Monday, November 13, 2017

It’s Time To Pull The Switch On The Trolley Problem

Back in August Germany became the first nation to institute federal guidelines for self-driving cars. These guidelines include criteria for what to do in the case of an impending accident when split-second decisions have to be made. Built into these criteria are a set of robust moral values, including mandating that self-driving cars will prioritize human lives over the lives of animals or property, and that the cars are not allowed to discriminate between humans on the basis of age, gender, race or disability.

Philosophers have an obvious interest in these sorts of laws and the moral values implicit in them. Yet in spite of the wide range of potentially interesting problems such technology and legislation pose, one perennial topic seems to dominate the discussion both amongst philosophers and the popular press: The Trolley problem. So electrifying has this particular problem become that I suspect I don’t need to rehash the details, but just in case, here is the basic scenario: a run-away trolley is hurtling down the tracks towards five people. You can save the five by throwing a switch diverting the trolley to a side track, where there is only one person. Should you throw the switch, saving the five and sacrificing the one, or should you do nothing, letting the one live and letting the five die?

Initially developed over 60 years ago by Philippa Foot and modulated dozens of times in the intervening decades, the Trolley problem was long a staple of intro to ethics courses, good for kick starting some reflection and conversation on the value of life and the nature of doing vs. allowing. Hence, you could practically feel philosophy departments all over the world jump for joy when they realized this abstract thought experiment finally manifest itself in concrete, practical terms due to the advent of self-driving cars.

This excitement fused with some genuinely fascinating work in the neuroscience of moral decision making. The work of scholars like Josh Green has provided genuine insight into what occurs in our brains when we have to make decisions in trolley-like situations. Out of the marriage of these two developments—along with some midwifery from psychology and economics—the field of ‘trolleyology’ was born. And it is my sincere hope that we can kill this nascent field in its crib.

Why should I, as an ethicist, have such a morbid wish for something that is clearly a boon to my discipline? Because despite the superficial appeal there is really not very much to it as far as a practical problem goes. It is marginally useful for eliciting conflicting (perhaps even logically incompatible) intuitions about how the value of life relates to human action, which is what makes it a useful tool for the aforementioned intro to ethics courses. But the Trolley problem does precious little for illuminating actual moral decision making, regardless of whether you’re in a lecture hall or an fMRI.

To see this, take a brief moment to reflect on your own life. How many times have you ever had to decide between the lives of a few against the lives of the many? For that matter, take ‘life’ out of the equation: how many times have you had to make a singular, binary decision between the significant interests of one person against the similar interests of multiple people? Actual human beings face real-world moral decisions every day, from the food choices we make and the the products we purchase, to the ways we raise our children and how we respond to the needs of strangers. Almost none of these decisions share the forced binary, clear 1-vs.-5 structure of a trolley problem.1

What then of the self-driving car example I opened with? Does this not demonstrate the pragmatic value of fretting over the Trolley problem? Won’t the ‘right’ answer to the Trolley problem be crucial for the moral operation of billions of self-driving cars in the future to come? In short, no. Despite all the press it has gotten, there is no good reason to think the development of self-driving cars requires us to solve the Trolley problem any more than the development of actual trolleys required it almost 200 years ago. Again, check your own experience: how often behind the wheel of a car did you—or for that matter anyone you know, met, or even read about—ever have to decide between veering left and killing one or veering right and killing five? If humans don’t encounter this problem when driving, why presume that machines will?

In fact, there’s very good reason to think self-driving cars will be far less likely to encounter this problem than humans have. Self-driving cars have sensors that are vastly superior to human eyes—they encompass a 360-degree view of the car, never blink, tire or get distracted, and can penetrate some obstacles that are opaque to the human eye. Self-driving cars can also be networked with each other meaning that what one car sees can be relayed to other cars in the area, vastly improving situational awareness. In the rare instances where a blind spot occurs, the self-driving car will be far more cognizant of the limitation and can take precautionary measures much more reliably than a human driver. Moreover, since accidents will be much rarer when humans are no longer behind the wheel, much of the safety apparatus that currently exists in cars can be retooled with a mind to avoiding situations where this kind of fatal trade off occurs.2

Both human beings and autonomous machines face an array of serious, perplexing and difficult moral problems.3 Few of them have the click-bait friendly sex appeal of the trolley problem. It should be the responsibility of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, A.I.-researchers, and journalists to engage the public on how we ought to address those problems. But it is very hard to do that when trolleyology is steering their attention in the wrong direction.

Garret Merriam
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] There are noteworthy exceptions, of course. During World War II, Winston Churchill learned of an impending attack on the town of Coventry and he decided not to warn the populace, for fear of tipping the Germans that their Enigma code had been cracked by the British. 176 people died in the bombing, but the tactical value of preserving access to German communications undoubtedly saved many more by helping the Allies to win the war. If you’re like most people, you can be thankful that you never have to make a decision like this one.

[2] For example, much of the weight of the car comes from the steal body necessary to keep the passengers safe in the event of a pileup or a roll-over. As the likelihood of those kinds of accidents become statistically insignificant this weight can be largely removed, lowering the inertia of the car making it easier to stop quickly (and more fuel efficient, to boot), thus avoiding the necessity of trolley-type decisions.

[3] Take, for example, the ethics of autonomous drone warfare. Removing human command and control of drones and replacing it with machine intelligence might vastly reduce collateral damage as well as PTSD in drone pilots. At the same time, however, it even further lowers valuable inhibitions against the use of lethal force, and potentially creates a weapon that oppressive regimes—human controlled or otherwise—might use indiscriminately against civilian populations. Yet a google search for “autonomous military drones” yields a mere 6,410 hits, while “autonomous car” + “trolley problem” yields 53,500.

Monday, November 6, 2017

What famous philosophical argument gets too much love?

This week we asked philosophy faculty the following question:
What famous philosophical argument (observation, distinction, view etc.) is given entirely too much attention or credit? Why?
Here's what they said:


Matt McCormick: Searle's Chinese room

Does a computer program that correctly answers thoughtful questions about a story actually understand it?

In Searle’s thought experiment, a human, playing the part of a CPU, uses the computer code equivalent of instructions for answering questions about a story in Mandarin. The human doesn't know Mandarin, but through the instructions in the code, can, by hypothesis, answer questions as if she understands the story.

Searle maintains that when we imagine ourselves in this position it is intuitively obvious that we don't understand the story in Mandarin. He concludes that this shows that machines accurately modeled by this process (i.e., Turing Machines) don't think or understand.

The thought experiment capitalizes on gross oversimplifications, misdirection, and a subtle equivocation. Several implicit assumptions are false once we draw them out:
  • My armchair imaginings about this caricatured scenario accurately capture what a sophisticated artificial neural net computer is doing. 
  • My intuitions about what I would and wouldn't understand in this imaginary scenario are reliable indicators of the truth in reality; 
  • People are reliable judges of when they do and don't understand; 
  • If I was playing the role of a dumber part of a larger, smarter system, I would be apprised of whether or not the system itself understands.
Once we unpack what would comprise such a system, particularly with modern artificial neural networks trained with machine learning, then we realize how cartoonish Searle’s story is, and the intuition that these machines cannot understand evaporates.


Randy Mayes: The Euthyphro dilemma

The original form of this dilemma concerns piety, but in today’s ethics classes the word “good’ is usually inserted for “pious,” and it is reformulated for monotheistic sensibilities: Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?

If we choose the first horn, we must allow that it would be good to eat our children, assuming God willed us to do so. Choose the second and we admit that goodness is a standard to which God himself defers.

Almost always the lesson drawn is that morality is (a) objective and (b) something whose nature we may discover through rational inquiry, regardless of our religious beliefs. Which is just what traditional moral philosophy assumes and does. Hurrah!

It’s a lovely piece of sophistry.

Socrates has created a false dilemma that also begs the question against his opponent. Euthyphro has complied with Socrates' request for a definition. A definition of P is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, Q, for P. If correct, it is neither the case that P because Q or that Q because P. This question only makes sense if P and Q are simply presumed to to be different.

The truth: it is fine to define the good as what a morally perfect being commands (or wills.) However, it provides no insight into the content of such commands. It provides no reason to believe that such a being exists or that we could recognize it or know its will if it did.


Tom Pyne: Determinism

Determinism is the source of much mischief in philosophy.

Thus Determinism:

For every event there is a cause such that, given that cause, no other event could have occurred.

The mischief stems from its early modern formulation. Peter van Inwagen’s is representative:
  • P0 = a proposition giving a complete state description of the universe at any time in the past.
  • L = all the laws of nature.
  • p = a proposition stating some event that occurs (Electron e’s passing through the left slit; Pyne’s walking home by way of D Street on November 6, 2017)
  • N = the operator ‘it is a natural necessity that’
Determinism is:
If P0 and L, then Np
It is impossible for e not to pass through the left slit.

It is impossible for Pyne to go home by F Street instead.

Now Determinism is true.

It’s this formulation that’s wrong.

Notice that it appeals to laws of nature, but nowhere to causes.

But are there laws of nature? Not literally. Scientific ‘laws’ are (heuristically valuable) idealizations of the causal powers of objects.

This consideration enables us to avoid the natural necessity of p. Which is just as well, since we are committed to denying it in the electron/slit case by statistical mechanics and in my case by everyday experience.

I have the causal power sufficient to go D Street and the causal power sufficient to go F Street. Determinism properly understood won’t rule this out. Whichever way I go it’s not a miracle.


Garret Merriam: The emotion/reason distinction

The distinction between cold-calculating reason and hot-blooded emotion runs deep in Western thought. The distinction has caused hectic debates in moral psychology and philosophy of mind. It strikes us as obvious that the faculty we engage when doing math is a fundamentally different faculty than the one we engage when reading love poetry. So obvious, we assume there’s no good reason to doubt the distinction.

There’s good reason to doubt the distinction.

For starters the distinction is more prominent in Western thought than in Eastern. In classical Chinese philosophy the word xin refers to both the physical heart and seat of emotions, but also the locus of perception, understanding and reason. The closest approximate translation in English is ‘heart-mind.’ When conceptual categories blur across geographical boundaries that suggests the distinction might be a cultural artifact rather than a fundamental categorical one.

Functional neuroanatomy also casts doubt. While it’s common to refer to (so-called) emotional vs. rational ‘centers’ of the brain, closer examination shows our brains are not so neatly parsed. For example, the amygdala (traditionally an emotional center) is active in certain ‘cognitive’ tasks, such as long-term memory consolidation, while the prefrontal cortex (traditionally the rational center) is active in more ‘emotional’ tasks, such as processing fear.

The line between thinking and feeling doesn’t cut cleanly across cultures or brains. Perhaps this is because, rather than two fundamentally different faculties, there is instead a vague set of overlapping clusters of faculties that, upon reflection, resist a simple dichotomous classification.


Kyle Swan: Property owning democracy

John Rawls argued against wealth inequalities by arguing that they lead to political inequalities. The wealthy will use their excess wealth to influence political processes and game the system in their favor. Economists call this regulatory capture. To eliminate these political inequalities, eliminate economic inequalities.

But when we task the state to eliminate economic inequalities, we give it a lot of discretionary power to regulate our economic lives. This makes influence over political processes worth more to those who would game the system in their favor, giving them more incentive to capture it. The policies could backfire.

Rawlsians tend to invoke ideal theory here. They’re describing a regime where efforts to realize economic and political equality are implemented by cooperative actors who are in favorable conditions for compliance, so they can “abstract from...the political, economic, and social elements that determine effectiveness.” Policies don’t backfire in magical ideal-theory world.

Rawls can use idealizing assumptions if he wants, but he shouldn’t be so selective about it. For why do we need the state interventions associated with “liberal socialism” or a “property-owning democracy” in the first place? Well, remember, because the rich in “laissez-faire capitalism” and “welfare-state capitalism” use their wealth to game the system.

But this means that idealizing assumptions have gone away from his consideration of the disfavored regime-types. Otherwise, the wealthy there would be riding their unicorns to visit all the affordable housing they’ve built (or whatever), not trying to illicitly game the system in their favor. 


Russell DiSilvestro: Intuition and inevitability 

“It seems to me,”
The man said slowly,
“Your intuition’s no good.”

He quickly added,
“Nor mine, nor anyone’s,”
As if that helped things.

For if no one’s intuitions are any good
Why should I
Or anyone
Care
How stuff seems
To you?

Perhaps his point was just that
P
And not that
P because it seems to me that P.

But then why say it?

Perhaps he was just
Being conventional
And pragmatic
And friendly.

But then why believe him?

After all
Nothing is more unbelievable than
P
At least the way he said it.

At least
That’s how
It seems
To me.


David Corner: Reason is slave of the passions 

In the Treatise, Book II, Part III, Sec III, Hume argues that
reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.
I will focus on the second claim.

As one of my seminar students observed this semester, Hume qualifies this claim by providing an exception: Sometimes our passions are founded on false suppositions. An example: I suppose this glass to contain beer, and so I desire to drink it. When I judge that the glass actually contains turpentine, this desire vanishes

My desire to drink the contents of the glass is what TM Scanlon refers to as a “judgment-sensitive attitude.” Its judgment-sensitivity is like that of a belief; I revise my belief that the glass is filled with beer when I am given reasons for thinking that it is filled with turpentine. Indeed my desire to drink the contents of the glass seems entirely dependent on a factual judgment about its contents. Nearly all of what Hume calls “passions” are actually judgement-sensitive attitudes. The exceptions Hume cites would appear to be the rule.

Hume fails to see that the suppositions that provide the basis for most of our passions are really judgments, and that these judgments motivate us by providing reasons for acting- i.e. my motivation for drinking this liquid depends on reasons for thinking it is beer. The distinction between reason and passion may be more tenuous than Hume realizes.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Don't worry, I won't eat you! An intentionally provocative defense of conscientious omnivorism

A couple weeks ago, Professor Saray Ayala-López wrote a post entitled The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating, to which I offered a somewhat tangential comment about the ethics of eating meat. So as not to take away from the main point there, I decided to develop this issue separately here. I’ll include some of our dialogue there to begin the discussion.

Here are a few different views on eating meat:
  • Veganism: no use of animal products
  • Vegetarianism: no eating of meat, but use of some animal products
  • Conscientious omnivorism: conscientious and selective eating of meat and use of animal products
Here's my initial defense of conscientious omnivorism. 

“…I apply a standard of justice that relies on a baseline on nonhuman animals in their natural habitats or species-appropriate environments. A violation of justice occurs when we intentionally do something that places nonhuman animals below the baseline. I also do not assume that death is itself a bad thing; there can be good and bad deaths….[M]y standard of justice is violated:

  (1) when we consume more meat than necessary or healthy; 

  (2) when we engage in practices that involve additional pain and suffering beyond what an animal would experience in its natural habitat, or 

  (3) when we contribute to conditions that:
  • (a) create dependency (e.g., captivity) [and] invoke additional duties (of care, including with respect to (2) above) and;
  • (b) we violate these additional duties.
My view is motivated by the practices of some indigenous peoples, who also ate meat (and engaged in other practices involving nonhuman animals) in a way that avoided (1), (2), and (3). If a Native American hunted and killed a buffalo to feed his family, was this morally wrong? If a grizzly bear seeking food attacked and killed me, would that be this morally wrong? What makes these acts *morally* wrong depends on an intentional violation of some standard of evaluation.”

Saray noted:

“...Some people would respond to you that if you can afford avoiding inflicting the pain, objectification, and/or death involved in meat eating, then you have good reasons to stop eating meat….” 

Here, I want to address the objections to eating meat on the grounds that it causes pain, death, and objectification.

As a deontologist, I don’t think the consequences alone are morally relevant. Pain and death in and of themselves are neither good nor bad (e.g., pain of a medical intervention that is necessary for health or death of a soldier who sacrifices his life to save his troop). What makes the infliction of pain or death morally wrong, as mentioned in my initial defense, is when a person causes pain beyond what nonhuman animals would experience in their natural habitat. 

Objectification, unlike pain and death, is not morally neutral. A deontologist may believe some principle P that a person ought to treat another consistently with the other’s species-specific capabilities. Objectification may be defined as a violation of P or, specifically, a violation of P in which a person treats another as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities. If I step on a cockroach, I am not objectifying the cockroach because I am not treating it as less than appropriate given the cockroach’s species-specific capabilities. If I use a chimpanzee as a test dummy for testing vehicles (which involves isolation, captivity, and other physical and psychological harms), then I am treating another as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities.

One can argue that objectification does not occur when we kill animals for food. Consider a world where there are extreme and isolated conditions (e.g., base camp of Mount Everest) and a small population of advanced intelligent animals, A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, etc. After the A's deplete all their other natural resources, they turn to each other for food. They start with the sick, weak, and elderly among them and, because their rate of consumption exceeds their rate of reproduction, the population eventually dies. If A1 hunted and killed A100, who was elderly, we may say that A1 objectified the elderly. But what about when A1 hunted and killed her equal, A2? A1 did what was necessary for her survival. Setting aside other possible moral offenses, she did not treat A2 as less than appropriate given A2’s species-specific capabilities. Indeed, A1 may have had to devise inventive traps knowing that A2 was her equal in intelligence and the typical traps used on the sick and elderly were useless. She also may have had to ensure a quick kill, not wanting A2 to experience any unnecessary physical or psychological harm.

An objector may might say "Well, this may be fine for your imaginary world of scarcity, but that’s not our world. Today we have sufficient plant-based sources of protein as well as new and improved synthetic sources of meat."

Here are two responses:

First, when the synthetic sources of meat become as accessible as (and qualitatively similar to) real meat, I think there is good reason to transition to these synthetic sources (over a long period of time, given our evolutionary preference for meat).

Second, whether we are primitive and small in number or advanced and 7.6 billion in number, the killing of another for food does not necessarily involve objectification. It can be viewed as involving a kind of competition: a survival of the fittest. When one competitor defeats another, the intent is not to objectify (i.e., treat the other as less than appropriate given the other’s species-specific capabilities), but to win the contest for survival. In the same way that A1 does not objectify A2, humans do not necessarily objectify other intelligent animals. While spears and open plains have been replaced with large-scale farms and ranches, what is morally wrong is not that animals are killed for food, but that we have cut corners to save money rather than doing what is right and, as a result, have placed animals in conditions that are inadequate given their species-specific capabilities.


Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 23, 2017

Why we won't fix health care

The American health care system is insanely complicated. It is dysfunctional and corrupt in many ways. But there is one simple reason that it is so much more expensive than the systems of similarly well-off countries, and that is that we lack a mechanism for controlling spending.

By and large U.S. health insurance companies pay for the interventions that doctors prescribe, and U.S. doctors prescribe pretty much everything that can be justified. This is partly because most doctors work on a fee for service basis: the more diagnostic tests and interventions they order, the better their take-home pay. But it is also partly because this is what patients demand. When we are broken we want our physicians to pull out all the stops in an effort to make us well again.

This is easy to sympathize with. Health is a big deal. The problem is that today- compared to even 50 years ago- doctors can do a heck of a lot. They will be able to do even more tomorrow. That is the main reason why our health care premiums have been rising and why they will continue to rise without a dramatic change in the way that health care is administered.

In a sense it is odd to call this a problem. We do not complain much about the fact that the money we spend on home entertainment and dining out has gone through the roof during the last 50 years. There is nothing wrong with paying a larger portion of our budget for X if what we want (or need) is more X. That’s how things are supposed to work.

The real problem, then, is that, unlike Super Mario and Banh Mi sandwiches, most of the new stuff that medicine offers to suffering patients isn’t that great. (Of course, some, like artificial joints and cataract surgery are miraculous.) When someone has a chronic or life-threatening condition that resists standard treatment options, ordering every possible test, trying every possible medication, procedure or surgery tends to produce roughly the same result as doing nothing. (Sometimes, in fact, far worse.) This is simply because there is a world of difference between a possible outcome and a probable one.

At bottom, every country that has dealt effectively with this problem has found a way to tell very sick or broken people that certain medical interventions aren’t worth the money. Americans are not comfortable with this. Faced with the specter of socialized medicine, conservatives convulse at the prospect of death panels. Faced with market-based approaches that would encourage individuals to shop for the best value, liberals bellow about the moral necessity of equal access to the highest quality of care.

The political histrionics belie a fundamental agreement, viz., that we all want a health care system in which everyone, no matter how ill, how old, or how effective the available options, gets the full monty. Of course, we do not have anything like such a system, but the fact that we aspire to it is one of the main reasons it is killing us. And I don’t mean this figuratively. As health care consumes an ever-increasing percentage of personal, corporate and public budgets, the money available to do other things that save lives and promote well-being (education, infrastructure, public safety) dwindles proportionally. And the more we insist on an absolute right to treatments of little or no value, the less we are able to promote preventive practices of proven value.

What makes this problem particularly acute is that we, like every other industrialized country, have an aging population. People in developed countries are living longer and reproducing at ever decreasing rates. Hence, every year that goes by, the percentage of old people rises. Old people break constantly, and thus require medical attention and hospitalization far more often. This means that escalating health care costs are in large part due to our commitment to (a) keeping a growing percentage of old people alive as long as possible, committing us to (b) the use of expensive and ineffective means for doing so and, consequently, (c) spending a huge portion of the health care budget (e.g., about 25% of Medicare) on costs incurred during the year that people die.

What’s weird about this (and here I speculate irresponsibly) is that it's not obviously what most old people even want. Of course, most of us don’t want to die, but, given that we have no choice in the matter, I think we would prefer an end in which we accept death gracefully, feel sincere gratitude for the time we were given, and go gentle into that good night. (Bite me, Dylan Thomas.)

My feeling is that it is mostly the young who make this so very difficult. It is so hard to lose the people we love, and it hurts us to see once vital parents and grandparents just giving up the ghost. So, we insist that they fight and that the rest of the world fight for them, grasping at any straw the medical establishment has to offer. In this sense we are dealing with a problem of cooperation. It is easy for me to see how we are wasting money on useless interventions for old people. Just not the ones I care about.

I wish we had a system that would allow those close to death to transfer the money that would otherwise be spent attempting to prolong their own lives to the welfare of others who could really benefit from it. Childcare for a struggling single parent, or a home in a safer neighborhood, or an educational fund. That way people who are ready to pass on could make their deaths more meaningful and their acceptance of it as an occasion for sincere admiration rather than culpable capitulation. It would allow those of us who suspect we could have lived better to do something truly loving and helpful during our final days.

It wouldn’t fix anything, I know.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

My thanks to Steven D. Freer, M.D., for many illuminating conversations on this topic.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating

It’s not uncommon to hear someone at a meal asking the vegan in the room “So, why are you vegan?”, often said while biting into a chicken leg. Similar to asking a person who came alone to the party “Do you have a significant other?”, or asking “Where are you from?” when we detect an unfamiliar accent in someone’s speech, confronting the vegan with such a question is a common and accepted practice that is however much more complex than may appear. Asking “why are you vegan?” forces the interlocutor into a web of complicated ethical questions, and drags the one who asks into it, too. Before asking, we should pause and consider whether we want to impose this on the interlocutor, who most likely just wants to eat their meal, and whether we are actually ready to get entangled in that ethical web.

Let me share a story. It happened to a friend; let’s call them Vegan. Vegan had one of those professional dinners during which everyone is supposed to relax after a long day of work conversations and planning collaborations, and get to know each other better in a more informal setting. Potential Collaborators knew that Vegan was vegan, and, when organizing the dinner, they made sure the fancy restaurant had vegan options. However, as it often happens, what the restaurant staff understood as “vegan options” were less than stellar. “They can have the side dishes, boiled green beans or spinach” said the waiter. ”Or the pasta without sauce”. Potential Collaborators looked at each other in silence. “Those are vegan”, added the waiter, showing signs of impatience. Having their veganism put on the spot was an uncomfortable, but – alas - a rather familiar situation to Vegan. Vegan mustered some excitement about an order of boiled spinach. Meals were served. The waiter placed in front of Potential Collaborators a chunk of salmon framed by roasted potatoes and zucchini, a carrousel of lamb ribs accompanied by mushrooms and carrots, and two servings of some part of a cow surrounded by a steaming mix of vegetables. On a smaller plate, the waiter placed in front of Vegan a pile of boiled spinach. The conversation, which had a pleasant flow until then, stumbled. Potential Collaborator 1 apologized, followed by Potential Collaborator 2, and before 3 and 4 could join in Vegan enthusiastically expressed their profound love for boiled spinach, and their satisfaction with the meal. For a moment it seemed as if they could just laugh at the absurdity (why were all those colorful veggies inaccessible to Vegan?) and overcome the awkwardness. Vegan inquired about the wine, desperate to diffuse the attention from their clumsy pile of boiled spinach. Great effort was invested from all parties in recovering the conversation. But then, it happened. Potential Collaborator 2 inquired “So, why are you vegan?”. At this point Vegan gave up and accepted this was going to be an uncomfortable night all along. Vegan summarized their (moral) arguments, and added how becoming vegan brought the satisfaction of finally feeling coherent, behaving in line with their values. As Vegan talked, Potential Collaborators suspended their meat-eating. “You shamed us” said 1, with a sincere, quiet look, and an increasing sense of internal incoherence (this I’m hypothesizing, it was not included in the story my friend told) (I also hypothesize that Potential Collaborators 2, 3 & 4 felt slightly annoyed at the thought of working with someone with what seemed like a sense of moral superiority). The relaxed conversation was never recovered. Collaboration never occurred.

Was my friend self-righteous, as vegans are often portrayed? Vegan was forced to behave as if they were so. Think about it: you are about to eat your meal and are asked why you hold a set of morals that diverge from everyone else’s in the room. Unless you start trashing your own values, whatever you say is going to question everyone else’s moral stance. Do we want to impose that burden on our interlocutor? We are often unaware of the moral streaks in seemingly innocent questions. 

Consider the two examples from before: when you ask the single in the room about their significant other, you are subjecting them to the not-always-welcome assumption of amatonormativity, assigning inflated social value to monogamous romantic relationships; when you ask “where are you from?”, you are conveying the way the interlocutor speaks seems to you more relevant than the content of what they are saying (you might additionally assume that your past trip to that country is something your interlocutor is interested in learning about). 

I’m issuing a warning here: be aware of the hidden moral magnitude of these questions. The vegan, like the single or the non-native, might have zero interest in getting dragged into a moral deliberation. They can actually be especially unenthusiastic about those questions (the vegan would rather eat than justify, again, what they eat, the single avoids that question at every social event, while the non-native gets it several times a day). Are you sure you want to invite into the conversation the moral spill-over that will ensue? And if so, do you think that using someone’s oddity as a trigger for moral considerations about that very oddity is a good way to go? If you still find good reasons to ask, consider then whether you are ready to engage in a good argument without getting defensive about your meat, your marriage or your assumed cosmopolitanism.

There are many interesting questions to discuss about the ethics of eating. For example, arguments in favor of veganism/vegetarianism might be based on attributing intelligence to non-human animals, or the capacity to feel pain. They can appeal to the economic and environmental inefficiency of animal farming, to the morality of torturing and killing animals, or they can be the inevitable conclusion of a strong commitment not to contribute to objectification, exploitation and violence. Arguments in favor of eating meat, on the other hand, might appeal to naturalness, cultural values, or economic accessibility. Some appeal to the idea that vegetarianism sets priorities wrong: with so many human needs, animal welfare is not the priority (Tania Lombrozo has a good response to this: being good isn’t a zero-sum game). All these questions bring together considerations from different disciplines (e.g. philosophy of mind, environmental studies, psychology, ethics) and are worth long discussions. These discussions are better had voluntarily (and preferably not while eating).

If when sitting next to a vegan at lunch, you feel the pull to ask “why are you vegan?”, consider whether the occasion invites or can handle the moral weight of that. The vegan might be just interested in eating their spinach.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 9, 2017

Watching my weight

I’ve been watching my weight recently. This morning the scale told me that I weigh 184 pounds.

Or did it?

The scale is utterly insensitive to whether there is a philosophy professor on it, a pile of steaks, joints, and giblets (prepared, perhaps, by Lecter’s Specialty Meats), or the elementary particles composing me.

The (so-far!) undetached steaks, joints, and giblets, as well as the elementary particles, weigh exactly the same as me – or so I will suppose.

What is the scale actually weighing? I require some reassurance that the scale is indeed weighing me.

(No one ever said being a metaphysician is an easy road.)

It’s surely not weighing me, and my giblets, and my quarks (or superstrings, or whatever the most recent theory of the fundamental entities would require us to countenance). After all, the nature of the resulting values would be different even if the figure expressing them (184 lbs.) is the same. My weight is a single, non-composite integral number; the weight of my undetached joints, hams, and innards is a sum. As for my quarks or superstrings, I have only the haziest notions how their mass would produce a weight on a bathroom scale.

To refine the question, consider my liver. Suppose that the function of the liver is to filter toxins. Does this purple thing, just considered in itself, have the power to filter toxins? Of course not. By itself it has the power to make the scale register 3½ pounds; it has the power to reflect light. But the power to filter toxins requires the organism. That is, considered in itself that purple thing is not a liver. Call it a ‘shmiver.’

I can filter toxins from my body; I can circulate vivifying oxygen. (I can also hit an 8-iron, solve problems in predicate logic, and decide among courses of action.) I can do these things ‘because of’ my liver, heart, hands, and brain. But the organs don’t do these things; I do. I don’t depend on those organs for my existence and my powers; they depend on me for theirs.

Without me, my organs would lack the powers they bestow on me.

Read that last sentence again. It is a difficult, but crucial, claim to understand.

Why is it so hard to understand?

Consider ‘Elementalism’: the thesis that reality must consist of some kind or category of element as fundamental; other entities are either derivative composites of those elements or logical constructions out of them. The properties of elements and the relations among them ground, without remainder, the properties of the derivative or constructed entities.

Our contemporary commitment to elementalism is so deep that it next to impossible for us to discern that there is an alternative.

But examples of entities that cannot be made sense of, either as derivative from their elements, or logical constructions out of them, abound. I’m one. (So are you: I’m nothing special.)

My liver is as dependent on me as my shadow is. The only difference is that, absent me, nothing remains of my shadow, but a shmiver remains of my liver.

So there was a single entity standing on the scale this morning, and that’s what the scale was weighing. It was weighing me.

(Well, that’s a relief!)

The difficult question, of course, is how we should state the relation between me, my steaks/joints/giblets, and my elementary particles.

One description adopts a ‘mereological nihilist’ stance towards the relation. That is, appeal to organs is necessary to explain the powers of the whole substance; but this appeal is epistemic, not ontological. The claim that I can do things ‘because of’ my liver is a statement in a factitious scheme of classification of my powers – a bit oversimplified perhaps, but helpful. For example, it would be silly to say that I hit an 8-iron ‘because of’ my liver. But as a point of ontology, not explanation, it’s just as true.

On a stronger version of this view I do have organs, but strictly speaking those organs are not parts. At each level the independent reality of the composing entities gets subsumed by the reality of the simple entity with the relevant powers. The substance grounds the reality of the organs. Organisms extrude their organs as logical constructions.

This is an intellectually respectable thesis. (We can, I think, stipulate that a philosophical thesis intellectually respectable to someone as smart as Thomas Aquinas is an intellectually respectable philosophical thesis.) I find it attractive and am thinking hard about ways to support it.

The problem with it continues to be the difficulty that bothered early modern philosophers too. Such ‘formalist’ explanatory strategies seem to make substances resistant to the analytical methods of science. As Leibniz mordantly put it,
It is as if we were content to say that a clock has a quality of clockness derived from its form without considering in what all of this consists; that would be sufficient for the person who buys the clock, provided that he turns over its care to another.
University of Texas philosopher Robert Koons proposes a second description: I am indeed a composite entity, not a simple one. At each level my parts, considered just in themselves, have certain powers (shmivers weigh 3½ pounds, reflect light, etc.) However, those parts (in virtue of their composition) have additional powers when functioning in a composite at a higher level.

On Koons’s view, then, shmivers do have the power to filter toxins. Or rather, they have the-power-to-have-the-power, in association with the other organs. The persistence of the organism is dependent at each moment on the exercise of its organs’ ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ powers. On the other hand, the power a shmiver has only in association with the other parts, the powers of a liver, is dependent on the persistence of the organism.

My liver is every bit as real as me. So we can explain in an analytical fashion how livers work in the body, and Leibniz’s difficulty is solved.

Tom Pyne
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Monday, October 2, 2017

The meaning of spirituality

This week we asked Philosophy faculty this question:

What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century? Is this desirable? Is the lack of it a moral failing? Does it require us to believe in a non physical plane of existence?

Saray Ayala

I take spirituality to come in two flavors. One of them contains an ontological commitment to some supernatural entity or process. This supernatural something, which might or might not coincide with what existent religions postulate, takes care of making our mortal and minute lives meaningful. Endorsing spirituality in this sense gives us some solace about our mortality.

The other flavor contains no ontological commitment with the supernatural. It is rather a way to approach the natural (and social) world. In this other sense of spirituality, the natural world is special, complex, and even meaningful enough. No need to postulate anything extra. This second sense can be expressed in a profound appreciation of life.


Garret Merriam

In my experience, when asked about their theological views, many people like to say they are 'spiritual, not religious.' I take this to reflect both a disenchantment with organized religion, and a desire for the existential value that religion has traditionally supplied. Some of these people no doubt believe (or would like to believe) in a god of some variety, or at least a vague 'higher power.' Others, though, do not believe in a god of any kind, yet some kind of cognitive dissonance prevents them from accepting the label 'atheist.' That label has (erroneous) cultural associations with nihilism, relativism, amorality, and meaninglessness that many people wish to eschew, even if technically the label does fit them. Calling themselves 'spiritual, not religious' gives them a psychological buffer, a label they can accept in place of 'atheist', one that gives them an affirmative identity, rather than simply a negative one.

So what does it mean to be 'spiritual' in general? I'm not sure. But in at least some cases, it means 'I am an atheist, but not comfortable telling other people--or even myself--that fact.'


Mathias Warnes

"Spiritual" denotes to me some type of enrollment or participation of the self in a personal understanding of ultimate meaning, and an attendant commitment to self-development in harmony with this meaning. I tend to think of the spiritual in continuity with ideas of the spirit in historical traditions. The Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus are all unfolded within scriptural or philosophical traditions that testify to the human experience of divine immanence, the numinous, world soul or world spirit, and the potentialities for human consciousness to fathom being, nature, life, the mystery, etc. To be spiritual still means for me something analogous to what the German Idealists called Geistesgechichte, or better, Heidegger’s Geschichte des Seyns (History of Being). 

It is desirable to be experienced in spiritual matters and initiations because they often combine aesthetic, ethical, and metaphysical insights in helpful or healing ways. To have metaphysical opinions about the existence or nonexistence of a spiritual world, or to partake in an epistemological skepticism, is a very different matter than having undergone an experience of spiritual immersion, for example, a vision quest or Peruvian ayahuasca ceremony. Human beings who are well versed in diverse spiritualities seem to me an asset in the 21st century. I do not believe spirituality requires us to posit a nonphysical plane, but I am open to the existence of such a plane. On these topics, I might recommend Schelling’s underappreciated attempt at a popular novel Clara: Or on Nature’s Connection with the Spirit World (1810).


Scott Merlino

I confess that I have no clear idea about what it means to be spiritual. ‘Spiritual’ is vague in the way ‘self’ and ‘race’ and ‘free will’ are. Most people disagree more than they agree on what such terms connote or denote. This is not to say ‘spiritual’ is useless or empty, especially in such utterances as “I am spiritual but not religious”. In this case I believe people express their personal attachment to some sort of non-material, enduring, authentic existence than what is offered in religious organizations. They are also taking care to distance themselves from conventional forms of religion, which for me is progress. It says, I think, that they are aware of the limits and risks of being religious, that there is a way to be compassionate, forgiving, and charitable without the trappings and authoritarianism of fusty institutions. The term ‘religious’ unlike ‘spiritual’ is vague at the boundaries, to be sure, but we can agree on some of the essentials. (See Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion for example.)


Marnie Binder

I believe that throughout history spirituality has resulted from our human inclination to have a need for meaning. We need explanations, we need meaning, and spirituality provides a sort of ad hoc answer to that – that, I believe, is key; that it can end search through this ad hoc essence of it. Spirituality crosses everything, and life without some sort of organized ontological, epistemological, and ethical explanation (not proof) can create so much anguish in people in that existential sense that Sartre so eloquently described. When we have no concrete proof, no satisfactory explanation, this is a time, among many, we may lean toward spirituality. Moreover, it can provide a particularly deep and comprehensive "meaning" for those who are very "spiritual," in whichever form it may manifest itself. Spirituality, I believe, is a circumstantial perspective to help us define our place in the world, and this is how any relativism, or at least consideration of relativism, in our experience of it may possibly be interpreted. We may start from an individual experience of it, and then proceed to find meaning in a more communal, situational circumstance.


David Corner

This is a difficult question to answer because the word “spiritual” is ambiguous.

I’m inclined to say that spirituality is an inherently religious notion, but that it means different things in different religions. Christians may associate spirituality with the supernatural, whatever that is- something non-physical, at least. But a Daoist might not. A Muslim would say that spirituality must involve a relationship with God. A Christian would agree, but a Buddhist would not.

Having said that, I do think that one can be spiritual, in a sense captured by some religion, without being an adherent of any religion. Hinduism and Buddhism might regard meditation as a spiritual practice, but one can meditate without being a Hindu or a Buddhist. Prayer is certainly a spiritual practice in the context of the Abrahamic religions, but one can pray without being a Christian or a Muslim.

On the other hand, the question of whether these practices are spiritual ones cannot be determined outside of any religious context. So, for example, one can imagine a Christian denying that meditation is a spiritual practice. A Buddhist might argue that theistic prayer, since it is predicated on belief in God, involves the denial of an important spiritual truth- the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Such a prayer could be taken as incompatible with one’s spiritual wellbeing.

This seems to imply an odd conclusion: That one can be spiritual without being religious, even though one cannot decide what qualifies as spiritual outside of some particular religious framework.


Tom Pyne

The first “spiritual but not religious” sophisticate was the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (545 BC).

Thus Xenophanes:
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and dark,
Thracians, that theirs are grey-eyed and red-haired.
He encouraged doubt about accepted religious practice like blood purification and the veneration of images.

But Xenophanes was no skeptic or atheist. In fact, he seems to have been an early practitioner of ‘Anselmian’ or ‘Perfect Being’ Theology:
…(W)hole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears…always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all…completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.
So there is indeed a divine order – the realm of metaphysical perfection. (The ‘Omni-God’ as Matt McCormick calls Him.)

However, this is not where such sophistication always leads. Often it results not in transcendence of religious tradition but mere substitution: in observing the forms of religious practice minus the content. Food taboos turn into a preoccupation with an ‘organic’ or non-GMO diet; carbon offsets are just the sale of ‘indulgences’; religion as the locus of ultimate goods is replaced by politics.

I find it amusing that now the deepest, most systematic, most revealing acquaintance with the divine order is to be found not in abandoning traditional religious practice but by more thorough commitment to it. No author from the ‘metaphysics’ section of the bookstore could have anything to offer Thomas Aquinas or Gautama Siddhartha. No yoga instructor would have anything to teach Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.


Randy Mayes

Human beings live their lives on at least four different value planes: material, social, intellectual and spiritual. To understand the spiritual we must distinguish it from the others.

Life on the material plane is about satisfying our basic needs and desires. Life on the others are attempts to transcend the material, seeking a source of value beyond ourselves.

Life on the social plane is about becoming a part of a larger human concern. This may provide material benefits, but the satisfaction that results from a willingness to sacrifice our material interests to those of our community is uniquely rewarding.

Life on the intellectual plane is an expression of our need for greater knowledge and understanding. Intellectuals are those who willingly sacrifice material and social benefits for the freedom to think. Science and philosophy are pursued most seriously by people who love ideas more than possessions or people.

Life on the spiritual plane is like life on the intellectual plane in that it attempts to transcend the social and material. But it arises from the feeling that there is an ultimate, fundamentally ineffable reality beyond intellectual comprehension. Spiritual people are those who make sincere attempts to connect with this world, even knowing that it is an intellectual absurdity to do so. Some forms of art, music, poetry, prayer and meditation are expressions of human spirituality.

This view of spirituality does not depend on religion or a belief in immaterial souls. But it may justifiably be accused of mysticism (whatever that means).


Russell DiSilvestro

My two parallel sets of answers to these four questions—with set (b) dependent on set (a)— reflect a book I read by Dallas Willard titled Renovation of the Heart.

1. What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century?
a. I am, or have, a “spiritual” dimension in a wide sense: an inner life accessible to me including thoughts, feelings, and a will/heart/”spirit” in a narrower sense: a capacity to choose or resist things. 
b. I live with an overarching goal of transforming my spirit(ual dimension).
  2. Is this desirable?
a. Yes—and unavoidable. 
b. It depends on both the means and the end of said transformation.
3. Is the lack of it a moral failing?
a. No—lots of good and beautiful things do not have a spirit and are not in the wrong for not having one. 
b. Yes—unless I am already morally perfect.
4. Does it require us to believe in a non-physical plane of existence?
a. Interestingly, no—while I believe my spirit(ual dimension) is indeed non-physical, and that “spirit” can be defined generally as non-bodily personal power, I also believe that one can be a non-physical entity without believing in a non-physical plane of existence.
b. Again, no: while I may not cultivate something well unless I believe the truth about it, I can often cultivate my spirit(ual dimension) despite having frequent doubts and flat denials about its reality and nature. Perhaps reality is surprisingly forgiving of such failures.