Tag Archives: moral philosophy

Cary Wolfe on “Another Moral Vocabulary”


Friday on the stoop.

This is from Natasha Lennard’s 2017 interview with Cary Wolfe in The Stone:

On the one hand, rights discourse is Exhibit A for the problems with philosophical humanism. Many of us, including myself, would agree that many of the ethical aspirations of humanism are quite admirable and we should continue to pursue them. For example, most of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

Having said all that, there are many, many contexts in which rights discourse is the coin of the realm when you’re engaged in these arguments — and that’s not surprising, given that nearly all of our political and legal institutions are inherited from the brief historical period (ecologically speaking) in which humanism flourished and consolidated its domain. If you’re talking to a state legislature about strengthening laws for animal abuse cases, let’s say, instead of addressing a room full of people at a conference on deconstruction and philosophy about the various problematic assumptions built into rights discourse, then you better be able to use a different vocabulary and different rhetorical tools if you want to make good on your ethical commitments. That’s true even though those commitments and how you think about them might well be informed by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the problem than would be available to those legislators. In other words, it’s only partly a philosophical question. It’s also a strategic question, one of location, context and audience, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we can move more quickly in the realm of academic philosophical discourse on these questions than we can in the realm of legal and political institutions.

Six Questions about Asking and Sophia AI


The company that makes Sophia, Hanson Robotics, has become adept at linking different, highly-specific algorithms like image recognition and speech transcription in a way that mimics what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response.

Sophia AI’s mimicry of “what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response” is mostly “theatrics,” Hanson Robotics CTO Ben Goertzel openly admits. That is probably why Sophia AI has so far found her most receptive audiences on TV talk shows and in corporate theater, where she won’t have to undergo too much scrutiny. But with the launch of singularityNET, which promises to put “Sophia’s entire mind…on the network,” Hanson says that “soon…the whole world will be able to talk to her.”

I would offer that talking “to” Sophia AI — or using Sophia’s chatbot function — is still a long way from conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, because it does not involve talking with a second person. This inconvenient truth about Sophia AI has not prevented the Saudi government from naming Sophia the first “robot citizen” of the Kingdom (and the grim irony of “a robot simulation of a woman [enjoying] freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not” was not lost on the Washington Post); nor has it prevented tabloids from screeching about Sophia stating she would like to have a family.

If personhood is setting the bar too high, I’m content to consider merely how Sophia AI handles asking. This would involve some of the considerations I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Asking Project: what we “might be doing” (as the writer in Quartz puts it) when we ask or hear a question; what’s involved, and what’s at stake, when we address others with a request or demand; and how these and other interrogative activities might be involved in our (moral) status as persons.

For starters, here are half a dozen questions about asking and Sophia AI that occurred to me after watching her video performances. I suspect there is a clear answer to the first, and the remaining five require some extended discussion.

1. What syntactic, grammatical or other cues (e.g., intonation) does Sophia AI use to recognize a question, and distinguish it from a declarative statement?

2. Can Sophia AI distinguish a request from a demand? A demand from an order? If so, how is this done? If not, what does this shortcoming indicate?

3. Will Sophia AI ever refuse to comply with a request? Leave a demand unmet? Defy an order? If not, how should these incapacities limit the role of Sophia or any AI?

4. Could a demand ever create in Sophia AI a sense of obligation? If so, what might this “sense” entail? Can we speak coherently of AI rights, or even place limits on AI’s role, without first developing this sense?

5. Will Sophia AI ever be capable of deliberating with others and reaching consensus or agreement?

6. What would be required for Sophia AI to deliberate internally? To be capable of asking herself?

Preston King on Acceptance

As I was saying:

Tolerance features a predominant objection to an item conjoined with some form of free acceptance of that item….one exhibits some general aversion to the item tolerated plus some kind of ‘acceptance’ of it….

Where one objects to an item without regard to any consequences that might flow from acting against it, it is plain that on the crest of that objection rides a predisposition to act against it. Where one dislikes or disapproves of an item, and yet freely accepts it, it is impossible that the objection can be understood as the reason for accepting it. There must be other considerations that stand outside and tend to cut across the objection, thereby producing the item’s acceptance….

When we speak of an objection what we are basically concerned with is a disposition or assessment. When we speak of acceptance, what we are basically concerned with, by contrast, are those consequential acts that are assumed to flow from the disposition or assessment. Assessment of course involves approval or disapproval. Similarly, consequential acts embrace rejection as well as acceptance. The consequence of approval tends to be acceptance. The consequence of disapproval tends to be rejection. In the tolerating conjuncture we discover elements both of objection (dislike/disapproval) and of acceptance. The consequence involved in tolerance, on balance, is acceptance, and it flows from an interruption of the objection. Thus the tolerant consequence is necessarily equivocal — involving either the surrender of some negative impulse or the indulgence of some limited act of association. When we tolerate an x, we accept it either in the sense that we associate with it or do not interfere with it in some limited sphere, in some limited degree. If we tolerate a doctrine, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not physically attempt to stop others from advocating it (although we would ourselves preach against it). If we tolerate a person, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not attempt to deprive him of fair trial procedure or of citizenship in our state (although we would not particularly wish to entertain him in our home). The act of acceptance, like the objection which precedes it, comes in varying degrees and applies on varying levels, in different spheres. If one objects to an x, that is a warrant for being dissociated from, or acting against, it. If one objects to a person or doctrine, that is in itself a warrant for having nothing to do with that person or for inhibiting the influence of that doctrine. To tolerate them implies an objection to them; but it also implies some limited form of association or non-interference with them. The act of acceptance, coming in degrees, may range from one to the other. Thus, when we say that we tolerate an x, assuming some form of acceptance of that x (starting for example at the minimal level of mere non-interference), the clarity of the assertion further depends on communicating the degree of our acceptance and the specific sphere or spheres to which it relates….when we display tolerance…we accept, but accept in the sense of some limited degree of association or non-interference with, the object of tolerance.

The act of acceptance in tolerance, since it frequently reduces to a non-act, must be seen most minimally as a remission from intolerance. One may negate one’s intolerance simply by declining to act out one’s disapproval, as also by acting in a manner wholly contrary to that ordinarily implied in or associated with one’s disapproval. The act of acceptance, therefore, has minimal and maximal degrees. Also, an item can be accepted on different levels. One may associate with a person in different degrees within the home, club, church, firm or state. One may tolerate a person when one is prepared to associate with him on some of these levels, but not on others. Suppose we tolerate a Jew, or a Catholic, or an Anglican in the sense that we object to him for religious reasons, while accepting association with him for pecuniary reasons. Our tolerance here may imply ready association on some levels, such as the firm and the state, but dissociation on other levels, such as the home, the club and the church. It may be objected that this is not tolerance but intolerance. The answer, however, is that it is both. One may be tolerant of an item on one level and intolerant on another. That is why it is essential to sort them out. Just as one may tolerate on different levels, so may one tolerate in different degrees on each of these levels. It is always essential to inquire in what area and in what degree a tolerator is tolerant. It makes no sense to speak of a tolerator as being completely tolerant of an item. Where an item is not rejected or discriminated against in any degree, or on any level, it cannot be disliked or disapproved in any degree on any level. Complete remission from intolerance is less a matter of tolerance than of indifference or love. It is for this reason that it is not particularly helpful to speak of a ‘pure’ tolerance…. Complete tolerance has to be regarded as an impossibility. (In saying this the distinction is assumed between tolerance and acceptance.)

-Preston T. King, Toleration, pp. 51-54

A Third Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

In the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen argues that realist transactionalism has now corrupted “all political life.”

Her essay extends some of the points that foreign policy observers like Martin Wolf and Ian Bremmer have made in passing lately about the shortcomings of a transactional approach to alliances (which I noted here and here), and urges “a shift from realist to moral reasoning.”

We don’t know what Trump will do; and “we cannot know,” Gessen writes,

whether a scorched-earth strategy or the strategy of compromise would more effectively mitigate Trumpism. But that does not mean that a choice—the right choice—is impossible. It only means that we are asking the wrong question.

The difficulty stems from the realist tradition in politics. In contrast to what is sometimes called idealism, the realist position holds that the political world is governed not by morality but by clear and calculable interests. Alliances and conflicts turn into transactions with predictable outcomes. The realist reasoning is applied most clearly and most often to international relations, but it has seeped into all political life, turning virtually every conversation into a discussion of possible outcomes.

Realism is predicated on predictability: it assumes that parties have clear interests and will act rationally to achieve them. This is rarely true anywhere, and it is patently untrue in the case of Trump. He ran a campaign unlike any in memory, has won an election unlike any in memory, and has so far appointed a cabinet unlike any in memory: racists, Islamophobes, and homophobes, many of whom have no experience relevant to their new jobs. Patterns of behavior characteristic of former presidents will not help predict Trump’s behavior. As for his own patterns, inconsistency and unreliability are among his chief characteristics….

We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge….

Armed with that knowledge, or burdened with that legacy, we have a slight chance of making better choices. As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.

Après Moi Le Déluge

APTOPIX Deep South Weather

From a 19 August 2016 Associated Press article, “Donald Trump to Travel to Flood Stricken Louisiana”.  Dee Vazquez, from left, helps Georgette Centelo and her grandfather Lawrence Roberts after they tried to recover their belongings from a family mobile home in Central, north of Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (David Grunfeld/NOLA.com The Times-Picayune via AP)

There are many things at work in Trump’s reckless plan to withdraw from the Paris Agreement: it’s a sop thrown to big coal and voters in destitute coal-mining districts; it signals a retreat from twenty-first century global engagements and plays to the reactionary America First crowd; it’s a petulant thumbing of the nose at President Obama — the list could go on. The point I would make is simply this: the threat to withdraw from Paris demonstrates that the man about to assume the presidency has no understanding of agreements.

When I talk about his lack of understanding I’m not simply saying that this man, who reads from the teleprompter like a struggling fifth grader, doesn’t intellectually grasp what agreements are or how they work. He might well not; but the real issue, I fear, is that he has no inclination to learn. Time and again, the president-elect has shown us and told us that he does not respect agreements or appreciate the power they have. He will break them at will, because cooperative agreements and — perhaps more to the point — cooperation don’t appear to have a place in his moral outlook, his idea of power, or his general view of the world.

He is a purely transactional man. He doesn’t build cooperative agreements; he strikes deals that work to his advantage. This is a point I’ve noted before, when Martin Wolf wrote about Trump’s “transactional approach to partnerships” in the FT before the election. The foreign policy community is especially alert to (and rightly alarmed by) what this approach might mean in terms of existing alliances like NATO. As Ian Bremmer recently put it: “Trump views alliances transactionally, the way he views his businesses & marriages. Values don’t enter the equation.”

The nihilism — I think that might be the right word for what Bremmer is identifying — of the transactional man counts as both a moral deficiency and a political handicap. In the moral sense, others have no standing: there are no second persons; there is no plurality, only a first person singular. He and I have nothing between us, because (I am again quoting Bremmer) “common values don’t matter” and there is no enduring “we.” With no obligations to me, others or any who might come after, he is out to score. And should others refuse his terms, resist or demand recognition, he is likely to compensate for his lack of political prowess in the only way he can: by exerting hard power.

Après moi le déluge is pretty good shorthand for this attitude, especially as it relates to global climate risk.

Postscript: During a press conference this afternoon, President Obama himself offered a more hopeful view. He noted a “tradition” of carrying international agreements “forward across administrations” and stressed what he called “the good news” about Paris: the agreement formalizes practices already embedded in our economy, and we have already demonstrated that it’s possible to grow the economy and meet its goals. Paul Bledsoe took a different tack this morning on the BBC Newshour, when asked if Trump could simply undo Paris: “investments in the United States and around the world are being made by businesses who know that carbon constraints are inevitable.” Trump, he says, is “on the wrong side of history.”

Hope of a Livable Human Future – Some Context

Hope keeps open a space for agency between the impossible and the fantastical; without it, the small window in time remaining for us to tackle climate change is already closed.

Catriona McKinnon’s 2014 paper “Climate Change: Against Despair” offers some philosophical framing for the totally unscientific liveable human future survey I conducted a while back. Recognizing “the instrumental value of hope in securing effective agency,” McKinnon argues that personal despair about tackling climate change through personal emissions is not justified, whether we take the position that our efforts will not be efficacious (“whatever I do will make no difference”) or the view that “I am unable to make a difference.”

The first of these positions creates a sorites paradox: if climate change is anthropogenic, then some individual acts must have contributed to it; so saying that whatever I do will make no difference commits me to a contradiction, which I ought to abandon. It’s enough for me to be uncertain what contribution my emissions make to climate change, as “uncertainty provides the context for hope rather than despair.”

To then say, as people often do, that whatever I do will not make anthropogenic climate change any worse than it already is, or that my personal emissions contribute imperceptibly to climate change, is only to rehearse the specious argument that “a large number of acts make a morally relevant difference, but each individual act makes no difference at all.”

This line of argument also suggests a way out of the despairing point of view that I am unable to make a difference. If we concede that personal emissions make some difference, or that it’s false that no personal emissions make any difference, “then if a person were to try to reduce her carbon footprint, and not give up, then she could succeed with respect to making a difference on climate change.”

Again, it may be impossible to tell whether my activity will tend to make a difference, or much of a difference, but the important point is that I would be unjustified in saying I am unable to make any difference. So in this case, “what despair amounts to…is the judgement that I can make no difference because I am unwilling to make a difference.” If I am unwilling to do what I can do about climate change, if I am ready to give up, then I should be prepared to argue — I am not sure how — that I am not obliged to do what I can and that personal despair should in my everyday life override moral considerations.

Marius Commanded Armies, Ambition Marius

Seneca, Epistle XCIV.64-7

It was not virtue or reason which persuaded Gnaeus Pompeius to take part in foreign and civil warfare; it was his mad craving for unusual glory. Now he attacked Spain and the faction of Sertorius; now he fared forth to enchain the pirates and subdue the seas. These were merely excuses and pretexts for extending his power…. And what impelled Gaius Caesar to the combined ruin of himself and the state? Renown, self-seeking, and the setting no limit to pre-eminence over all other men…. Do you think that Gaius Marius, who was once consul (he received this office on one occasion, and stole it on all the others) courted all his perils by the inspiration of virtue when he was slaughtering the Teutons and the Cimbri, and pursuing Jugurtha through the wilds of Africa? Marius commanded armies, ambition Marius.

When men such as these were disturbing the world, they were themselves disturbed — like cyclones that whirl together what they have seized, but which are first whirled themselves and can for this reason rush on with all the greater force, having no control over themselves; hence, after causing such destruction to others, they feel in their own body the ruinous force which has enabled them to cause havoc to many. You need never believe that a man can become happy through the unhappiness of another. 


Nussbaum on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness to gain a better understanding of the transactional model of conversation and what it might and might not comprise, and to think a little more about why it’s of little help, or at least insufficient, when it comes to cooperative undertakings. Here, Nussbaum presents a broad philosophical and historical look at transactional forgiveness in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and while she doesn’t directly address my much more modest concern, some of what she says about transactional forgiveness — a “central theoretical concept in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and…highly influential…in the Christian tradition” — applies to what I have said in previous posts about asking and bidding.

For my purposes, the main trouble with transactional forgiveness as Nussbaum describes it — and a shortcoming of the transactional in general — is that it involves scorekeeping. (Imagine a conversation about what to do that was tallied as a ledger of asks and bids. You might be able to measure what’s practicable, but it seems unlikely that tally would be of much use to two people who were committed to doing anything together at all. It might just generate a backward-looking mindset, constant interruption to check who allowed for what, or conflict and resentment.)

When it comes to forgiveness, the scoreboard is a register of the wrongs one has committed and the forgiveness one has obtained by confessing to each count, pleading for forgiveness and doing the appropriate penance. For Nussbaum, this makes people especially prone to the payback error, the notion that score-settling, or allaying the anger of the wronged party, will set things right once and for all in some cosmic balance.

This all makes for an “anxious and joyless” life, in which the “primary commitment to God fills up the whole of one’s life”: all this keeping track of one’s performance or non-performance in relation to an angry God means there is “simply not much room to look at or care for another human being as such, and certainly no room for spontaneity, passion or play.” This is a point to which Nussbaum returns a number of times, and it’s one I would emphasize as well in talking about the ways a transactional mindset can obstruct and frustrate human relationships.

The transactional life is full of “worry.” One must always be watchful, take note of every transgression, scrupulously confess every wrongful act or omission and, in the Christian tradition, every wrongful desire and wish.

The transactional forgiveness process is perfectionistic and intolerant in its own way. The list-keeping mentality that it engenders is tyrannical toward human frailty, designedly so. We must constantly scrutinize our humanity, and frequently punish it. At least the Jewish tradition limits the scrutiny to things that a person can be expected to control. The transactional strand of the Christian tradition contains no such limitations and is consequently…punitive toward the everyday…. Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ instruction, “Watch over yourself as if an enemy is lying in wait,” could easily have been said by many a Christian thinker — or by many a parish priest.

“Ritualized and coercive,” transactional forgiveness leaves “no room for generosity or spontaneity”; nothing is “freely given.” Instead of taking an open, constructive and pragmatic attitude toward our shared future, we are stuck worrying over every little thing each has said or thought or done.

Serious Conversations, 9

A blog post by Eric Schwitzgebel and Jonathan Ellis brings me back to my preoccupation with serious conversations. The post looks at the question whether moral and philosophical reasoning is ever anything more than post-hoc rationalization, and asks whether in the long run that matters.

After considering some of the benefits that philosophical or scientific communities (or any community of inquirers or people having a conversation about what to do) might derive from letting a thousand rationalizations bloom, Schwitzgebel and Ellis write:

there’s much to be said in favor of a non-rationalizing approach to dialogue, in which one aims to frankly and honestly expose one’s real reasons. If you and I are peers, the fact that something moves me is prima facie evidence that it should move you too. In telling you what really moves me to favor P, I am inviting you into my epistemic perspective. You might learn something by charitably considering my point of view. Rationalization disrupts this cooperative enterprise. If I offer you rationalizations instead of revealing the genuine psychological grounds of my belief, I render false the first premise in your inference from “my interlocutor believes P because of reason R, so I should seriously consider whether I too ought to believe P for reason R”.

If we can’t “charitably” enter into the point of view of a second person, and are stuck with their rationalizations, we might end up like the psychopaths and zombies described by Pettit and Smith in their 1996 paper on the conversational stance (which I discussed in a previous post).

In that case, those who are unmoved by evidence and evaluations, or refuse to change their desires and actions in light of them, “are not seriously involved in the business of practical evaluation.”

In this case, we have moved from Pettit and Smith’s world of evidence and evaluations in light of norms to “psychological grounds,” and the larger point about serious involvement has taken on some new colors as well.

Still, “rationalizations disrupt [the] cooperative enterprise” of conversation, because they prevent us from taking up the second-person stance, which is the only place from which we can “seriously consider” P on the grounds an interlocutor might offer.

Zeno and the Invention of the Second Person

When Aristotle remarked that Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) was the first to discover dialectic, he was crediting Zeno with the invention of the philosophical interlocutor or second person.

This is how Allen reads the famous passage as well. The remarks attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius make Zeno “the discoverer of the…oral two-party question and answer debate,” not just “argumentative technique.” The only thing I might take issue with here is Allen’s use of the word “debate,” which could give the mistaken impression of a contest in which one person’s view prevails, rather than a dialogue or conversation in which interlocutors reach agreement — or uncover their discrepancies — by asking questions and responding to them.

This is an expansive reading of Zeno’s discovery. But it’s perfectly consistent with the tradition of commentary that makes Zeno out to be the inventor of the prose dialogue and with the ask and answer approach discussed and demonstrated in Plato’s Parmenides (where Zeno is presented as Parmenides’ philosophical apprentice). The inquirer enlists or authorizes an interlocutor — in this case, Aristoteles, the youngest of the group — to answer him. 

Even more restrictive ancient definitions, like those offered elsewhere in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives, emphasize that dialectic is not just a matter of “discussing” topics by means of question and answer, but “correctly” discussing them. That is presumably why dialectic may be regarded as “indispensable and…itself a virtue, embracing other particular virtues under it,” and Diogenes Laertius draws connections between the practice and ethical teachings.

To help elucidate this point, a note in the Hicks edition of Diogenes’ Lives recommends this passage in Plutarch’s Contradictions of the Stoics, where Plutarch cites a passage from Chrysippus characterizing “dialectic skill” as “one of the greatest and most necessary faculties.” Note the word Plutarch uses for “faculties” here: dynamis: a power or capacity.

This is the power that Zeno is said to have discovered. It is — let’s not lose sight of this —  a power shared with others: it’s the “dynamic” of serious conversation.

It strikes me that it’s possible and edifying to connect Zeno’s discovery of this power or second-person dynamic with his resistance to tyranny. Immediately after reporting Zeno’s discovery of dialectic, Diogenes Laertius tells us that Zeno “plotted to overthrow Nearchus the tyrant (or, according to others, Diomedon) but was arrested.”

The story of his arrest has it that on pretense of imparting some important information about the conspiracy, Zeno drew the tyrant near and bit down on his ear “and did not let go until stabbed to death, meeting the same fate as Aristogiton the tyrannicide.” Another version has it that Zeno bit off the tyrant’s nose. Yet another, related by both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, has it that Zeno bit off his own tongue and spat it in the tyrant’s face.

In all versions, Zeno’s life ends with his refusal of illegitimate authority.

Postscript: Slightly revised on 2 April 2015, but still just rough notes waiting to be written in earnest. That said, I think there’s something important and worth pursuing in the connection of Zeno’s discovery of the dialectical “power” with his resistance to tyranny. His discovery of the conversational stance in philosophy helped him appreciate, and committed him to the defense of, political freedom, I want to maintain. Victor Cousin arrives at a similar position in his discussion of Zeno in Nouveaux Fragments Philosophiques. For Cousin, Zeno is “l’ἀνήρ πρακτικός” of the Eleatic school, exercising “purely dialectical…genius” in defense of Parmenides’ doctrine of “absolute unity” and defending “the laws” of Elea. Much here to unravel.