You Don’t Have to Be a Robot if You Don’t Want to

I started off my last post remarking on how as a species we had lost our confidence and optimism with regard to robots and AI. I then speculated that this may be connected with prevalent views of what it means to be a human being. I suggested that we thought of ourselves as destructive of our environment, neurophysiological and addicted. This view, I thought, added up to a view that we have no free will. I quoted a piece from Yuval Noah Harari where he argues that we have no free will and that the sooner we get clear about that, the better our lives will get.

When I wrote it, I must confess, I failed to see something that was staring me in the face all along. I didn’t make the strongest connection possible between the AI-phobia, our view of ourselves and the Harari quote. I meandered from one to the other, not realising that there was a straight path between them.

I only realised, when I put my post on Reddit (r/philosophy) where you generally get good discussion amongst people with an interest and varying degrees of training in philosophy. I suspected, and half hoped, that a lot of people would comment critically on my suggestion that we think of ourselves as destructive, neurophysiological and addicted. Surely that is too limited and pessimistic. In fact, most people commented critically on my swerve towards defending freedom of the will. And there was something interesting about the language they used in doing so. Here are selective quotes from four different commenters:

“I think worrying about free will only makes sense if you are holding on to some shred of dualism. The fact I can’t non-deterministically make inputs into the mechanistic universe and change its course is meaningless if I accept that I am a computational machine made of chemistry inside the mechanistic universe which is processing sensory inputs and producing behaviours as outputs. I am still an entity doing things, the pattern of computation exists and is me, that’s enough.”

“Why would an ego possibly reject the idea that it is a machine with purely deterministic outcomes?”

“Do you believe in some kind of dualism? Do you believe in some kind of physicalism? Do you believe in a deterministic universe? Depending on your answers to these questions, it seems quite obvious that you are a computational machine made of chemistry inside a mechanistic universe.”

“You can pretend that it’s a matter of free will that determines whether you are fooled by a fake article or not, but I would argue that it’s based on your brain’s ‘software,’ so to speak, the way it’s been moulded to work through the information and ‘variations of thought’ that it has experienced, and the biases it has gained along the way.”

This gives us a strand of our current Menschenbild, our view of what it means to be a human being that is probably a consequence of the trends that I mentioned but goes further. Not only are we our brain chemistry now, but we are, in the view of these commenters, “computational machines inside a mechanistic universe” running on software.

Then I realised that this is not some kind of eccentric view from people who are spending too much time online. It had been there, represented in my blog post all along. In the Harari piece that I quoted he talks about “hacking the human spirit.” In bits that I hadn’t quoted he talks about “hacking the human animal.” In order to do that, he says, you need a lot of “a good understanding of biology and  a lot of computing power.” He says we need to “come to terms with what humans really are: hackable animals.” And then he analyses how we might get some support in our predicament:

“It is particularly important to get to know your weaknesses. They are the main tools of those who try to hack you. Computers are hacked through pre-existing faulty code lines. Humans are hacked through pre-existing fears, hatreds, biases and cravings. Hackers cannot create fear or hatred out of nothing. But when they discover what people already fear and hate it is easy to push the relevant emotional buttons and provoke even greater fury.

If people cannot get to know themselves by their own efforts, perhaps the same technology the hackers use can be turned around and serve to protect us. Just as your computer has an antivirus program that screens for malware, maybe we need an antivirus for the brain. Your AI sidekick will learn by experience that you have a particular weakness – whether for funny cat videos or for infuriating Trump stories – and would block them on your behalf.”

So this is, when it comes down to it, what human beings are: hackable animals who need AI to protect our spirit from being hacked. This is really just a further development of the trends I discussed. If we are purely brain chemistry, out of control entities carrying out what the electrons in our brains require, then the idea that we’re machines is almost a logical conclusion. And that also explains why we’re so worried about the robots, or the AI now. If we’re just machines ourselves, then clearly a new, better, more intelligent generation of machines is likely to be a threat to us. At least this is the bleak picture some people want to paint of human beings. But believe it or not, alternative views are actually available.

Harari argues that “if governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.” This, I think, is up for discussion.

I think those who believe that they are just machines running some virus-vulnerable software, relying on an AI sidekick, will be much easier to manipulate. They would find it easier to make excuses to themselves for their own behaviour. They are subject to the limiting belief that they are not in charge of their own choices. The person who believes that he or she is making real choices for which he or she is responsible, I would say, is more likely to reflect on whether to click on something and whether to buy what they see. They are more likely to pause and reflect before acting, rather than acting on auto-pilot.

There are big questions around the Harari-style view of human beings and the world: Software is usually written by someone to make a machine perform a certain task. In this image, which clearly is more than a limited metaphor, who wrote the software, and to make the machines perform what purpose? And since we must assume that the human beings who are working for and leading the governments and corporations that are hacking the human spirit have no free will either, what programme are they running, and on whose behalf, when they are manipulating others? And if it’s the human spirit and human ingenuity that builds the AI to protect themselves from being manipulated, why can’t they just protect themselves? And what drives this titanic clash between the manipulators and those who build the “AI sidekicks” to protect the human spirit? What decides which side any given individual is on? Harari doesn’t need to have a good answer. It could all be random and pointless and just happening. It could be driven by selfish genes, or by energy and matter on the move since the big bang. But the whole scenario is full of assumptions and consequences that are far less obvious, scientific and factual than the initial description pretends.

Once again, like I said in my previous post: There are many alternative views we can take of human beings and their (our) place in the world. Some of them do not see us as outdated technology. Some of them do not see us as mere machines. There are more hopeful views we can take of our nature. And I believe, that our beliefs about ourselves very heavily influence what we do and ultimately what we are. But that will have to be for another blog post.

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Homo Sapiens – the Pathetic Species?

I never was that much of a science-fiction aficionado. But I’m sure as a child I occasionally borrowed some sci-fi literature from the library and watched the odd episode of Star Trek – ok, lots of episodes of Star Trek. I’m sure there was a time when it was generally thought that robots would be our kindly household helpers, machines would instantly cure diseases and generate whatever food we fancied.

In contrast, these days, we tend to tend to read more about how robots, or rather, their upgrade, artificial intelligence (AI), will be making us jobless, oppressing us and quite possibly killing us. I happen to think that we shouldn’t be quite that worried about AI, for any number of reasons: I think we switch them on, so we can switch them off. I think that even if we create them to teach themselves and to learn things, we give them the algorithms by which they “decide” whether something is a good move worth learning, repeating and developing, or not. I think that we tend to do ok in creating governance and codes for the development of science and technology. I think that even if they end up doing our jobs better than we could ever do them, they will create greater prosperity and it becomes a question of the distribution of the goods they create, rather than a fight of human beings against machines. (I also think we should stop talking about them as “they” as if they were the other grouping in an “us and them” situation, and only talk about them as “they” in the sense that we would talk about, say the contents of our toolbox as “they”, as in “I don’t know where I have left my hammer and nails, maybe they’re in the cupboard under the stairs.”)

I may be right or wrong about AI, but that’s not the point right now. Hannah Arendt wrote about “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction” that “unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves [to it] as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” And so the thing that really interests me here, is not whether AI is going to leave us out of work, and quite possibly extinct, or not, but what it says about us a species, humanity, that we are so lacking in confidence with regard to our future machines. The mass sentiments here are fear, pessimism and a lack of confidence in our future as a species. This has replaced the mass desire with regard to future machines that they should make us creatures of leisure and comfort. We’ve gone from “the robots will do the work, which is nice” to “Oh my God, the AIs will do our work, we’ll all be jobless.”

A German compound noun that deserves to be as well known as those others, Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude and Weltschmerz, is Menschenbild. It means the image man has of himself. Or – since we should be wary of being unclear in languages where the word for “human being” and “man” is the same – the image human beings have of themselves. I generally find it difficult to say what the prevailing humanity-wide view is on anything, but it’s worth thinking a bit about the image we have of ourselves these days and whether our mass sentiment of lacking confidence with regard to our future and the unfriendly robots is founded in it.

Our Menschenbild has famously made a long journey over the last few millennia from one where we were at the centre of God’s universe to one where we are at the margins of a chaotic, sprawling and expanding universe full of dark matter and other uncharted waters, from one where we were put in charge of God’s creation to one where we have randomly evolved from matter that was coincidentally brought to life, and from one where we were the masters of our fate, to one where we’re barely in control of our minds.

I am interested in what further staging post on this journey we have reached. It’s genuinely difficult to judge what “most people” believe about these big questions. But I’ll speculate that a feature of our most up-to-date image of ourselves we are three things: a) we are destructive of the world, our habitat, and other species, b) we are our neurophysiology, and c) we are addicted. (Spoiler alert: I’m not arguing that these views are correct.)

Destructive of the World

There’s nothing new about apocalyptic phantasies, and nothing new about the idea that human beings can’t control the powers and technologies that we created (see the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But I think we’ve generally lost confidence in our ability to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. But even if we haven’t, there’s still plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, overpopulation and other problems. It seems to us that our lifestyle is destroying the planet with its natural resources that are also the foundation for our lifestyle. Our self-image now is less that we’re the crown of creation and more that we’re a virus that is making our host sick in order to multiply and support ourselves.

Neurophysiology

Plato thought that there are three parts of our soul (the appetitive, the spirited and the rational) that need to be brought into balance and the right kind of hierarchy in order for us to be good. Freud believed that the psyche was made up of three parts (super-ego, ego and id). So there’s nothing new about the idea that our minds have different parts. What’s new in our current image of ourselves now, is that we no longer talk about the soul, the psyche, the mind, but about the brain. This brain has different systems, each with their own functions, depending on the evolutionary stage at which they emerged. There is no hierarchy between these systems, just neural pathways, synapses and electrons firing between them. It’s not so much that we have brains, but that we are brains.

Addicted

Closely linked to our neurophysiological nature, our natural state is to be addicted. Dopamines in our brains have the strongest control over everything we do. The same mechanism drives heroin addiction, a penchant for cupcakes and any habits we may have acquired (like brushing our teeth after eating cupcakes). But then, the range of things to which we can be addicted has massively expanded to include social media likes for our selfies, shopping, and thinking. As über-guru, Eckhart Tolle says:

Compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterises an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.

And brain-scans show that the brain that isn’t in a meditative state, is in an addicted state. (It so happens that meditation teachers describe the neurophysiology as a way of explaining that we could be more aware and intentional about our actions, but the description of our neurophysiological nature sticks more strongly in the public consciousness than the idea that we could gain control over it.

Fundamentally Unfree

This combination of beliefs results in the most limiting of limiting beliefs: the belief that we are fundamentally unfree. We are set on our self-destructive journey by our brain chemistry. And because we basically are our brains now, there is nothing we can set against it.

And so someone like Yuval Noah Harari, the chronicler of homo sapiens, tells us:

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free.

[…]

If you believe in the traditional liberal story, you will be tempted simply to dismiss this challenge. “No, it will never happen. Nobody will ever manage to hack the human spirit, because there is something there that goes far beyond genes, neurons and algorithms. Nobody could successfully predict and manipulate my choices, because my choices reflect my free will.” Unfortunately, dismissing the challenge won’t make it go away. It will just make you more vulnerable to it.

It starts with simple things. As you surf the internet, a headline catches your eye: “Immigrant gang rapes local women”. You click on it. At exactly the same moment, your neighbour is surfing the internet too, and a different headline catches her eye: “Trump prepares nuclear strike on Iran”. She clicks on it. Both headlines are fake news stories, generated perhaps by Russian trolls, or by a website keen on increasing traffic to boost its ad revenues. Both you and your neighbour feel that you clicked on these headlines out of your free will. But in fact you have been hacked.

Unfortunately the myth that “scientific reality” suggests that there is nothing beyond genes, neutrons and algorithms is much more likely to make us helpless against the commercially exploitative, criminal or malign actors who, according to Harari, are hacking us. When we believe that we are helplessly exposed to the signals we see online, that we can’t help but click on what is marketed to us, can’t help but believe, buy even, what we read and can’t help but act on what we’ve been sold, we are less likely to pause and reflect on the different courses of action that are open to us, to read critically what we see and to feel responsible what we do next. Much as Harari sells us this “scientific” unfree image of the human being, he is giving us a description of people who have already imbibed the self-limiting belief, not a description of what human beings could be at their best. Hopefully, the leaps from the image people clicking on links online to the conclusion that we have been hacked and have no free will seem to most people to be so full of non-sequiturs that we need not be overly worried by it. And ultimately, who are the agents who are hacking and manipulating us? Other human beings. How come they have the necessary agency, alongside their ingenuity and technical skills to hack us and implement their evil plans, when we can’t even decide what (not) to click on?

The neurophysiological, addicted, destructive self-image, widely held though it may be, is limited and limiting but fortunately it is not the only one available. Exploring more positive alternatives will be a matter for a future post!

[This post has had a great response. I wrote an addition to it reacting to some comments here.]

Not Only the Depressed and Anxious Should Read This Book about Depression and Anxiety

Book Review: Lost Connections – Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope – by Johann Hari

Being English and Swiss, I occasionally take an unnatural, almost obsessive, interest in the work of Anglo-Swiss public intellectuals in England. Fortunately, as far as I’ve been able to establish, this is a small group of people of which Alain de Botton is one, and Johann Hari the other.

A few years ago I was greatly saddened when Hari’s high-flying journalistic career stalled due to some trouble concerning his journalistic integrity. I think he reported quotes from other people as if they had been given to him in conversation when in fact the subjects of his reporting had given them to someone else or published them somewhere else. To make things worse, Hari then attacked his critics by making critical edits to their pages on Wikipedia using a pseudonym. But he seems to have overcome that unfortunate episode. It probably explains why the brilliant books he’s written since are punctiliously backed up by documented evidence and audio recordings and littered with footnotes providing sources. I guess sometimes when a door shuts on being a prize-winning journalist writing for major British newspapers, another one opens to writing brilliant books – did I mention that his books are brilliant?

So this one is about depression and anxiety. And it’s among other things a personal journey for Hari. A journey from being told, and convincing himself, that his depression and anxiety were results of a chemical imbalance in the brain that could be addressed with ever increasing doses of pharmaceutical anti-depressants, to exploring the true roots of his depression and potential routes out of it.

At one point Hari worries that his book will be placed in the self-help shelves of bookstores. This is a worry because the very idea of self-help demonstrates how misguided our thinking on these matters is. As Hari says:

I’m conscious that in some bookstores, this book will be shelved in the Self-help section. But I now see that whole way of thinking is part of the problem. When I have felt down, up to now, most of the time, I tried to help myself. I turned to the self. I thought there was something wrong with the self, and the solution would come from repairing and aggrandizing the self. I puffed it up. But it turns out—the self isn’t the solution. The only answer lies beyond it.

The more serious worry, in my opinion, would be if this book were to be seen as a book only for those with depression and anxiety, a misconception that the subtitle “Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope” will only give rise to. I really hope it was forced on an unwilling Hari by the publisher’s marketing department. There are at least two reasons why this shouldn’t be the case:

Firstly, Hari writes about research that shows that there is a dose-response effect between the amount and strength of trauma that human beings experience and their depression and anxiety later in life. That is to say the more trauma, the greater a likelihood of depression and anxiety later. Put this together with the persuasive narrative that he constructs that depression is not a brain disease unrelated to the suffering and sadnesses in our lives, but on a continuum with these, exacerbated by a lack of connections that would help us cope better. As he puts it “depression, I realised, is itself a form of grief – for all the connections we need, but don’t have.” This I think would easily lead to a view that even non-depressive low-level dissatisfaction or occasional frustration could be alleviated by the connections Hari advocates (more about which shortly). In other words, if we all by virtue of being alive as human beings suffer some dose of trauma somewhere along the way, we all have as a result some level of suffering in our lives that could be alleviated by being more connected. That is what ancient Buddhist texts and modern Western mindfulness instructors like to refer to as dukka, I guess. This chimes with something from another great book I’ve just read. That book is “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” by the psychologist and writer Lori Gottlieb who points out that “there’s no hierarchy of pain. Suffering shouldn’t be ranked because pain is not a contest.” Put this all together and you’ll find that Hari’s cures for depression should be of use to everyone.

Secondly, even if we were only interested in helping the clinically depressed, Hari’s point is that the solutions to their depression are not restricted to actions the individual should take. The causes of their depression are in things that are wrong with our world. They have no individual-based solutions, only societal, environmental, collective, economic and therefore political ones. The fact that some people are depressed is a problem all of us need to solve. Hari cites a British psychologist who “sometimes quotes the Eastern philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who explained: ‘it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.'”

So what are the lost connections that cause depression according to Hari? They are: disconnection from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world and from a hopeful or secure future. In making this case, Hari describes his travels from Rio to Berlin and from Baltimore to East London visiting individuals and organisations who have provided a piece to this bigger picture.

This is the kind of non-fiction book that relies on tons of research findings. But Hari doesn’t sit in a library poring over journals to give us a dumbed down summary and original compilation of academic writings. He travels a lot. He goes to cities where communities have done things differently. He describes the geography of the places he goes to. He goes to meet the researchers and their research subjects. He talks to them. He describes the cafes where they meet. He describes the backstory of the researchers. 

So, the description of the anthropologist George Brown’s, work on the biographical and social causes of depression starts with an episode taking place just after the Second World War wherein a young woman – fresh from giving birth – walks through the ruins of the London suburb Kensal Rise to the Grand Canal to commit suicide by drowning herself in “its dust-choked waters.” This woman, it turns out had been a close neighbour of the teenage Brown and had looked after him for months when he had developed an infection. No one talked about her depression at the time. There was a sense of shame around it, Brown remembers more than seventy years later.

Whereas the researcher Isabel Behncke says she “will only explain to [Hari] how being cut off from the natural world can cause depression” if he agrees to climb Tunnel Mountain which towers over the Canadian town of Banff with her. Hari doesn’t like nature. He likes concrete, skyscrapers and bookshelves. But for an interview with Isabel he agrees to go. Surrounded by beautiful natural environment, he feels that he is looking at screensavers and is forced to confront his own fears of being in nature. Among other things, she describes that low status among primates has some of the same physical effects as depression in human beings but that it never gets as bad in nature, as it does in zoos.

And there are dozens of really fascinating findings in this book along similar lines:

For example, there’s the research that showed that obese people, even if helped to lose weight through a very severe diet, normally put it back on. When the researchers had the idea of looking at psychological factors, they found that in many cases, obesity was a kind of unconscious strategy for people who had suffered abuse or other traumatic experiences. Obesity protected them from the sexual interest of others, from the expectations of others (“people assume you are stupid, lazy”) and sometimes simply by adding a physical layer of protection.

But Hari also visits urban areas where people from vastly dissimilar outsider communities (eg. Turkish immigrants in Germany and members of the LGBTQ community), after years of ignoring each other, develop solidarity and friendships against rising rents and evictions and achieve real empowerment. Or he describes a bicycle business where people decided to run the business as a co-operative rather than just be exploited with low wages.

And Hari also cites the work by Michael Marmot as relevant who, in a famous study using the hierarchical system of the UK Civil Service as a massive group of test subjects, found that the highest levels of stress were caused by “work that is monotonous, boring, soul-destroying; [where] they die a little when they come to work each day, because their work touches no part of them that is them.” This kind of work also leads to the worst health outcomes – physical and mental – for those who do it.

Then there’s also the work of Tim Kasser who showed that people whose values are focussed on things to do with themselves, like material goods they could possess, or their looks, are less happy than people whose values are focussed on things outside themselves, such as the environment or their relationships with other people. And Hari backs this point up with descriptions of research where people in focussed discussions with each other managed to change their values from consumerist values to others. Then he goes to Rio and describes the effect it had when advertising was legally constrained in the city. And he also has the story of a Canadian town where an experiment was done that gave everyone a basic income.

It all adds up to an argument that the existence of anxiety and depression in some people is a massive warning to all of us that as a society we are way off the track that leads to a good life for human beings and that we would all be happier if we could changed things. The changes we would make, following Hari, would touch every aspects of our lives and would be social, economic, political and lifestyle changes. They would be nothing short of utopian. Realising the size of the project, Hari discusses his initial fears that a programme of this magnitude would never be taken seriously enough to get off the starting blocks. He decides not to be put off:

So I told myself: if you hear a thought in your head telling you that we can’t deal with the social causes of depression and anxiety, you should stop and realize—that’s a symptom of the depression and anxiety itself.

Determinism 14 – Prometheus, Determinism and the Unfree Will

Over the last 13 posts on determinism and free will (starting here), I’ve changed my mind a few times about a number of things concerning the determined nature of our existence and the free will we can exercise. Recently, a Greek myth popped into my mind as having relevance and the idea of deducing a few things by examining physical freedom as a close parallel to freedom of the will.

Looking to a Greek myth for inspiration should be uncontroversial: The Greek myths, and Greek tragedy in which they are often presented, have a good grasp on what it means to be a human being in this universe. They present pointed case studies for various aspects of the human condition. While they form part of the ancestry of our culture, they stem from a time before other important aspects of our culture emerged. And so, for example, they are untouched by things like Judaeo-Christian monotheism and the ethical framework that comes with it, the consumer society, not to mention the internet of things. And so they contain raw material without the overlay of some of the things that shape our daily experience.

Treating physical freedom as informative for freedom of the will shouldn’t be equally uncontroversial. Just because the word “freedom” is involved in both contexts doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take for granted common meanings and characteristics of the concepts. The parallel is something that needs to be investigated and argued for, rather than taken for granted.

The story of Prometheus takes place after Zeus and his family of Olympian gods overthrew the previous generation of gods, led by Zeus’ father Kronos. Prometheus was a titan who helped Zeus in this palace coup. But when Zeus wanted to wipe out mankind and populate earth with a new generation of better creatures, Prometheus helped human beings by giving them fire – a symbol for technology -, arts and sciences, as well as all sorts of practical skills.  He also, according to the tragedian Aeschylus, “caused men no longer to foresee their death” and cured their misery by planting “firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness.” (There’s a whole other discussion to be had about that cure for misery, but let’s not get sidetracked.) For this service to humanity, Zeus punished Prometheus. He was punished by being tied to a cliff at the end of the world, underneath him the Ocean, which in Greek geographical thought surrounded the earth. Aeschylus describes in detail how the divine blacksmith Hephaestus is forced to tie Prometheus’ arms to the cliff, as well as his legs, and for good measure to put a bolt through his chest into the rock. To ensure that Prometheus could never quite enjoy any kind of peace of mind, Zeus’ eagle visits him daily to chew his liver. This, we are assured by reliable sources, is a painful process.

So Prometheus stands (or hangs) pretty much for the least free person in the world. 13 generations later, the hero Hercules, frees him. Let’s assume that this was a piecemeal process. Perhaps, first of all, Hercules shooed away the eagle and told him in no uncertain terms never to come back to pester Prometheus. Prometheus already feels a bit freer. Without the daily pain and the constant threat of pain, he can focus at least for a while each day on planning for greater freedom. Let’s say Hercules then takes out the bolt from Prometheus’ chest. This is another increase in freedom. It may not sound like much if you’re not hanging from a cliff above the ocean, but for Prometheus at the time, we must imagine, it was nice just to be able to stretch his upper body a bit. Then let’s assume Hercules creates a little ledge in the cliff and unties Prometheus’ arms and legs. While Prometheus is now a man with the freedom to lie, sit, stand and walk at most a few steps in either direction on a ledge in a cliff, he still feels immeasurably freer than he felt before. But then let’s imagine Hercules lifts him up out of the cliff and puts him on firm ground, maybe gives him some clothes and a little villa – because Hercules is nice like that and wants Prometheus to be able to enjoy life after a few hundred years on that cliff. Obviously, with each step Prometheus’ freedom is increased.

Now, Prometheus has a brother, Epimetheus. While Prometheus is generally regarded as the clever one (his name means “forethought”), Epimetheus is more often seen as the dumb one of the family (his name means “afterthought”). While Prometheus was imprisoned on the rock, Epimetheus was roaming free. At one unfortunate point he caused Pandora’s box to be opened, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s imagine that the two brothers meet up shortly after Prometheus was set free. Epimetheus complains about their lack of freedom: “We’re tied to this Earth and can’t even fly up into the air like birds, let alone jump over the moon or travel to the planets. We’re limited to having this human body and can’t grow wings, or reach the size of an elephant. We can’t just decide to run on all fours at the speed of a cheetah. We really are wretchedly unfree creatures, determined to live with the limitations of our bodies and the physical constraints of this Earth.” To which we must imagine Prometheus calmly responded: “Listen, why don’t you just enjoy the freedom you do have, to move around freely, go about your business, change your environment, create things of beauty, help your fellow creatures, rather than whinge about things that are impossible. At least you’re not tied to a rock.”

What does this have to do with freedom of the will and determinism? I will take out a number of points to expand upon in future blog posts:

  1. Prometheus and Epimetheus have a different understanding of the same condition. Prometheus feels free following a long time tied to the rock, Epimetheus feels unfree because he is physically restricted by his nature and that of the world, including the laws of physics. For Prometheus, the opposite of being free is being tied to the rock. For Epimetheus, it is being restricted in what he can do. I think it is possible that there is an opposite to free will that is unfree will, as well as an opposite that is determinism.
  2. Prometheus’ fate suggests that you can be more or less free. Epimetheus’ perception suggests that you can be completely free, but that doesn’t mean are not subject to certain constraints which make up the human condition. In the same way, I think it is possible for free will to be a matter of degree, rather than a binary “either you have it or you don’t” issue. However, arguing that we have free will, does not commit one to the view that there are no constraints. (Sometimes, the fact that one cannot just will any old thing, is taken as an argument that we don’t have free will.)
  3. The things that make Prometheus unfree are the shackles on his arms and legs, the bolt through his chest, the eagle tormenting him and the lack of space in which to move. The things that make the will unfree are things like addictions, phobias, bad habits, reactivity in action, acting on unconscious motives, psychological compulsions and so on. The things that make Epimetheus unfree are his nature as a certain kind of creature, a titan, but we can pretend he’s a human being, and the nature of the universe. The things that make the will determined could similarly be about the nature of life as a conscious, rational being and the universe we’re in. It is possible though that the factors that cause unfreedom of the will can be present to different degrees in different people, or can be added or removed over time, whereas the factors that cause determinism universal constraints.
  4. This “unfreedom” is not the same as determinism though. The things that make the will unfree can be removed, even in a deterministic universe. With Prometheus and Epimetheus, where the lack of freedom of being tied to a rock shares some broad features with the lack of freedom that is a general feature of the human condition – a lack of being able to do just anything, a restriction of room for manoeuvre – the “unfreedom” stemming from the shackles is much more restrictive than the lack of absolute freedom that Epimetheus bemoans. In the same way, the “unfree” will may be much less free than is required by general determinism. How restrictive determinism really is may only become clear when the factors that make the will unfree are removed as far as possible.

Determinism 13 – The Psychological Motives for Philosophical Views and Sam Harris’ Free Will

In this great piece of philosophical polemic (it starts with “What is the silliest claim ever made?”), Galen Strawson draws attention to the psychological benefits philosophers might gain from maintaining certain positions, the weaknesses in human rationality that allow or lead them to do so, and the – possibly unintended – political consequences.

Psychologically, he suspects that:

“it can seem exciting to hold views that seem preposterously contrary to common sense – there’s something Oedipally thrilling about it when the father is an old gentleman called Ordinary Opinion. Herbert Feigl adds another psychoanalytic note: ‘Scholars can cathect [or invest] certain ideas so strongly and their outlook becomes so ego involved that they erect elaborate barricades of defences, merely to protect their pet ideas from the blows (or the slower corrosive effects) of criticism.”

I assume that when we ask ourselves the questions whether we have free will, or not; whether we are entirely determined, or not; and what the consequences are if we answer these questions either way, we have to be on our guard against wanting so hard to answer them in a certain way merely in order to fulfil psychological needs that we blind ourselves against weaknesses in our thinking.

On the one hand, you’d expect us to be heavily invested in the idea that we are somehow in charge of our own lives, that our choices and decisions are ours and that we are – poetically speaking – the “captains of our souls.”

On the other hand maintaining a hard determinist position that we are entirely predetermined in our actions, can be exciting and thrilling, in that it probably goes against ordinary opinion. (I say “probably” because it’s reckless to assume that one has a firm grasp on what ordinary opinion is.)

But it also has the psychologically soothing effect of allowing us to believe that none of the things we think have gone wrong in our lives, none of the areas where we feel we have let ourselves down, and none of the extent to which we feel we have failed to live up to our promise, are in a meaningful way down to choices we made. (There is a flipside in that none of our successes would be due to anything particular merit of ours either. But I imagine that most people are happy to buy the ability to forgive themselves for the mountain of their real or perceived failings at the cost of greater modesty about the molehill of their achievements. Either that, or they just manage to supress the flipside.)

Even more than that, being able to preach that message of hard determinism to the masses, gaining excited followers who are keen to reap determinism’ self-exculpatory benefits, must be quite satisfactory in its own right. I imagine that this fuels to some extent the modern popular revival of Stoicism much embraced by bloggers and podcasters.

Looking at one of the more famous books arguing for a deterministic world view, Sam Harris’ “Free Will,” we can see some of the strange effects of really, really wanting to be able to argue that certain things are true.

According to Harris, “the popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.” He claims that both these assumptions are false.

Harris argues for determinism on the general metaphysical basis that nothing happens without causation and the more specific physical and neurophysiological claims that brain processes cause our actions, and that we’re not aware of those processes until the actions are well under way. He quotes in support of his position, among other things, the famous 1980s experiment by Benjamin Libet (which I discussed here – Spoiler alert: Libet didn’t think that his experiments support the notion that we don’t have free will). “One fact now seems indisputable:” Harris claims, “Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do.”

In Harris’ own life, his lack of free will manifests in particular ways. For example, he says:

“I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

In another episode he relates:

“For instance, in my teens and early twenties I was a devoted student of the martial arts. I practiced incessantly and taught classes in college. Recently, I began training again, after a hiatus of more than 20 years. Both the cessation and the renewal of my interest in martial arts seem to be pure expressions of the freedom that Nahmias attributes to me. I have been under no “unreasonable external or internal pressure.” I have done exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop training, and I stopped. I wanted to start again, and now I train several times a week. All this has been associated with conscious thought and acts of apparent self-control. However, when I look for the psychological cause of my behavior, I find it utterly mysterious. Why did I stop training 20 years ago? Well, certain things just became more important to me. But why did they become more important to me—and why precisely then and to that degree? And why did my interest in martial arts suddenly reemerge after decades of hibernation? I can consciously weigh the effects of certain influences—for instance, I recently read Rory Miller’s excellent book Meditations on Violence. But why did I read this book? I have no idea. And why did I find it compelling? And why was it sufficient to provoke action on my part (if, indeed, it was the proximate cause of my behavior)? And why so much action? I’m now practicing two martial arts and also training with Miller and other self-defense experts. What in hell is going on here? Of course, I could tell a story about why I’m doing what I’m doing—which would amount to my telling you why I think such training is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.—but the actual explanation for my behavior is hidden from me.”

“It is perfectly obvious that I, as the conscious witness of my experience, am not the deep cause of it,” Harris concludes. And, of course, this kind of argument holds not only true for relatively trivial matters such as our choice of morning beverage and hobbies, but also more serious actions someone might take:

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”?

These examples look odd to me: First of all, it’s difficult to imagine that Harris lacks the capacity for in introspection and reflection to the degree that he claims. Secondly, it is not clear to me why he thinks that the “story about why I’m doing what I’m doing” which amounts to giving good reasons for his actions, could not be the actual explanation for his behaviour, at least some of the time. Surely reflecting on why he thinks something is a good idea and why he enjoys an activity, would at least have potential to reveal something about the explanation for his behaviour, even if he wanted to go on to claim that these weren’t the motivating factors in the first place.

But then, when Harris wants to sell us the benefits of believing that we have no free will, things get even more odd:

Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can – paradoxically – allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).

Suddenly now, we can become sensitive to the causes of our thoughts and feelings when before we couldn’t tell why we wanted coffee or decided to spend a lot of time practising martial arts. How can we now realise that our bad mood has been caused by low blood sugar levels, when before we couldn’t even trust ourselves to identify the motivating reasons for how we spent a large chunk of our leisure time? Not only can we identify low blood sugar as the precise cause of our bad mood now, but we can also seemingly decide to counteract it with a bite of food (that is the implication of what Harris says, though he doesn’t explicitly say it). First Harris asks us to completely surrender to the idea that our actions are caused by factors we can’t be conscious of, now he tells us we can choose to take a bite of food, so that we don’t take our bad mood out on others. Not only can we suddenly make choices, but we can steer an entire intelligent course through our lives. Claiming that it is all a quaint paradox, doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

And then when he talks about the criminal justice system and moral responsibility, things continue to be a little bit self-contradictory. He wants to sell us the benefits of giving up our notion of free will, whilst persuading us that we can still keep hold of our ideas about moral responsibility and our custom of imprisoning people for crimes.

Some of the things he says about this are:

“What we condemn most in another person is the conscious intention to do harm.”

“Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others, his use of intoxicants, his confessed motives with regard to the victim, etc. If a person’s actions seem to have been entirely out of character, this might influence our view of the risk he now poses to others. If the accused appears unrepentant and eager to kill again, we need entertain no notions of free will to consider him a danger to society.”

“Why is the conscious decision to do another person harm particularly blameworthy? Because what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds—our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc. If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.”

Now, those making moral judgements about others, and the criminal justice system, somehow have access to personality, personal history, patterns of activity, and confessed motives. They can make judgements based on expressed intentions, beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc.. But, according to Harris, we don’t even have access to our own intentions.

And why didn’t it occur to us earlier to look at our past actions, beliefs, desires and so on, when we were looking to work out why we suddenly found ourselves doing martial arts in our free time, or when we tried to work out why we’re drinking tea on some mornings, and coffee on others? Granted, sometimes others find it easier to analyse our patterns of activities than we do ourselves. But Harris is claiming that we have no insight into our inner life, while others can somehow systematically use their insight into us to judge us morally, or take what we say about our motives to be reliable enough to decide whether society should be protected from us.

Determinism 12 – Can Schopenhauer Set You (A Little Bit) Free?

One of the most haunting bits of writing among the philosophical texts on free will and determinism, are these paragraphs from Schopenhauer:

Let’s imagine a person, who, standing in the street, says to himself: It is 6pm. The day’s work is done. I can now go for a walk, or I can go to the club, I can climb the tower to see the sunset, I can also go to the theatre, I can go to visit this friend, or also that other friend, yes, I can walk out of the gate into the wide world and never return. All of that is solely up to me, I have full freedom to do any of it, however I’ll do none of that now. Instead, I shall, equally voluntarily, go home to my wife.

That is as if water were to say: I can make high waves (yes! in the sea when there’s a storm), I can rush downhill (yes! in the bed of a stream), I can throw myself downwards frothing and bubbling (yes! in a waterfall), I can shoot up into the air (yes! in a fountain), finally, I can boil up completely and disappear (yes, at 80º heat), however I will do none of these things, but will stay voluntarily still and clear in the reflecting pond.

As the water can do any of those things only when the determining causes come into effect for one or the other; in the same way, that person can do, what he thinks he can do, no differently, than under the same condition.

I say it’s haunting because we are always that person standing in the street imagining that we could choose to do any number of things. And yet, when we reflect, we can’t see that we can escape causality. Schopenhauer tells us that human beings are prone to assert that we can do as we will. He reminds us that this is purely a statement about physical freedom, not about freedom of the will. In his formula: we can do as we will, but we can’t will as we will. We can execute our decision or choice to act in a certain way, but we can’t choose which way that decision goes in the first place. The content of our will is at any time given by motives, facts about ourselves (our character, thoughts, feelings, what we perceive) and facts about the world (the way other things are).

While the image of the person in the street much-quoted and famous, we are less frequently reminded that Schopenhauer goes back to his person in the street a couple of pages later:

If we return to that example of the person deliberating at six o’clock  and imagine that he now notices that I’m standing behind him philosophising about him and denying his freedom to all of those potential actions; so it could easily happen that he, in order to prove me wrong, might execute one of them: then, however, my very denial and its effect on his contrary spirit would have been the necessary motive to that action. However, that motive could only ever move him to one or the other of the easier actions mentioned above, for example to go to the theatre; but never to wander out into the wide world: for that the motive would be too weak.

This is interesting. We can imagine the man on the street having this kind of conversation with Schopenhauer.

“You said yourself that I acted differently because I spotted you and wanted to prove you wrong.”

“Differently, yes, but not more freely. Having bumped into me and reacted to our meeting is exactly how you would expect a mechanism of determinism to work. And I’m not flattering myself that it’s personal to me. Any encounter can be such a mechanism of determinism in that it can change your motives and make you act in certain ways.”

“Agreed, and in future I wouldn’t need you to stand behind me in the street, observing me, commenting on my deliberations in that way. It will suffice for me in future deliberations to adopt the motive to prove that I have freedom of will and disprove determinism, to have the same effect. If I do that, the whole course of my life will be different from the way it would otherwise have been, had I not adopted that motive.”

“That is true. But again, that is exactly how the mechanisms of determinism work. Encounters with influential others, relationships, engagement with powerful concepts: of course they shape the way our lives go. They determine how they go. There’s something I always find slightly amusing about that, by the way, in that it doesn’t even matter if someone is conforming to someone else’s expectations or rebelling against them. The rebel does them the honour of allowing himself to be determined to the same degree as the conformist – the conformist in one direction, the rebel in the other.”

“That may be true, but in my encounter with you, I was not so much looking to follow you or rebel against you personally, and we didn’t engage with just any concept. It is the engagement with the concept of freedom of the will specifically which had the effect of changing my course of action.”

“Yes, you wanted to prove your freedom of the will, and so you changed your plan. But you didn’t prove your freedom, you just allowed yourself to be determined by a different and stronger motive. I assume your motives for going home to your wife were about spending time with your loved one, but also your comfort and routine. Now you’ve chosen to do something else, because the motive of proving your freedom was stronger. But, you know, you can never prove yourself to be free by allowing yourself to be determined by a motive.”

“Yes, you guessed that to disprove you I would go to the theatre instead. You thought that my new motive – to prove you wrong – would not be strong enough for me to walk away from my life as I know it.”

“Exactly so, and I was right, wasn’t I?”

“Yes, but doesn’t it strike you as meaningful that I didn’t just give myself up to complete randomness?”

“In what way meaningful?”

“Well, the most obvious way to prove our freedom of the will might have been to do something completely extreme and random. But then we would have fallen into the old trap of refuting determinism by gaining only an unattractive notion of freedom of the will that would entail chaos and randomness. That wouldn’t be a freedom of the will worth having.”

“True. Because there is no such freedom of the will available.”

“Nonetheless, I revised my plan under the motive of proving my freedom. In allowing you to add that motive to the set of motives motivating us, our lives changed.”

“But not in a way that proves that you have freedom of the will.”

“You say so, but I already feel a bit freer by having chosen to go to the theatre. I called my wife, by the way, and and also the two friends you mentioned and persuaded them to come too.”

“Yes, yes, they must have thought you very spontaneous, less predictable than they thought you were, less prone to sticking to your daily routine, more adventurous I grant you, but no less determined.”

“Ah, but that’s the point. I think a little bit less determined…”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe there was something in what you said… When you said ‘no less determined,’ it made me think that maybe it is a question of degree, not just a binary issue between freedom of the will and determinism.

In deliberating about our courses of action, we obviously consider a finite number of options and have a finite number of motives acting upon us. As you said, we won’t just wander out into the wide world and leave all our commitments and relationships behind on the slightest provocation. But where it would be reasonable and justifiable to do either of a number of things, say to go to the theatre or to go home, an added reason to do something other than go home (say if we were asked to prove that we can revise our plan) could suddenly make us go the other way. Maybe when we’re challenged to think again, when we’re given an additional reason to consider, when in the light of that reason we think again and we revise our course of action, maybe we should say that this increased our freedom a little bit.

You are fond of saying that we can ‘do what we will, but not will what we will.’ But in the first instance maybe we don’t even always do what we consciously will. Maybe sometimes we act habitually without thinking, almost as if on auto-pilot. So if we actually do what we will, rather than just do what we always do, that is an important increase in freedom, though I guess you would say only of physical freedom, not freedom of the will.

And let’s say that you’re right in claiming that we can’t ‘will what we will.’ You would argue that this is because motives that are given act on our character that is given, resulting in action that is given. But you caused me to reconsider what I should do with my evening. You added a motive into the situation (the motive to prove you wrong about freedom of the will) and it changed my course of action. You’ll say that it was already in my character to want to prove you wrong, so nothing new happened there. But maybe that openness to consider another motive, maybe the willingness to engage with your reasoning, maybe the possibility of considering new reasons, after my decision to go home had already been made, maybe they open up a little bit of space that we should call a greater freedom of the will.

Anyway, it’s time for me to go. The play is about to begin. Do you want to join us?”

“Erm, no thanks. I think I’ll just go home.”

 

Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation (2) – Doing More Than You Know You Can

As mentioned in the previous post, supererogation means going above and beyond. In moral philosophy it is often applied to acts that are good and praiseworthy, but not required. So anyone not doing these acts could not be criticised from a moral point of view. But when people do them, we are nonetheless pleased and think they deserve special merit.

[Previously, I discussed how it relates to the principle from moral philosophy that “ought implies can.” I wrote about the fact that the unequal distribution of what people can do, means there is also an unequal distribution of what they ought to do. This opens up some space for a discussion about whether some supererogation stems from that unequal distribution.]

In fact the principle that “ought implies can” relates to supererogation in another way as well: It is not always clearcut and obvious in advance what someone can. Two people with similar abilities may therefore take different actions, based not so much on a different assessment of what they can do, but based on differing ideas about what to do when they are not entirely sure whether they can or can’t do it. One person may take on the relevant ought on the basis that he possibly can, another may not, on the basis that maybe he cannot.

I recently read Michael Lewis’ fascinating book The Undoing Project about psychology professors Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky who founded the field of behaviourist economics. It contains this episode:

“By late 1956, Amos was not merely a platoon commander but a recipient of one of the Israeli army’s highest awards for bravery. During a training exercise in front of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, one of his soldiers was assigned to clear a barbed wire fence with a bangalore torpedo. From the moment he pulled the string to activate the fuse, the solider had twenty seconds to run for cover. The soldier pushed the torpedo under the fence, yanked the string, fainted, and collapsed on top of the explosive. Amos’s commanding officer shouted for everyone to stay put—and leave the unconscious soldier to die. Amos ignored him and sprinted from behind the wall that served as cover for his unit, grabbed the soldier, picked him up, hauled him ten yards, tossed him on the ground, and threw himself on top of him. The shrapnel from the explosion remained in Amos for the rest of his life. The Israeli army did not bestow honors for bravery lightly. As he handed Amos his award, Moshe Dayan, who had watched the entire episode, said, “You did a very stupid and brave thing and you won’t get away with it again.” Occasionally, people who watched Amos in action sensed that he was more afraid of being thought unmanly than he was actually brave. “He was always very gung ho,” recalled Uri Shamir. “I thought it was maybe compensation for being thin and weak and pale.” At some point it didn’t matter: He compelled himself to be brave until bravery became a habit.”

Clearly, Tversky was able to pull off this feat (even though taking some shrapnel in the process). Equally clearly, no one knew for sure in advance that it could be done. In fact, people must have thought that it couldn’t. The commanding officer would not have given the order to stay put if he had thought that it was possible to rescue the collapsed soldier. The act in question, was called, even after its successful conclusion, “stupid” and “gung ho.” It was also praised as “brave” and given the highest award for bravery. If it had been only foolish and suicidal, it could not have been called brave. But if it had been just brave and good, it could not have been called stupid.

What is in play, perhaps, is Tversky’s perhaps unusual decision that he ought to rescue the soldier, even though he couldn’t be sure that he could.

This example also sheds some light on the vagueness of the principle “ought implies can.” It is not entirely clear, for example, what constitutes “can.” Most people would probably not think that doing something while losing one’s life, would constitute the kind of “can” that would be implied by an “ought.” What about doing something that carried the risk of losing one’s life? Or doing something that meant having shrapnel in one’s body for life?

None of the other soldiers could be criticised for obeying their commanding officers instruction. And yet, had everyone acted on it, a life would have been lost unnecessarily. The difference between Tversky and his fellow soldiers was unlikely to be that Tversky was the only one who had the ability to rescue the collapsed soldier. It’s more likely that he was more prepared to think “I ought to do this,” without knowing whether he would be able to do so unscathed. Or that he was more prepared to take on the risk of damage to himself in shouldering an “ought.”

[Let’s leave aside for now the fact that it was Tversky’s life work to show that human beings are ill equipped to make rational assessments of costs and benefits to ourselves. And let’s leave aside also the separate debate in ethics about how many thoughts one ought to have in this kind of situation.]

Supererogatory acts are not necessarily reliant on physical ability alone. They may, for example, also include finding forgiveness for someone who has wronged us grievously. In that case too, forgiveness may be a process that someone enters into without knowing whether they can do it. They may not know whether ultimately they will truly be able not only to say that they have forgiven, but also feel it for themselves. Or they may not be sure in advance that forgiving wouldn’t mean trading off too much of their own personality or what is important to them. Nonetheless, some people might set off on the journey of forgiveness under those circumstances. Others may not. The latter shouldn’t come in for criticism. The former are making a supererogatory effort.

Useful Concepts -#16- Supererogation -Going Beyond the Call of Duty

“Supererogation” has long been one of my favourite words and concepts. (In saying that, I’m not claiming to live up to it much…) It stems from the Latin words “super” meaning “over” or “above” and “erogare” meaning to “expend / pay out.” So it’s about expending above what might be expected, also known as going beyond the call of duty, or going the extra mile.

In ethics, the concept describes ways of acting that are morally good and praiseworthy, but acts that are not necessarily required. Supererogatory acts are those that are good and such that we definitely would want people to perform them, but at the same time such that we couldn’t criticise people for not performing them. Heroic acts spring to mind, like running into a burning building to rescue others. Or saintly acts such as giving up all and any comforts in order to devote oneself to caring for the poorest, sickest people.

Some people, let’s call the supererogation enthusiasts, see the concept of supererogation as a good criterion for whether a given moral theory looks plausible. Any reasonable conception of morality, they argue, should allow a place for supererogatory acts. If a theory has no such place, say because it too stringently requires human beings to do whatever achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in such a way that for every good act there might have been an other better act, and even for the best possible act a human being could have done, it was just what he should have done, then that is a reason to be suspicious of that theory. We would want there to be a category of good acts, or ways of acting, that deserve special merit, rather than just a shrug and the acknowledgement that “he just did what he had to.”

Others, let’s call the supererogation deniers, argue exactly the opposite: That there is no place for supererogation in any plausible moral theory. In the history of theological uses of the concept, supererogatory acts, such as making large donations to a church, were initially seen as being able to wipe out sin for the supererogatory agent and those around him or her. Against that, a view was taken that human beings were so flawed, so unable to live up to the expectations and requirements of God, that there was no possibility of supererogation. In that view of the world, whatever anyone managed to do, would fall short of what was required. Human beings are so dependent on God’s mercy and grace, that there is no point in talking about going above and beyond.

The denial of supererogation doesn’t need to make any theological assumptions about the relationship between person and God. It could simply be argued, for example, that human beings are such weak and stupid animals, so incapable of ensuring their own flourishing or supporting that of others, that our societies are so unhealthy and corrupt and the world such a sub-optimal, inhospitable and degraded environment, that even incredible, super-human acts could not do good at the level required. In such a context, it might then be unrealistic and unhelpful to acknowledge and applaud a category of specially good acts. It would be better simply to require of each and every agent to do his or her utmost. There would almost be a duty to go beyond the call of duty.

“Ought Implies Can”

There is a principle in ethics that “ought implies can.” It is often taken as axiomatic without further argument. To some extent hat makes sense. It would be strange for a moral theory to require something from someone who is unable to do that. I think the principle “ought implies can” sheds an interesting light on the possibility of supererogation.

First of all “ought implies can” creates an inequality in terms of what can be required from individuals. Some people can achieve more than others and therefore ought to try harder than others. Say person A is a strong swimmer while person B is physically weak and has never learned to swim. They stand at the seashore and suddenly spot someone out there in the sea frantically waving his arms and shouting for help. The weather has suddenly turned stormy and the waves are high in the strong wind. Let’s say in this scenario there happens to be no alternative means of rescuing the drowning man, than for person A or person B to jump in and rescue him themselves: no coastguard to be alerted, no rescue boats or helicopters, and no other devices at all. Person A could very likely rescue the drowning man without any great detriment to herself, but person B would equally likely fall victim to the elements before getting to the drowning man. “Ought implies can” means that the requirement to jump in and rescue the drowning man falls asymmetrically on A and B. While A could be criticised if she didn’t make the attempt to rescue the drowning man, B could probably escape criticism even if he didn’t make the attempt.

Supererogation enthusiasts and deniers may place a different emphasis on the analysis of the situation but may find they’re not as far apart as it originally seemed.

“Person A just did what was required of her,” says a supererogation denier.

“But because of her superior skills, so much more could be required of her, and the drowning man got rescued. Now isn’t that worth celebrating?” replies the supererogation enthusiast.

“It’s worth celebrating perhaps that the outcome was a happy one and that person A had this great ability to swim and rescue drowning people. But if she hadn’t made the attempt, she would have been open to severe criticism, so she really just did what could have been expected,” responds the supererogation denier.

The supererogation enthusiast then has at least one further point to make: Let’s assume that person A’s ability to rescue the drowning man was down to more than just inborn physical ability. Let’s say she trained her swimming abilities a lot and spent some time doing a course in rescue swimming. Let’s say she did that while person B was playing video games and eating pizzas. Couldn’t the supererogation enthusiast point out that person A never had a duty to lead that lifestyle and person B can’t be criticised on moral grounds for choosing his way of life? She wouldn’t have been in the situation where she could rescue someone from drowning, and therefore ought to have done so, if she hadn’t set out on a certain path, that of honing her abilities long ago. Wouldn’t the acts of supererogation have started with the lifestyle chosen and the skills developed, rather than just with the act of jumping into the water to rescue someone?

The supererogation sceptic could try one counter to that. He could refuse to accept that person B cannot be criticised on moral grounds. Or at least he could say that narrow moral grounds aren’t the only consideration here, and that broader ethical issues arise. He could say that we could call B’s lifestyle lazy, self-indulgent and selfish and that this are precisely words of criticism. He could also say that we would call A’s lifestyle industrious, committed to self-improvement and altruism.

But at the same time, person A could have trained in rescue swimming, a non-moral skill, all her life, but never got into a situation where she could perform the morally valuable task of rescuing someone. It would be merely bad luck that she never had the opportunity to perform that good act. In the same way as it is bad luck for agent B to be stuck in a situation where rescue swimming abilities would have carried moral weight, rather than video-gaming skills. And at the same time person A could have been quite useless in a situation where a different kind of skill might have been required, say rock climbing, in which we assume she had no ability. No human could possibly train to be able to perform excellently in every situation, he or she could get into. That would take us to the realm of superheroes. Nonetheless, the situations where someone happens to be able to perform morally excellently due to work they have done to prepare themselves, are those where supererogatory action is relevant. (Of course, some people train themselves and seek out such situations, e. g. by choosing careers where they might be first responders in critical situations.)

The other way in which “ought implies can” creates a space for supererogation comes from the fact that it is not always clear-cut what a person can achieve. This might only become clear in the attempt. The opportunity for supererogation would then arise from where someone takes an optimistic view of what he or she can, and is therefore taking on a higher burden of what he or she ought. But I’ll write about that in the next post.

 

 

Useful Concepts – #15 – The Principle of Charity

There’s a useful concept which I know from literature about philosophy that could be put to greater use in a lot of current political debate and in most discussions that are taking place on social media. It’s called the principle of charity. It has nothing to do with giving to worthy causes and everything to do with the way we argue or communicate.

Philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse defines it in the following way:

“The principle of charity, roughly, requires that we try to find the best – the most reasonable or plausible – (rather than the worst) possible interpretation of what we read and hear, i. e. of what other people say.”

She argues that this is in fact a common feature of everyday language use. She gives an example of an 85 year old aunt who tends to muddle up names. So she talks about how her grandson Jack came to visit her, when in fact her grandson’s name is Jason. Jack is the aunt’s late husband. In talking to her we don’t interpret her as making crazy claims about a dead person. We fairly easily understand that she is in fact talking about Jason.

This sort of example, according to Hursthouse, “is important because our capacity to communicate with each other – the very possibility of language – rests on our willingness to aim to interpret what others say as, if not true, at leat reasonable rather than barmy.”

In philosophy, the principle demands, e. g.:

  • that when a writer seems to be contradicting himself or herself, we look out for whether he or she didn’t in fact just advance the strongest possible counter-argument to what he or she was arguing, playing devil’s advocate against his or her own argument, in order to prepare the ground for showing that he or she can meet the objection.
  • that, if a writer seems, at first glance, to be relying on a false premise, rather than pounce on it and accuse him or her of a logical mistake, we look for the interpretation of the premise that makes the argument at least plausible, one that might plausibly hold and support the conclusion of the writer.
  • that, if a writer seems to be drawing recklessly broad conclusions for which there are easy counter-examples, we try to find an interpretation of the conclusion that makes it at least plausible.

And so on. You get the gist.

That doesn’t mean we can’t argue with anything that anyone has ever written on the grounds that somehow they must be right. It just means that we should do the mental work that is required to read the writing of others in the best possible light before critiquing it.

Of course we need to read critically, keeping an eye on mistakes, but the search for the truth advances best, if we don’t just criticise things that are obviously wrong at the surface, but instead aim to uncover the real problems in an argument at a deeper level.

Weak criticism, as Hursthouse says, is roughly speaking, “one that the writer could have easily escaped by modest changes to what she said – changes which, in being modest, do not affect the main thrust of her argument.”

So the point is not necessarily that we always let the other person be right. But that our critique of someone else’s point of view is much more effective when we first help them make the strongest case they have.

And if in the process of applying the principle of charity we realise that there was more that is right in the argument we’re critiquing that we thought, and maybe more wrong with our previously held views, we can always go with Socrates’ thought that in an argument, the person who turns out to be wrong really wins because he learns something new.

Some Philosophical Aspects of New Year’s Resolutions

There is a lot of advice on making and keeping New Year’s resolutions. A lot of it is conflicting. Some say resolutions made at the turn of the year could work, some say they’re doomed to fail. Some say we should aim for small changes in our lives, one at a time, others that we should aim for ambitious all-encompassing change. Some say we should tell other people about our resolutions, others say we should keep them to ourselves and work on them quietly. Some say we shouldn’t even bother making resolutions, others argue we should make them more frequently, suggesting, for example, that we look about every four months at what we want to change and what our targets might be. Do philosophers have anything to say on New Year’s resolutions?

Plato and the State of the Mind

Plato argues that the self or the mind is like a city state. The mind has three parts: a) reason, b) passion / motivation and c) appetite / desire. These are equivalent to three parts of a city state: a) rulers, b) soldiers and c) labourers. And as in the city state, order needs to be established by creating the right kind of hierarchy between the three parts. Self-control or self-mastery, the sorts of things one might need in order to implement a New Year’s resolution is given when the passionate or motivating part of the mind is only in the service of reason, not in the service of appetites or trying to do its own thing. Reason needs to rule, passion / motivation needs to help it implement its policies and jointly they need to lord it over the appetites and desires. If that correct hierarchy is established and if each part of the mind does its own work and doesn’t develop ideas above its station, then the person whose mind is thus structured will live a self-controlled and good life.

Conclusion: the only resolution worth making is to ensure the mind is correctly structured. The way this happens is through education and practice. We shouldn’t expect suddenly to be able to do the things we haven’t been able to do, just by making a resolution. Rather we will have to spend time on getting the mind into the right shape. Being clear about our reasons for wanting to keep a resolution, the strength of our motivation and the desires that might conflict with them will also help.

The Stoics and Things Worth Focussing On

The Stoics teach us not to worry about things outside of our control and to focus only on the things internal to us that we can control. In the former category are things like good health / ill health; good looks / ugliness; life / death; riches / poverty; power / powerlessness; being liked / not being liked; and so on. In the latter category is only whether we have virtuous character. Having a resolution to make more money, or to lose weight, or to have more friends would therefore be pointless, if they are not properly thought through. It makes more sense to think about what virtues we would need for a chance at them. We should then aim to develop the virtues of industriousness and frugality instead of making a million dollars; self-control and maybe a certain abstemiousness instead of losing weight, and so on.

Conclusion: the only resolutions worth making are about developing the virtues as only our character is under our control. Any specific targets regarding the outcomes we want to achieve might be blown off course by things outside of our control. Work on our attitudes and habits should be the focus.

Derek Parfit and Future Selves

Derek Parfitt, who was called the most influential philosopher of our times, died in 2017. One of his biggest contributions in philosophy was on questions surrounding personal identity and the self. He argued that personal identity was a question of certain physical and psychological continuities, but that there was no special further ingredient. His views were sometimes likened to Buddhist views that there is no stable self over time. He talks about past and future selves who have separate interests to the current self. Resolutions then would be attempts of a current self to impose certain ways of behaving on future selves, in order to achieve certain things for an even further future self. To aim to do so is perfectly reasonable for the current self. But future selves will look from their perspective as to whether the resolution made by a (now) past self is still one that they have reason to honour.

Conclusion: Not keeping a resolution may not be simply a question of weakness of will but may be a legitimate evaluation of the interests of the current self compared to those of the past self.

Bernard Williams and the Things that Propel us into the Future

Bernard Williams took the view that “an individual person has a set of desires, concerns or, as I shall call them, projects, which help to constitute a character”; these “ground projects [provide] the motive force which propels him into the future, and gives him a reason for living.” For Williams this was a strong argument to critique ethical theories that demanded of people that they should abandon their desires, concerns, commitments, relationships or projects when universal ethical considerations required it. For Williams, our “projects” were not co-incidental fancies, but the very things that are central to being who we are and that make our ives worth living. New Years Resolutions could then be seen as an exercise to audit where we are with our “projects,” what is really important to us, what are our reasons for living and to re-focus our attention on those “projects.”

Conclusion: New Year’s Resolutions could be far more than an unrealistic exercise in setting targets for oneself. They could be a useful audit of what really matters to us and a re-focussing of attention.