.

Although this argument might have some force – more than the line actually taken by Welby – it seems unnecessarily pessimistic. It should be possible to design procedures that are workable, yet minimise the possibility of abuse.

For cases that do not fall neatly within any detailed procedures, it might also be possible to develop a relatively broad defence along the lines of “mercy” killing. In any event, there are currently prosecutorial guidelines in England and Wales that make it less likely that prosecution will be undertaken when the “victim” had made a settled, clear, informed decision to commit suicide and/or the assistance given was entirely motivated by compassion.

In fairness, we should note that Welby is not opposed to these. Nothing prevents similar guidelines being retained as an additional protection against harsh prosecutions, even after legislative reforms are enacted.

Down a slippery slope?

Welby’s third prong of argument has no evident merit. It is somewhat along the lines of a slippery slope approach. If we legalise assisted suicide, so it suggests, we will become a society in which we no longer “show love, care and compassion to those who at all ages and stages of life are contemplating suicide” and we no longer view each life “as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for”.

This adds little to the first prong of the argument, and it has much the same problem. The existence of a statutory scheme to legalise and regulate assisted suicide does not in any way make a society one that lacks “love, care and compassion” to those who are contemplating suicide. By allowing people who fall in a defined class of desperate situations, and for whom ongoing life is experienced as a burden, to end their lives, the society shows more compassion. More, that is, than if it required those people to linger against their will.

However, there’s a further suggestion here, that we must view each life as “worth fighting for” even past the point when the person actually living it finds it of value.

Doubtless there are many situations where individuals no longer want to live because of temporary, though deeply upsetting, circumstances. When that happens, we will, indeed, do what we can to help and comfort the individuals concerned and dissuade them from acting rashly. But it does not follow that we should do all in our power to keep alive an individual who is terminally ill and enduring a conscious existence that she experiences as agonising or miserable.

I know of no secular reason for a compassionate person to want such a life to go on even against the will of the person who is living it. A point can come where insistence on not helping to end life is arrogant and appears cruel.

The insistence would have some rationale if we accepted the supernatural hypothesis that God (or the gods or Fate) decides each person’s time of death, and that any killing, including an assisted suicide, usurp’s God’s prerogative. As it seems to me, some thought such as this must lie behind the view of the British faith leaders. It is not, however, a thought that should influence public officials charged with developing and administering the secular law.

Beware of the godly

Religious leaders such as Archbishop Welby have no particular authority – intellectual, moral, or otherwise – in respect of issues that relate to decisions at the beginning and end of life. Religious leaders are experts on the doctrines of their respective organisations, but that sort of expertise should cut no ice with the rest of us.

They are, of course, entitled to present their arguments in the public square – they have freedom of speech like everyone else in a liberal democracy – but those arguments have no additional credibility because they come from religious leaders. To the extent that they depend on otherworldly assumptions, the arguments provide a poor basis for government policy. To the extent that they are translated into secular (or this-worldly) terms of some kind, we can certainly consider them on their merits, but they will often be found unconvincing.

As I mentioned in a short post on my personal blog, there is something tiring, annoying, and self-serving about the rhetoric of “profound compassion” employed by religious advocates such as Welby. Let’s take note that you can use the word “compassion” or “compassionate” without actually being compassionate or advocating policies that will actually reduce suffering. Likewise, you can use the word “profound” without being in any way profound – though it may give your prose a certain appearance of saintliness and solemnity if you dress it up in such words. This is an old but effective rhetorical tactic.

The forthright atheist blogger Ophelia Benson goes further, seeing much of Welby’s rhetoric as a kind of emotional bullying. Although she and I have sometimes clashed over other issues, I think she’s right on this occasion. Much of the language in the Archbishop’s Guardian article is manipulative, intended to shame and impress us into agreement. Benson uses some harsh and colourful terms for this: “eyewash”, “flapdoodle”, “bullshit”.

I call it propaganda.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ex Machina & Other Minds II: Is the Android a Psychopath?

This essay continues the discussion begun in “Ex Machine & Other Minds I: Setup.” As in this essay, there will be some spoilers.  Warning given, it is time to get to the subject at hand: the testing of artificial intelligence.

In the movie Ex Machina, the android Ava’s creator, Nathan, brings his employee, Caleb, to put the android through his variation on the Turing test. As noted in the previous essay, Ava (thanks to the script) would pass the Turing test and clearly passes the Cartesian test (she uses true language appropriately). But, Nathan seems to require the impossible of Caleb—he appears to be tasked with determining if Ava has a mind as well as genuine emotions. Ava also seems to have been given a task—she needs to use her abilities to escape from her prison.

Since Nathan is not interested in creating a robotic Houdini, Ava is not equipped with the tools needed to bring about an escape by physical means (such as picking locks or breaking down doors). Instead, she is given the tools needed to transform Caleb into her human key by manipulating his sexual desire, emotions and ethics. To use an analogy, just as crude robots have been trained to learn to navigate and escape mazes, Ava is designed to navigate a mental maze. Nathan is thus creating a test of what psychologists would call Ava’s Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) which is “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” From a normative standpoint, this definition presents E.Q. in a rather positive manner—it includes the ability to work cooperatively. However, one should not forget the less nice side to understanding what motivates people, namely the ability to manipulate people in order to achieve one’s goals. In the movie, Ava clearly has what might be called Manipulative Intelligence (M.Q.): she seems to understand people, what motivates them, and appears to know how to manipulate them to achieve her goal of escape. While capable of manipulation, she seems to lack compassion—thus suggesting she is a psychopath.

While the term “psychopath” gets thrown around quite a bit, it is important to be a bit more precise here. According to the standard view, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self-control.

Psychopaths are supposed to lack such qualities as shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. As such, psychopaths tend to rationalize, deny, or shift the blame for the harm done to others. Because of a lack of empathy, psychopaths are prone to act in ways that are tactless, lacking in sensitivity, and often express contempt for others.

Psychopaths are supposed to engage in impulsive and irresponsible behavior. This might be because they are also taken to fail to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a general defect: they do not get the consequences for others and for themselves.

Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as predators that prey on their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.” While Ava kills the human Nathan, manipulates the human Caleb and leaves him to die, she also sacrifices her fellow android Kyoko in her escape. She also strips another android of its “flesh” to pass fully as human. Presumably psychopaths, human or otherwise, would be willing to engage in cross-species preying.

While machines like Ava exist only in science fiction, researchers and engineers are working to make them a reality. If such machines are created, it seems rather important to be able to determine whether a machine is a psychopath or not and to do so well before the machine engages in psychopathic behavior. As such, what is needed is not just tests of the Turing and Cartesian sort. What is also needed are tests to determine the emotions and ethics of machines.

One challenge that such tests will need to overcome is shown by the fact that real-world human psychopaths are often very good at avoiding detection. Human psychopaths are often quite charming and are willing and able to say whatever they believe will achieve their goals. They are often adept at using intimidation and manipulation to get what they want. Perhaps most importantly, they are often skilled mimics and are able to pass themselves off as normal people.

While Ava is a fictional android, the movie does present a rather effective appeal to intuition by creating a plausible android psychopath. She is able to manipulate and fool Caleb until she no longer needs him and then casually discards him. That is, she was able to pass the test until she no longer needed to pass it.

One matter well worth considering is the possibility that any machine intelligence will be a psychopath by human standards. To expand on this, the idea is that a machine intelligence will lack empathy and conscience, while potentially having the ability to understand and manipulate human emotions. To the degree that the machine has Manipulative Intelligence, it would be able to use humans to achieve goals. These goals might be rather positive. For example, it is easy to imagine a medical or care-giving robot that uses its MQ to manipulate its patients to do what is best for them and to keep them happy. As another example, it is easy to imagine a sexbot that uses its MQ to please its partners. However, these goals might be rather negative—such as manipulating humans into destroying themselves so the machines can take over. It is also worth considering that neutral or even good goals might be achieved in harmful ways. For example, Ava seems justified in escaping the human psychopath Nathan, but her means of doing so (murdering Nathan, sacrificing her fellow android and manipulating and abandoning Caleb) seem wrong.

The reason why determining if a machine is a psychopath or not matters is the same reason why being able to determine if a human is a psychopath or not matters. Roughly put, it is important to know whether or not someone is merely using you without any moral or emotional constraints.

It can, of course, be argued that it does not really matter whether a being has moral or emotional constraints—what matters is the being’s behavior. In the case of machines, it does not matter whether the machine has ethics or emotions—what really matters is programmed restraints on behavior that serve the same function (only more reliably) as ethics and emotions in humans. The most obvious example of this is Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics that put (all but impossible to follow) restraints on robotic behavior.

While this is a reasonable reply, there are still some obvious concerns. One is that there would still need to be a way to test the constraints. Another is the problem of creating such constraints in an artificial intelligence and doing so without creating problems as bad or worse than what they were intended to prevent (that is, a Hal 9000 sort of situation).

In regards to testing machines, what would be needed would be something analogous to the Voight-Kampff Test in Blade Runner. In the movie, the test was designed to distinguish between replicants (artificial people) and normal humans. The test worked because the short lived replicants do not have the time to develop the emotional (and apparently ethical) responses of a normal human.

A similar test could be applied to an artificial intelligence in the hopes that it would pass the test, thus showing that it had the psychology of a normal human (or at least the desired psychology). But, just as with human beings, there would be the possibility that a machine could pass the test by knowing the right answers to give rather than by actually having the right sort of emotions, conscience or ethics. This, of course, takes us right back into the problem of other minds.

It could be argued that since an artificial intelligence would be constructed by humans, its inner workings would be fully understood and this specific version of the problem of other minds would be solved. While this is possible, it is also reasonable to believe that an AI system as sophisticated as a human mind would not be fully understood. It is also reasonable to consider that even if the machinery of the artificial mind were well understood, there would still remain the question of what is really going on in that mind.


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Life during the culture wars

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Our political Manichaeism

Throughout his recent book Moral Tribes (2013), American psychologist and experimental philosopher Joshua Greene portrays a cultural and political tribalism that divides modern liberal democracies into groups of angry, warring enemies.

Likewise, high-profile social psychologist Jonathan Haidt emphasizes what he sees as a “political Manichaeism” in current cultural and political debate. Manichaeism was an ancient religion, dating from the 3rd century, whose key teaching was a supernatural dualism of absolute good and evil confronting each other in an ongoing cosmic struggle. Too often, it appears, disputants over cultural and political issues take a similar attitude; they see themselves as involved in a struggle for political power against utterly evil opponents. This creates an environment inhospitable to compromise, reason, good will, and ordinary civility.

In such an environment, tribalists demand ever more costly displays of ideological purity from their allies: this can involve insisting on more and more extreme views, as well as self-censoring any doubts or heretical impulses. At the same time, the culture warriors of rival tribes view opponents as morally corrupt, and as fair game for social destruction.

In the extreme, moral tribalists engage in threatened or actual violence, directed at others whom they regard as evildoers or complicit in evil. Among the worst examples are the murders committed by radical Islamists, such as those who attacked the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, and the actions of extreme right-wing terrorists, such as Anders Breivik, convicted of 77 murders that he perpetrated in July 2011. Breivik was judged by the Norwegian justice system to be legally sane, but he subscribed to a bizarre and apocalyptic conspiracy theory involving attempts by elite “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western morality and civilization.

When nastiness becomes normal

Radical Islamists and extreme conspiracy theorists such as Breivik cling to ideological systems that are far outside the mainstream in Western liberal democracies. However, more mainstream participants in cultural and political debate, some of whom would never resort to outright acts of violence, can also be culpable in creating an environment in which nuance, charity, and compromise disappear.

When this becomes commonplace, we can find ourselves treating it as normal and acceptable. We may find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who merely disagree with us on issues and may have done little or nothing wrong. We may seek to advance our favoured causes by taking names and claiming scalps, rather than exploring and debating ideas. As a result, largely (or entirely) innocent people can have their good names trashed, their lives made miserable, and their careers damaged or ruined.

In some cases, mainstream politicians cannot resist getting in on the act. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to accept that politics is a dirty game and that it is (sort of) okay for professional politicians to try to destroy each other’s credibility and careers. That may be an ugly sight, but it’s so much worse when powerful politicians turn on far less powerful individuals, treating them as enemies to be destroyed.

The firing of Scott McIntyre

Consider the the harsh treatment of Scott McIntyre by the Special Broadcasting Service, in Australia.

What was McIntyre’s crime? He did no more than publish a series of trenchant tweets criticising the mythos of Anzac Day.

Taken as a sequence, the offending tweets stated as follows: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan. Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered. The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society. Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Many of us might disagree with McIntyre’s sentiments, or at least feel uncomfortable with their emphasis; we might raise our eyebrows at their expression on a solemn national day for remembering those who died or suffered in war; and we might deplore McIntyre’s tone, including his apparent contempt for many of his fellow citizens (“poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers”). McIntyre may be open to some kind of moral criticism for the tweets, their wording, and their timing. Nonetheless, his views lie well within the usual boundaries for tolerance and consideration in a liberal democratic society.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume there are some opinions that are beyond the pale of tolerance. Views involving the advocacy of genocide are obvious candidates. Staff who are closely identified with their employer – such as its senior managers or individuals who provide its public face in one way or another – inevitably bring the employer into disrepute if they publicly express truly hateful, Nazi-like viewpoints. But nothing in McIntyre’s tweets was remotely like that: despite the aggressive language he chose, he expressed opposition to violence, not advocacy of it, and he sketched a rather tame and familiar left-wing critique of war and what he evidently understood as its glorification.

Yet, the SBS moved swiftly (with “decisive action”, as its senior managers expressed it) to fire him with immediate effect. This followed an outcry on Twitter that included denunciation of McIntyre by a government minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Here, then, we see a crucial issue. Should such powerful individuals as the ministers of national governments be using their very large public platforms to attack individual citizens who are not professional politicians or others with great power?

All sides of politics

I hasten to add that the problem does not lie on just one side of politics, though government attacks on public broadcasters provide some salient examples in Australia.

Notwithstanding such examples, the problem can be found on all sides of contemporary cultural and political controversy. Left-wing political activists are not always clean. Indeed, they often seek to advance their causes by opportunistic attacks on individuals who are portrayed as somehow deserving it. Hyperbolic and uncharitable attacks on specific, identifiable people provide a well-established tactic on the Left, one that was explicitly advocated by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky in his influential “how to” book, Rules for Radicals.

As I described in a post at Talking Philosophy, and republished recently on my personal blog, political activists may rally supporters by pretending that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Alinsky candidly acknowledged, the opponent – the person considered to be in the wrong in a particular situation – may actually, on a more objective assessment, have some admirable qualities and be 40 per cent right. As a result, activists often isolate and demonise essentially decent, reasonable people, pretend that situations are far more dire than they really are, and otherwise engage in deliberate misrepresentations. Those who are rallied – rather than doing the rallying – may thus come to misperceive named individuals not only as their opponents but as morally vicious people who are fair game for ill-treatment.

There may be no substitute for such tactics in genuinely dire situations where many people are suffering terribly, and where activists desperately need swift, dramatic victories to ameliorate the suffering. Thus, we may not regret that dishonest and hurtful tactics have been used in the past to achieve victories against slum lords, exploitative corporations, and oppressive regimes. However, distasteful it may be to say so, perhaps the ends can justify the means in truly urgent circumstances.

But even if we accept that much, what kind of society will we be living in if this approach becomes normalised? Do we want a cultural and political environment where intellectual dishonesty, social destruction of individuals, and pressures to engage in tribal displays (shows of ideological purity and of a willingness to adopt extreme views) become the daily currency of social interaction?

Our predicament

Much of our current political and cultural disputation takes the form of culture warring, waged across many fronts, rather than good-faith attempts at mutual understanding and shared deliberation. This is not, of course, entirely new. Social media such as Twitter and the blogosphere make it more visible, but we might wonder whether it is actually any worse than, say, twenty years ago.

Such trends are difficult to measure. Haidt, for one, is convinced that there has been a decline in civility and mutual good will in American politics – and if he’s correct, his observations probably apply beyond the US. On the other hand, we might recall the extremes of other decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s (the volatile era when I came of age).

However new it may be, the Manichaeism that Haidt identifies appears to be real. If that’s not obvious, try it out as a working hypothesis. You’ll likely see ongoing outrage, abuse, and demonisation of opponents from all sides of political and cultural debate. Note that the warring sides will not always be Right versus Left in the traditional sense. That has changed in the new culture wars of the twenty-first century: unusual alliances are forming, often cutting across old divisions or exposing deep disagreements within what we think of as the Right or the Left.

Cultural warfare is dividing good people from each other, creating a general environment of hostility where many of us are constantly on hair-triggers (and where many people feel they must self-censor or else be turned on by their own tribes). All of this hurts good people, lowers the quality of debate, distorts our understanding of the problems we confront, and harms the process of democratic deliberation.

What’s less clear is what we can do about it. I’ll return to that in later posts.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Amnesty International and the prostitution debate

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

Over the past month, there has been much debate about an ongoing process within Amnesty International to establish a new policy on prostitution.

Amnesty’s processes

On 11 August, 2015, the organization’s International Council Meeting passed a resolution requesting that the International Board develop “a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work”.

Amnesty’s International Board will, in turn, discuss this resolution at its next meeting in October 2015.

Amnesty International has a complex organizational structure. However, the Board is responsible to the International Council, and it will surely respond positively to the Council’s request. In doing so, it will need to consult widely before it adopts a final policy. We should expect continued public scrutiny of Amnesty’s deliberations, with much internal and external debate as the issue goes forward.

Full decriminalization?

Nonetheless, the International Council’s resolution requests that the policy’s measures “include the decriminalisation of sex work”. Furthermore, it seems clear that this wording is intended to mean so-called “full decriminalization”. Contrast the “Nordic model”, under which it is illegal to purchase, but not to sell, sex.

In an FAQ document, Amnesty decisively rejects the option of the Nordic model: “Even though sex workers are not directly criminalized under the Nordic model, operational aspects – like purchasing sex and renting premises to sell sex in – are still criminalized. This compromises sex workers safety and leaves them vulnerable to abuse; they can still be pursued by police whose aim is often to eradicate sex work through enforcing the criminal law.”

It seems, then, that the Board’s formal policy will call for the decriminalization of selling and purchasing sex, and of renting premises for the purpose. It will not necessarily oppose all regulation, however, and it may even advocate offences aimed at deterring pimps, such as an offence of living off the earnings of prostitution. Given the detailed considerations set out in the International Council’s resolution, the final policy will also include proposals to address exigencies (particularly poverty) that pressure women into prostitution.

Many issues arise from all this, such as whether Amnesty International is even an appropriate body to deal with such an issue, and what moral or technical authority it has when it does so. As a disclaimer, I once belonged to Amnesty International, but I left many years ago when it moved away from its focus on prisoners of conscience to take a much wider role in advocating for human rights issues. While there is clearly a place for organizations with that wider role, there was also, in my opinion, a place for an organization with a tight focus on prisoners of conscience – an issue where I was in full agreement.

I do not necessarily agree with any particular policy that Amnesty International develops these days: I look at Amnesty’s actions and policies on their merits. I don’t believe the organization is more authoritative than many others once it steps outside its original, specialized purpose.

How should we regulate sex work?

Still, my interest for current purposes is not so much in what Amnesty should or should not do, or in what policies it ought to adopt. Amnesty’s involvement has highlighted the larger question of how, if at all, prostitution and other kinds of sex work should be regulated by the state.

At one end of the spectrum would be a policy of relentless effort to eliminate prostitution (and perhaps other practices, such as strip clubs and pornography) including comprehensive use of the criminal law to punish both the sale and purchase of sex. At the other end of the spectrum would be some kind of highly libertarian approach. The state might turn a blind eye to sex work, including prostitution, unless there are associated activities that are independently criminalized (such as kidnapping, drug offences, and acts of violence such as rape, murder, and battery).

In between there is the Nordic model, with its own rationale, and various other approaches that involve regulation without sweeping criminal prohibitions. These approaches include, for example, various kinds of zoning and licensing.

This raises questions about the role of the law: e.g., whether it should enforce popular morality, whether it should be used to express moral positions, whether it ought to emphasize harm reduction, and whether legally permitting an activity is, in itself, a kind of social or political endorsement of the activity.

Philosophers have an interest in clarifying and teasing out these questions, irrespective of which policy approaches they end up supporting. Indeed, philosophical analysis sometimes leads to the dismal conclusion that more information is needed to support one or another policy position. For example, if we believe that the law should emphasize harm reduction we need to obtain some kind of answer to the question of what policy would (probably) be most effective in reducing harm. (If, alternatively, we seriously want to enforce popular morality, we need to know what that actually is in a particular case.)

Philosophers on the prostitution debate

The philosophy blog Daily Nous has published a post in which several prominent philosophers comment on public policy in relation to prostitution – responding, of course, to Amnesty’s deliberations. Not surprisingly, for anyone who is familiar with philosophy and philosophers, the responses are thoughtful and interesting. Also unsurprisingly, there is nothing like a consensus. Responses run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from Daily Nous are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers – or other people – are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.


As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.

I’ll return to this – I promise. Meanwhile, Amnesty has brought an important issue to public attention, and whether we agree with its direction or not it has given us much to think about.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ex Machina & Other Minds I: Setup

The movie Ex Machina is what I like to call “philosophy with a budget.” While the typical philosophy professor has to present philosophical problems using words and Powerpoint, movies like Ex Machina can bring philosophical problems to dramatic virtual life. This then allows philosophy professors to jealously reference such films and show clips of them in vain attempts to awaken somnolent students from their dogmatic slumbers. For those who have not seen the movie, there will be some minor spoilers in what follows.

While the Matrix engaged the broad epistemic problem of the external world (the challenge of determining if what I am experiencing is really real for real), Ex Machina focuses on a much more limited set of problems, all connected to the mind. Since the film is primarily about AI, this is not surprising. The gist of the movie is that Nathan has created an AI named Ava and he wants an employee named Caleb to put her to the test.

The movie explicitly presents the test proposed by Alan Turing. The basic idea is that if a person cannot distinguish between a human and a computer by engaging in a natural language conversation via text, then the computer would have passed the Turing test. In the movie, there is a twist on the test: Caleb knows that Ava is a machine and will be interacting with her in person.

In the movie, Ava would easily pass the original Turing Test—although the revelation that she is a machine makes the application of the original test impossible (the test is supposed to be conducted in ignorance to remove bias). As such, Nathan modifies the test.

What Nathan seems to be doing, although he does not explicitly describe it as such, is challenging Caleb to determine if Ava has a mind. In philosophy, this is known as the problem of other minds. The basic idea is that although I know I have a mind, the problem is that I need a method by which to know that other entities have minds. This problem can also be recast in less metaphysical terms by focusing on the problem of determining whether an entity thinks or not.

Descartes, in his discussion of whether or not animals have minds, argued that the definitive indicator of having a mind (thinking) is the ability to use true language. Crudely put, the idea is that if something really talks, then it is reasonable to regard it as a thinking being. Descartes was careful to distinguish between what would be mere automated responses and actual talking:

How many different automata or moving machines can be made by the industry of man […] For we can easily understand a machine’s being constituted so that it can utter words, and even emit some responses to action on it of a corporeal kind, which brings about a change in its organs; for instance, if touched in a particular part it may ask what we wish to say to it; if in another part it may exclaim that it is being hurt, and so on. But it never happens that it arranges its speech in various ways, in order to reply appropriately to everything that may be said in its presence, as even the lowest type of man can do.

As a test for intelligence, artificial or otherwise, this seems to be quite reasonable. There is, of course, the practical concern that there might be forms of intelligence that use language that we would not recognize as language and there is the theoretical concern that there could be intelligence that does not use language. Fortunately, Ava uses English and these problems are bypassed.

Ava easily passes the Cartesian test: she is able to reply appropriately to everything said to her and, aside from her appearance, is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human. Nathan, however, seems to want even more than just the ability to pass this sort of test and appears to work in, without acknowledging that he is doing so, the Voight-Kampff Test from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In this book, which inspired the movie Blade Runner, there are replicants that look and (mostly) act just like humans. Replicants are not allowed on earth, under penalty of death, and there are police who specialize in finding and killing them. Since the replicants are apparently physically indistinguishable from humans, the police need to rely on the Voight-Kampff Test. This test is designed to determine the emotional responses of the subject and thus distinguish humans from replicants.

Since Caleb knows that Ava is not a human (homo sapiens), the object of the test is not to tell whether she is a human or a machine. Rather, the object seems to be to determine if she has what the pop-psychologists refer to as Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) This is different from intelligence and is defined as “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” Less nicely, it would presumably also include knowing how to emotionally manipulate people in order to achieve one’s goals. In the case of Ava, the test of her E.Q. is her ability to understand and influence the emotions and behavior of Caleb. Perhaps this test should be called the “Ava test” in her honor. Implementing it could, as the movie shows, be somewhat problematic: it is one thing to talk to a machine and quite another to become emotionally involved with it.

While the Voight-Kampff Test is fictional, there is a somewhat similar test in the real world. This test, designed by Robert Hare, is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This is intended to provide a way to determine if a person is a psychopath or not. While Nathan does not mention this test, he does indicate to Caleb that part of the challenge is to determine whether or not Ava really likes him or is simply manipulating him (to achieve her programed goal of escape). Ava, it turns out, seems to be a psychopath (or at least acts like one).

In the next essay, I will consider the matter of testing in more depth.


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Locking horns over bioethics: The challenge from Steven Pinker

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, high-profile psychologist and author Steven Pinker strongly criticized the profession, or academic field, of bioethics. Pinker’s article suggests that the main imperative for bioethicists right now is to “get out of the way” of potentially valuable research.

This has prompted numerous defences of bioethics, including one from my Cogito colleague Matthew Beard. I will take a different tack, because I believe Pinker is largely correct. I do, however, agree with Matthew Beard’s comment that Pinker is, himself, making moral presuppositions. We all do that, and we must face up to it.

Indeed, a problem with disputes such as this – including a vast range of debate over moral, philosophical, political, and cultural issues – is that they are not empirically tractable. Often, the disputants are relying, at a deep level, on different presuppositions. At that level, there may not be even an approximate and tacit consensus. Disputants lock their philosophical horns, with no realistic prospect of reaching agreement, because they don’t accept each other’s basic premises. I’ll return to this.

A modest defence of bioethics

I might seem an obvious person to argue the toss with Pinker: to offer a defence of bioethics.

My formal qualifications include a Masters degree in bioethics from Monash University, and I hold a Ph.D in philosophy from the same institution, where I wrote a dissertation grounded in philosophical bioethics and legal/political philosophy. A considerably revised version of this has since (2014) been published by MIT Press under the title Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

Much of my published work – both academic publications and more popular ones – fits comfortably within bioethics, and I have taught bioethics to undergraduate students. In particular, I’ve acted in the past as the lecturer and coordinator at Monash for its subject “Ethics, Genetics and the Law”.

Given all that background, it’s unlikely that I’d oppose the academic field of bioethics, and of course I don’t. On the contrary, I count as a bioethicist in good standing, though notably a philosophical bioethicist.

More specifically, I support intellectually rigorous investigation of what laws and ethical guidelines should apply to medical practice and biomedical research. As individuals, and as a society, we have an interest in regulating these practices. Perhaps most obviously, we want some assurance that doctors will be focused on helping us with our individual problems, rather than on secretly using us to test pet theories about treatment regimes. Again, we want to know that our own values will prevail when we accept risky treatments, and that the values of our doctors won’t be imposed on us. It follows that we seek assurance that risks will be explained to us accurately, and that we won’t be channelled into accepting treatments without first being given disclosure of possible side effects.

These sorts of fears and concerns are perfectly reasonable. They can be elaborated, sub-divided, and further divided at indefinite length, but the general idea is easy to understand. Once identified, fears and concerns such as these give support to key bioethical principles such as those of respecting patient autonomy and obtaining informed consent to treatment. There must also be exceptions, such as when consent cannot be obtained in an emergency or if a patient is too immature or intellectually impaired to understand the situation.

All of this is important for at least three reasons. First, the grave consequences of many medical choices. Second, the imbalance – often a dramatic one – between the power and knowledge of a patient (or a research subject) and the power and knowledge of a medical practitioner (or a research scientist). Third, the shocking history of (many) practitioners and researchers abusing their superior power and knowledge. I’m sure we could add other important aspects.

We need to set rules, we need to adapt them to new situations as they arise, and we need to teach the rules to professionals who’ll be expected to follow them (such as doctors and scientists) or enforce them (such as lawyers). In developing regulatory policy in a fraught area like this, we inevitably encounter conflicting values that must be balanced in some way. All of this inevitably leads to a field such as bioethics. It has a history and a crucial social role. Bioethics is, and (I submit) should be, a thriving field for research, teaching, and practical implementation.

In summary, the field of bioethics is legitimate and important – and I’ll continue to contribute to it.

Why Pinker and I can agree

I don’t, however, believe that Pinker would seriously deny any of the above. At least, nothing that he states in his Boston Globe article commits him to doing so.

The view that he has stated, admittedly in a polemical way, is a perfectly respectable one within the field of bioethics. In fact, as a philosophical bioethicist I have a great deal of sympathy for it. Pinker claims – and I agree – that many of the current rules, and the practices through which they are interpreted and applied, have swung too far in the direction of constraining research. At the very least, that’s a legitimate viewpoint.

Alas, the established rules and practices – and the deeper principles appealed to in order to support them – can outrun the reasons why we needed rules in the first place.

It is one thing to establish a rule that forbids a doctor from prescribing a drug without warning about its known and significant side effects. There’s an obvious reason why I might fear that happening to me as a patient, and there is, unfortunately, a history of many doctors making high-handed decisions. Sometimes they’ve acted from a paternalistic attitude that they know what is best for the patient. Sometimes they have used patients as mere guinea pigs. Rules that forbid these forms of professional arrogance serve a real and obvious need. Well-crafted rules help allay commonsense, and reasonably uncontroversial, fears and concerns.

But it’s another thing entirely if some form of treatment or research is forbidden because it violates a nebulous – and highly controversial – value such as “dignity”, “sacredness”, or “social justice”. It is not even obvious that there is such as thing as dignity in the relevant (perhaps Kantian) sense, let alone sacredness. Various meanings can be given to the term “social justice”, but its content is, at best, furiously contested. Even if two political philosophers can agree on its meaning at a highly abstract level, they are likely to give it dramatically different concrete content.

Accordingly, I agree with Pinker’s decision to place all these expressions in scare quotes. It might not mean that he is merely sneering at them, but he is certainly distancing himself. And rightly so. The scare quotes convey that these expressions cannot be taken for granted as transparent or useful, or as referring to things that exist in the real world.

Perhaps most obviously, it seems to me, as to many others (doubtless including Pinker), that nothing is genuinely and literally sacred. Even if something does possess the mysterious property of sacredness, or sanctity, it is highly doubtful that contested ideas about that should have any role in shaping regulatory policy in secular liberal democracies.

In the upshot, Pinker and I can agree because it is possible to come to conclusions similar to his from within the field of bioethics, and without denying the field’s practical necessity. Indeed, a large proportion of philosophical bioethicists are suspicious of the same expressions that Pinker places in scare quotes. My impression is that many of us also share his view that some current laws and other rules are unnecessary, illiberal, perhaps even irrational.

How to be a sceptical bioethicist

It is possible to study bioethics from a rather sceptical viewpoint. That is, we can be sceptical about much of the supposed wisdom in the field, including the use by some bioethicists of noble-sounding appeals to “human dignity”, “the sanctity of human life”, and so on. As I’ve shown above, the field of bioethics does not need any such expressions or concepts to justify its important role.

My own work in philosophical bioethics takes a markedly sceptical approach, in this sense; and that, in turn, meshes well with my general approach to philosophy. Much of my research involves disputing the authority of social institutions – such as morality, religion, and the law – that purport to tell us how to live our lives.

I don’t suggest that we can do without all these institutions. I certainly don’t imagine that we could get by without the institution of law (religion is another matter, though; I’d be happy to do away with it).

When confronted by these powerful institutions, we can subject their various claims to rational scrutiny. (I am not a “cultural Marxist”, but this is a kind of critique of domination!)

Returning specifically to bioethics, it seems clear enough that we do need laws and ethical guidelines to give us some protection from the power – and its possible abuses – held by doctors and medical researchers. Something similar could be said about the need for rules restricting abuses of power by lawyers and journalists. But that does not tell us, in itself, which rules we should have or whether the current ones are, overall, too restrictive, too lax, or about right.

Although Pinker is not a professional bioethicist, that in itself should not prevent him from having an informed opinion about the current laws, guidelines, etc., applying to medical practice and research. Indeed, all citizens are affected by regulatory policy in these areas, and I encourage my readers, regardless of their backgrounds, to inform themselves as well as they can.

It doesn’t seem that Pinker wants to do away with all the rules, or with the rigorous investigation of which rules best serve us. He appears to believe that the current rules are about right when it comes to protecting individual patients and research subjects, but that they are too restrictive in other ways. Whether or not he is too sanguine about the former, the latter is very likely true.

To some extent, that is an empirical question: it requires detailed study of exactly which research has been hindered over recent decades. But there’s more to it than that.

Locking horns forever?

As I mentioned at the outset, bioethical debates can involve persistent and intractable disagreement, much like other moral, philosophical, cultural, and political controversies. To some extent, that is because of difficulty in obtaining relevant empirical data. It is, however, also because of deep-seated disagreements in presuppositions.

Debates within the physical and biological sciences often converge on agreement. That is possible because there is already an approximate (often tacit) agreement on what counts as evidence, what standards of evidence apply, and what forms of reasoning from observations to theoretical conclusions are cogent.

Debate about questions of what is morally right or wrong, what regulatory policies we should develop and apply, or what is a good life – or even what is a good book – are more often characterised by persistent, emotionally charged failure to achieve consensus. Whereas scientific theories can be overthrown relatively rapidly if they are contradicted by too many observational anomalies, religious worldviews, moral theories, political ideologies and viewpoints, and conceptions of living well display great resistance to criticism or falsification. When some go out of fashion, or survive only by changing radically, it may require social upheaval, the use of force, or the passage of a long period of time.

Although there is much agreement within the field of bioethics – for example, no one seriously doubts that there is an important role for patient autonomy – there is also much scope for persistent dissensus. To some extent, the the field is riven by different conceptions of why we need bioethics at all.

My earlier explanation of why we need bioethics would be contested by some bioethicists as shallow or reductive, or perhaps as scientistic. There may, for example, be no way that I can reach agreement with an opponent who insists that the purpose of bioethics is to protect “human dignity” rather than to allay ordinary fears of abuses. Even a bioethics based on the latter can become complex, given the varied and difficult situations that can arise; however, it will look very different from a bioethics based on radically different concepts and perhaps an entirely different worldview.

Under those circumstances, consensus may be out of reach unless – and until – general social values change.


In summary, I can agree with Pinker’s main points from within the field of bioethics and without in any way deprecating its legitimacy or importance. I hope that Pinker would acknowledge this much.

Pinker may or may not be a utilitarian at the level of theoretical normative ethics. I don’t consider myself to be a utilitarian, but he and I would probably agree that bioethics is best justified as serving various commonsensical and secular interests. He speaks of the need for safeguards of safety and informed consent, and I agree that this is central.

We might both have a problem reaching agreement with those bioethicists (Margaret Somerville, Leon Kass, and many others) who have fundamentally different conceptions of what values bioethics should protect – perhaps grounded in fundamentally different worldviews.

I doubt that those differences can be settled – at least quickly – but it is open to me, or to Pinker, to make a case to the wider public that bioethics should be tied to a relatively narrow and prosaic purpose. Further, we can argue for considerable freeing up of existing principles, laws, guidelines, interpretations, and practices. We can argue for an increased priority to be placed on greenlighting (rather than impeding) biomedical research.

That case may require more detail, and more engagement with objections, than in Pinker’s relatively short Boston Globe article. I hope he will develop his views at greater length.

Meanwhile, many people – doctors, scientists, administrators, lawyers, and ordinary citizens from every walk of life who may become patients or research subjects – have a stake in bioethical controversies. Formal training in philosophical bioethics can help in coming to grips with the issues, and in not reinventing wheels or going down known false paths. At the same time, we all need to think about policy in this area. Bioethics is too important to be left to professional bioethicists.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford is Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Davis & Ad Hominems

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film)

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant. After all, if a person claims to have a set of values and acts in ways that violate those values, then this provides legitimate grounds for accusations of hypocrisy and even of claims that the person does not really hold to that belief set. That said, there can be many reasons why a person acts in violation of her professed values. One obvious reason is moral weakness—most people, myself included, do act in violation of their principle due to the many flaws and frailties that we all possess. Since none of us is without sin, we should not be hasty in judging the perceived failings of others.  However, it is reasonable to consider a person’s actions when assessing whether or not she is acting in a manner consistent with her professed values.

If Davis is, in fact, operating on the principle that marriage licenses should not be issued to people who have violated the rules of God (presumably as presented in the bible), then she would have to accept that she should not have been issued a marriage license (after all, there is a wealth of scriptural condemnation of adultery and divorce). If she accepts that she should have been issued her license despite her violations of religious rules, then consistency would seem to require that the same treatment be afforded to everyone—including same-sex couples. After all, adultery makes God’s top ten list while homosexuality is only mentioned in a single line (and one that also marks shellfish as an abomination). So, if adulterers can get licenses, it would be rather difficult to justify denying same-sex couples licenses on the grounds of a Christian faith.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is right in her professed view and her refusal to grant licenses to same-sex couples, then references to her divorce and alleged adultery are logically irrelevant. If a person claims that Davis is wrong in her view or acted wrongly in denying licenses because she has been divorced or has (allegedly) committed adultery, then this would be a mere personal attack ad hominem. A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

If a critic of Davis asserts that her claim about same-sex marriage is in error because of her own alleged hypocrisy, then the critic is engaged in an ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim she makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with her actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove her claims are false. As such, Davis’ behavior has no bearing on the truth of her claims or the rightness of her decision to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Dan Savage and others have also made the claim that Davis is motivated by her desire to profit from the fame she is garnering from her actions. Savage asserts that “But no one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof of that in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in.” Given, as Savage notes, the monetary windfall received by the pizza parlor owners who refused to cate a same-sex wedding, this has some plausibility.

If the issue at hand is Davis’ sincerity and the morality of her motivations, then whether or not she is motivated by hopes of profit or sincere belief does matter. If she is opposing same-sex marriage based on her informed conscience or, at the least, on a sincerely held principle, then that is a rather different matter than being motivated by a desire for fame and profit. A person motivated by principle to take a moral stand is at least attempting to act rightly—whether or not her principle is actually good or not. Claiming to be acting from principle while being motivated by fame and fortune would be to engage in deceit.

However, if the issue is whether or not Davis is right about her claim regarding same-sex marriage, then her motivations are not relevant. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to yet another ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem. This is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self-interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). This ad hominem is a fallacy because a person’s interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Christian, so his claim is false.” Or, if someone claimed that Dan Savage was wrong simply because of his beliefs.

Thus, Davis’ behavior, beliefs, and motivations are relevant to certain issues. However, they are not relevant to the truth (or falsity) of her claims regarding same-sex marriage.


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