Sunday, April 16, 2017

Poverty or bullets?

There are many parts of immigration law and policy that are morally problematic, but one that seems to have drawn less attention than others is the distinction between political refugees and other migrants, sometimes referred to as ‘economic migrants.’

The US State Department defines a refugee as “someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, refugees are of “special humanitarian concern.”

An economic migrant can be defined as someone who has fled from his or her home state for other reasons, such as extreme economic hardship, poverty, or famine. These individuals are often perceived as foreigners who are seeking prosperity or a better life for themselves and their children. When a state has to limit the number of foreigners granted admission, priority is usually given to political refugees over other migrants. The reason for this may be that the needs of political refugees are more urgent because they lack even the basic good of membership in a state.[1] Or, the reason may be that, because political refugees are denied certain basic rights by their state of origin, a liberal state that believes that everyone should be protected by certain basic rights ought to extend these rights to those who are stateless and therefore unprotected.[2][3] Whatever the reason, many states extend to refugees special consideration and prioritize them over other migrants seeking admission.

I want to challenge this practice of giving priority to political refugees. This is not because political refugees do not deserve special consideration, but because other migrants are equally deserving. 

Here are two lines of argument.

Argument 1

Henry Shue argues that the distinction between a political refugee and an economic migrant is not as sharp and significant as it may appear. If the state is concerned about how best to use its scarce resources, it doesn’t make sense to prioritize political rights because subsistence rights are equally basic and satisfying subsistence rights do not involve any more resources than the satisfaction of political rights.

1a. Applying Shue’s argument for a basic right to subsistence rights, we can say:
(1) Everyone has a right to freedom of association.
(2) Minimum economic security is necessary to enjoy one’s freedom of association.
(3) Therefore, everyone also has rights to minimum economic security.[4] 
Shue defines subsistence or ‘minimum economic security’ to mean “unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter, and minimum preventive public health care.”[5]  Subsistence rights are basic too.

1b. While some assume that the satisfaction of subsistence rights is more onerous or less urgent, this assumption is flawed. Some may believe that the satisfaction of subsistence rights involves positive duties, while respect for political rights, especially security rights, involves only negative duties. As Shue explains, both subsistence and security rights involve three kinds of correlative duties: not to destroy or deprive, to protect, and to provide. Sometimes all that is needed to satisfy a person’s subsistence rights is not to destroy that person’s capacity to be self-supporting. Shue discusses several cases of foreign intervention in developing countries as examples of a violation of even the duty to avoid deprivations. Contrary to the popular assumption that security rights involve only or primarily negative duties, we can think of all that is required to ensure national security or public safety: the training and maintenance of a police force; providing courts, lawyers, and prisons; and developing an entire system of criminal law and punishment. While it is easy to assume that one can satisfy another person’s security rights by simply not harming her, the reality is that this involves the provision of many costly resources. 

The deprivation of security rights is usually perceived as more urgent. Consequently, when one state deprives a person of his or her security rights, that person enjoys the right to asylum in another state. But what about a refugee who is fleeing a regime that, deliberately or otherwise, deprives him or her of economic security—i.e., subsistence? In applying Shue’s analysis, the distinction between political refugees and economic migrants is not as sharp and significant; it cannot do the work of justifying the prioritization of political refugees.

2. The second line of argument is this: Even if we accept the current definition of a refugee under US and international law, proper administration of refugee law depends crucially on fair decisions regarding who qualifies under the definition. But when it comes to economic migrants, these decisions are not fair. This is basically the argument offered by James Nickel.[6]

Writing in the mid-80’s, Nickel noted that the Reagan administration’s position on those applying for asylum from certain states in Central America was that these applicants were not motivated by fear of persecution, but merely fleeing poverty and seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Nickel specifically observed that the Reagan administration generally denied refugee status to applicants for political asylum from places such as El Salvador. Only 3% of the applications from El Salvador were granted, as compared to 14% from Nicaragua and 30% from Poland.[7] The State Department’s decisions on applications for asylum may reflect, rather than a fair application of the qualification, US foreign policy concerning the state of origin, including whether the US has sponsored or supported the regime (see Dirty Hands). Rather than a fair administration of law, the decisions are political and sometimes discriminate against Central American and Mexicanmigrants

Why do I think this is such an important part of the immigration debate? Because if we had recognized these so-called ‘economic migrants’ as entering lawfully in the first place, our current mess might have been avoided.   

Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State




[1] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
[2] Stefan Heuser, “Is There a Right to Have Rights? The Case of the Right of Asylum,”
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11 (1): 3-13 (2008).
[3] The reason may be a legal one; the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Refugee Protocol, and the US Refugee Act of 1980 require certain protections including the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of a refugee to his state of origin where he or she might be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular political group or political opinion.
[4] See Shue, Basic Rights (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 31.
[5] Shue, supra, p. 23.
[6] James Nickel, Sanctuary, Asylum and Civil Disobedience, In Defense of the Alien 8 (1985): 176-187.
[7] Nickel, supra, at p. 178, fn. 4.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sex, Witches and Phlogiston

Categories are great. Categorization practices make the complexity of the world manageable. Like everything else in science, categorizations are not perfect, and revisions are needed. We used to categorize Pluto as a planet, but not anymore (it’s smaller than we thought). Sometimes we have good reasons to abandon a category. It happened to phlogiston and witches. I argue that current sex categories, female/male (F/M), should face the same fate of witches and phlogiston: we should abandon them.

There are two different lines of argument for my claim. First, F/M do not do the work they are supposed to do. F/M are not descriptively accurate. More and more research indicates that sex dimorphism is a myth. There are at least six markers related to sex (chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia, and internal genitalia) and they are not binary but can take, for each individual, different values along a spectrum (see e.g. here and here .)

Someone might count as male along one dimension and female in others. Individual variability in human bodies is not exceptional, but a norm. For this reason, F/M fails. To use a favorite in the philosophical jargon: it doesn’t “carve nature at its joints”. The Olympic committee ignores this evidence and insists on searching for the sex test that reveals who is a female and who is not. In the meantime, they ruin the careers of athletes (see here:  and here: ). They do not get the hint that sex is not about two kinds of people. Fortunately, more people are starting to accept this, and to realize the impact this should have on how we run our societies (here is a piece by California judge Noël Wise on how science does not support the legal requirement to determine whether someone is female or male).

But wait, isn’t it true that F/M categories help us successfully predict reality most of the time? That is, isn’t it true that if someone has XX chromosomes, you’ll be right most of the time if you predict that this person also has breasts, no facial hair, vagina, and uses the female public restrooms? Yes, there are regularities in relation to sex. However, this does not save F/M. Here is why. The reason why F/M categories are so often predictively successful is not the right reason, at least not all the time. We trust our categories because they get things right for the right reasons. We would not hold dear a category that helps us make good predictions by chance, or because we manipulate reality to fit the category. Usually, when we make a prediction about an entity appealing to its category membership (e.g. “this mushroom is edible, it’s a chanterelle”), we assume that what makes our prediction correct or incorrect has to do with properties of the entity; not chance, not our own skills tailoring reality to fit the category (Pluto cannot change its mass to fit the category of planet). We trust our categories because they parse the world in some interesting and systematic way and do so independent of anyone’s wishes (Pluto’s included). 

F/M, however, work differently. When they help make successful predictions, quite often they do so because reality adjusts to them. That is, we shape the world and ourselves to fit them. We wax, dress, and work out in particular ways to mask any deviations from the ideal dimorphism; we also get hormonal treatments and are even forced to undergo surgical interventions (as in the case of many intersex children.). A big part of the statistical regularities we observe are the result of our orchestrated determination to keep the F/M system working. If we care about why these regularities hold, as opposed to merely whether or not they hold, we see that the F/M picture is a poor caricature of the complexity of human bodies that works mostly because we are too in love with it.

The second line of argument appeals to moral and political reasons: F/M should be abandoned because the distinction does more harm than good. It imposes a norm on our complex bodies that for many is not possible to follow, and this inflicts harm (psychological and social punishments, unwarranted medical diagnoses and unnecessary interventions). For those who seem to fit the norm, it requires a cognitive, economic and social effort they could be spending on something more interesting and beneficial. Moreover, F/M is at the basis of one of the deepest divisions in our societies: women vs men. This division has historically worked to the benefit of the latter, although it is in general detrimental to every individual. Gender norms, based on sex dimorphism, are a burden we carry on every single day of our lives.

Using political and moral considerations to argue against the appropriateness of a scientific theory or category is dangerous: you might be accused of being anti-scientific. Let’s call this the naïve science lover (NSL) response. NSL urges us not to let our concerns for equality and social justice trump science. “Just look at the facts”, the NSL says, “there are females and males, clearly distinguished, everywhere”. But as I mentioned above, scientific research indicates that sexed bodies are much more complex than that. Evidence accumulates that questions long-accepted truths about differences between females and males. In this case the facts align with the political concerns. 

Amongst other flaws, NSL assumes that ordinary observed statistical regularities directly and straightforwardly tell you how reality is. This is not how science works. We need to ask why those regularities happen, and whether the underlying mechanism is independent of the very categorization practice. Some categories, F/M amongst them, influence the things they categorize. Ian Hacking calls these “looping effects.” We ourselves create much of the statistical regularities observed about sex. Taking statistical regularities as an accurate representation of the world is pretty much behaving like an internet search engine. And we don’t even call that intelligence.

In sum, either as a response to current scientific research on the complexity of sexed bodies, or to political considerations, or both, we need to rethink what current sex categories, female & male, do for us. I personally invite them to join witches and phlogiston.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Gale-Pruss cosmological argument for the existence of God

Richard Gale and Alexander Pruss have advanced an interesting update on the traditional Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.[i] This argument begins with some definitions.

A possible world is a “maximal, compossible conjunction of abstract propositions. It is maximal in that, for every proposition p, either p is a conjunct in this conjunction or its negation, not-p, is, and it is compossible in that it is conceptually or logically possible that all of the conjuncts be true.”[ii]

The Big Conjunctive Fact for a possible world consists of the conjunction of all of the propositions that would be true if that world were the actual world.  Some of these are necessarily true. But the Big Conjunctive Fact of each possible world also contains propositions that are contingently true- true in some possible worlds and not in others. Each possible world contains a unique conjunction of contingent propositions. Gale-Pruss refer to this as the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact, or BCCF. It is the BCCF of a world that individuates that world, distinguishing it from all other possible worlds. Let p be the BCCF of the actual world.

Is there an explanation for p- an explanation for why this particular set of contingent facts is the case, rather than not?

At this point the defender of a traditional Cosmological Argument would introduce the Principle of Sufficient Reason:

For every proposition, p, if p is true, then there is a proposition, q, that explains p.

But it may not be reasonable to expect the skeptic to accept this principle. In its stead, Gale-Pruss offer a weaker form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason:

For any proposition, p, if p is true, then it is possible that there exists a proposition, q, such that q explains p.

Unlike traditional cosmological arguments, Gale-Pruss’ argument does not require us to assume that there actually is an explanation for p. It only needs to be possible that there is such an explanation. Gale-Pruss assert that it is: There is some possible world, W1, in which p is true, and in W1, some proposition q is true, and q explains p.

Now, are W1 and the actual world the same world? Gale-Pruss insist that they are. For p is the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact of the actual world; p is true in W1, and the BCCF of a given world is what individuates it. Therefore, there is some proposition q that is true in the actual world and explains p, the BCCF of the actual world. Now, what sort of explanation is it?

According to Gale-Pruss there are only two kinds of explanation: Scientific, and personal. Personal explanations are explanations in terms of the intentions of some person. But q cannot be a scientific explanation. A scientific explanation “must contain some law-like proposition, as well as a proposition reporting a state of affairs at some time.”[iii] But these are contingent propositions, and therefore members of p. Yet they purport to explain p, as well as each proposition contained within p, which means they would explain themselves, and this is impossible.

Therefore q must be a personal explanation. Now what sort of person does q invoke? It cannot be a contingently existing being, since a proposition asserting the existence of a contingently existing being would be part of p and once again, q would explain itself. So q explains p, the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact of the actual world, by reference to the intentional action of a necessary being. The proposition q, then, asserts something like this:

               “There exists a necessary being who intentionally creates the world.” [iv]

Analysis

Gale-Pruss treat q as though it is not one of the member-conjuncts of p. This is well motivated. For one thing, if q were contained within p, the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact of the actual world, then q would be part of the very state of affairs that it hopes to explain. But worse than this, to define p as the BCCF of the actual world, and then to presume that q is contained within p, is to presume at the outset that the actual world is explained by the intentions of a necessary being, and this is what the argument seeks to prove.

And yet, as Gale-Pruss acknowledge, q is a contingent proposition,[v] and so prima facie, one would think that for any possible world, either it, or its negation, is a member-conjunct of that world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact.[vi] But let us set this observation aside and follow Gale-Pruss in treating q as though it is not contained within p.

Since q is a contingent proposition, there are possible worlds in which it is not true. That means that in addition to W1, which contains p and in which p is explained by q, there is another possible world, W2, which contains p, and in which p is not explained by q, because it is not true in W2 that there is a necessary being who intentionally creates that world. As it turns out, if a Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact does not contain either q, or its negation, then pace Gale and Pruss, it does not individuate a possible world.

This means that a world’s containing p does not imply that it is identical with the actual world. Gale and Pruss are not entitled to infer, from the fact that p is true in W1, that W1 is identical with the actual world, since p is true in W2 as well.

The actual world is identical with one of these worlds, W1 or W2, but the Gale-Pruss argument leaves us with no reason to prefer one over the other. Since they hoped to prove that the existence of the actual world is explained by the intentions of a necessary being, and they can do this only if they can show that the actual world is identical with W1 rather than W2, Gale and Pruss’ argument fails.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State



[i] “A New Cosmological Argument,” Richard M. Gale and Alexander R. Pruss; Religious Studies, vol 35, Number 4 (Dec 1999), pp. 461-476
[ii] “A New Cosmological Argument,” p. 461. For a more detailed explanation of the notion of a possible world, see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/possible-worlds/.
[iii] Ibid. p 465
[iv] Gale-Pruss realize that they have not proven the existence of the God of Western theism, since they have not proven that this being is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent. They require only that God be powerful enough to create the actual world. But they think- and I agree- that their more limited conclusion is still an interesting one.
[v] In fact they argue for this claim on p. 466ff
[vi] It seems likely that Gale-Pruss are thinking of q as having some kind of special status that sets it apart from ordinary contingent facts. Perhaps they wish to say that it is a supernatural fact, because it reports the intentions of a necessary being. (On p. 468 they claim that a necessary being is a supernatural one.) In this case p is really the Big Conjunctive Contingent Natural Fact. I do not have space to pursue this suggestion here, which does not, in any case, seem to affect my analysis.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A dilemma for elementalism

Teaching history of philosophy always produces in me a lively sense of contingency in intellectual history. One example stands out: Leucippus and Democritus proposed an atomic theory around 440 B.C. This striking proposal ran into the sand, however, and never produced a viable research program.

Why not? All you need, technically speaking, are devices for measuring and weighing small amounts of material fairly precisely. The ability to do that was not significantly greater in the early 1800’s when Dalton and Avogadro succeeded in reviving atomism.

I used to think that the Greek atomists just had the rotten luck to live at the same time as two of history’s greatest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Atomism, though right, lost the dialectical battle.

I now think that western philosophy tacks between two strategies for explaining What Goes On.

One strategy explains the properties and behavior of entities by appeal to composition: the properties and behavior of the fundamental objects that make the entity up. Call this strategy ‘Elementalism’.

The other strategy explains the properties and behavior of entities by appeal to their kind: and a full understanding of the essential properties of the kind will explain what the entity does. Call this strategy ‘Formalism’.

Formalism dominated from 400 BC until 1400 AD. Our course in early modern philosophy is the story of its overthrow by elementalism in the Scientific Revolution.

Either strategy yields philosophical problems, problems which the other strategy tends to solve – at least for a time.

The main problem besetting any elementalism is composition.

Matthew hits a baseball toward the house and breaks a window. [1]

Elementalism explains this by the bonds which hold atoms together into molecules: the molecules forming the baseball (B) and the window (G). The velocity of B on G is sufficient to disturb the molecular bonds of G.

This explanation makes no reference to the baseball, the window, or to Matthew. What matters for causal explanation is what goes on at the level of B and G. Baseballs, windows, and teenagers with poor judgment may as well not be there. Since we need not countenance them in order to make our best (elementalist) theories true, we can be anti-realists about macro-objects.

If we wish to believe in baseballs and grandchildren – and we do – we could suppose they supervene on the fundamental particles. But then they're epiphenomenal: their presence makes no difference in the world.

If they’re to make a difference, we seem to be committed to saying not only that “Events involving B cause events involving G,” but also “Events involving the baseball cause events involving the window.”

But that gives us two causal relations: double determination. What goes on is over-oomphed.

Indeed, since we have many levels operating:
  • atomic
  • molecular
  • macro- (baseballs and windows)
  • physiological (Matthew’s hitting the baseball)
  • neural (events in Matthew’s brain causing his motor movements)
  • mental (Matthew’s ill-considered decision to hit the ball toward the house)
what goes on is umptly over-oomphed.

Here’s the dilemma.

Either:

The higher-level events purportedly involving higher-level entities are not, strictly and literally, real events at all, or derivatively real.

But then they would be entirely epiphenomenal – not really part of the causal story of the world.

Or:

They are real, with their own causal relations.

But then ‘what goes on in the world‘ is over-determined.

In short, the constant dilemma with elementalism is that it threatens to give us either too little reality (no grandchildren) or way too much. Indeed, since there may be no limit to the number of levels at which causal explanation can take place unintelligibly too much.

But we thought elementalism was superior as an explanatory strategy.

Does formalism do any better? Arguably, yes.

One promising formalist strategy currently emerging is a revival of Aristotelian-style Hylomorphism. Robert Koons gives a nifty summary of the current state of this research project. [2]

On Koons’ version, the causal powers of a substance’s parts become powers of the whole substance, and so the over-determination problem doesn’t arise:

“(I)f I stand on a scale, is it I (as a whole) or my parts (collectively) that cause the pointer to move? If the powers associated with weight have migrated from my proper parts to me, my weight can be the unique and non-redundant cause of the scale’s response.” (Koons 2014, 8).

Tom Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Diagnosing the abortion debate

Reporting back in January showed that abortion rates have fallen to levels lower than any year since 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision, and reflect about a 50% decrease in the rate from its peak in 1981. The study, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, which favors legal protections for a right to have abortions, cites as causal factors greater access to contraception as well as laws in many states that restrict clinics or require ultrasounds. Of course, pro-life groups still ultimately want to see Roe overturned. This would mean that individual states would determine what legal restrictions, if any, would apply to people seeking and providing abortions.

Abortion rights and restrictions pose a special challenge to the justificatory test for legitimate coercion in the law that I’ve defended in my work in political philosophy. That principle says, roughly, that for coercion to be legitimate, it must be publicly justified, or based on reasoning that is public in the requisite sense. For example, on Rawls’ view, public justification is grounded in reasons that all can reasonably accept. The test excludes reasons that are not reasonably acceptable to all from being able to do justificatory work and so prevents these reasons from being a legitimate basis for law.

For a variety of reasons I won’t rehearse, I favor a more recent specification of the principle by Jerry Gaus at the University of Arizona. His view is more permissive in that any of a citizen’s reasons may play a part in justifying laws. Laws can be justified to each citizen on the basis of their complete set of beliefs, values and commitments, so long as these are intelligible. Any intelligible reason can feature within the overall public justification of a law. However, people whose beliefs, values and commitments provide them with an intelligible rationale for rejecting it have a defeater for it and, when that’s true, it’s illegitimate to subject them to it. The law would lack authority from their point of view.

What does this view make of the abortion controversy? First, notice how easy things would be if this disagreement weren’t based on reasonable considerations. If it were flatly unreasonable to deny fetal personhood, then it would be much easier to justify a law against abortion. And if it were flatly unreasonable to ascribe personhood to fetuses, then there would no accounting for such a law. But reasonable people disagree about fetal personhood.

More: both parties to this disagreement reasonably believe that the other side is involved in imposing serious harms to the interests of others. This means that abortion law will lack authority for pro-choicers if pro-lifers have their way politically. It’s relatively obvious how this is so: pro-choicers have an intelligible rationale grounded in their beliefs, values and commitments for rejecting various restrictions on abortion. These restrictions violate privacy or bodily autonomy. But abortion law will also lack authority for pro-lifers when pro-choicers have their way politically. The reason is that, since pro-lifers reasonably believe that fetuses are persons with a right not to be killed, they have adequate justification for protecting them by imposing coercive measures that increase the costs of people killing them. Pro-lifers have an intelligible rationale for rejecting laws that carve out space for women to kill their child.

This situation, then, describes something like a moral state of nature between the two sides. We’ve failed to achieve coordination. Pro-choicers know that, even after engaging in careful and respectable reflection on the relevant moral and empirical evidence, pro-lifers won’t acknowledge the right of women to have an abortion. Public reason has run out. But this doesn’t mean that they just let pro-lifers violate women’s bodily autonomy. Pro-choicers are left as their only option taking up what P.F. Strawson called the objective attitude towards pro-lifers. They will see pro-lifers as a force to be reckoned with, managed and kept at bay as best they can as they go about their affairs, but that’s different than exercising genuinely normative authority over them.

In the same way, pro-lifers know that abortion-seekers won’t acknowledge the personhood of fetuses, even after careful and respectable reflection on the relevant moral and empirical evidence. Public reason has run out for them, too. But this doesn’t mean that pro-lifers just let women seeking abortions kill their children. From the pro-life perspective, women seeking abortions are doing something similar to driving a car towards a person in the street they can’t see. They have reason to stop her or make her swerve. In other words, pro-lifers similarly must treat abortion-seekers as mere objects of social policy rather than people with whom they are interacting on genuinely moral terms.

Disagreement doesn’t always lead to this kind of social breakdown of public reasoning and moral community. I can think of some other examples, but it’s relatively rare, which is a good thing. It also seems pretty isolated most of the time -- thankfully, a disagreement and breakdown in this area hasn’t led to a more general breakdown of moral relations among people who are on opposite sides of the abortion issue. Most people even have friends who disagree with them about abortion.

In fact, I suspect that this lends some credibility to the explanation of the abortion debate that I’ve offered here. It’s a case where we are forced to take the objective attitude towards our opponents because it turns out that they aren’t true moral subjects of the proposed requirements. Strawson’s participant reactive attitudes wouldn’t be warranted since they suggest serious culpability for violating something everyone is in on and knows better than to do. Sure, one side calls the other “murderers” and the other calls the one “women-haters” but we don’t generally act like we regard each other as such.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The trouble with moral thought experiments

In last week's post Garret Merriam argued that the famous brain-in-a-vat thought experiment is incoherent.  In this post I argue that many popular moral thought experiments are flawed as well. I won't argue that they are incoherent; rather, I claim that they tend to presume and promote a flawed understanding of human decision-making.

So first a few words about that:

Human beings are social animals. We have learned to cooperate with one another in order to acquire goods that we can not easily secure in isolation.  In every human society adults are expected to do two things: (1) manage their personal affairs, and (2) respect the rules that make the benefits of cooperation possible.

On any given day we make thousands of almost entirely self-interested decisions.  Most are trivial, such as which word I should use to finish this taco. Some are more significant, such as whether to head for the beach or the mountains on Sunday. In each case I am just doing my best to figure out which of two options will deliver the greatest personal utility. (I am not saying that these actions have no moral significance, only that we do not typically make moral considerations when deciding whether to perform them.) We also, though less commonly, make decisions that are almost entirely moral in nature.  For example, I may be completely committed to helping you move to a new apartment, deliberating only on how I can be of greatest assistance.

But the more interesting decisions occur when both types of considerations are salient. The magic of well-organized societies is that they tend to support the same conclusion. When my alarm rings in the morning I haul my butt out of bed and drive to work. This is because it would be bad for me not to and wrong of me as well. Sometimes, however, these considerations support different decisions.  It might be morally better to help you on move day; still, it is shaping up to be beautiful outside and I would much rather go for a hike. In situations like this I have to decide whether to do what is right, or to do what I like.

When doing moral philosophy we sometimes wrongly suppose that whenever considerations of morality and self-interest come into conflict, we ought to do the morally right thing.  But this is incorrect. Of course it is tautological that morally we ought to, but we are not always expected to sacrifice our own interests for the benefit of others. Rather, when decisions like this arise, we weigh what we ought to do morally against what we ought to do prudentially, and make the best decision we can. This is easier said than done, especially since these two types of value are not obviously fungible. But it is our task, nonetheless.

Now for the problem with moral thought experiments:

Most moral thought experiments are intended to bring out a conflict between different ways of thinking about morality, typically between a utilitarian and a deontological approach. In the  trolley problem, e.g., it is first established that most people judge that one ought to pull a switch that would divert a runaway trolley so that it kills the fewest possible people.  Later we see that most of us also judge that one ought not to push a fat man off a bridge to precisely the same effect. Some philosophers argue that this shows that we are prone to making inconsistent moral judgments. Others claim that we must be detecting morally relevant differences between the two cases.

I don't think either of these conclusions is warranted. This experiment, and others like it, are flawed.

The flaw is that the hypothetical situation described in thought experiments like these are presented as if they constitute a purely moral decision. As noted above, these do occur in everyday life, but scenarios like the trolley problem don't approximate them.  Rather, they provide a decision in which considerations of self-interest and morality are both salient.

This is easily seen in the trolley problem. In each case there is a non trivial question concerning what is best for society as well as what is best for me. In the switch-pulling version, considerations of morality and self-interest more or less coincide. I calculate that pulling the switch is the best outcome for society and also the result I can live with personally. In the fat man version, these considerations collide. Sure, pushing the man off the bridge will save lives. But in the future I suspect I will suffer nightmares too intense to bear.

Some may respond impatiently: This is just the familiar sophomoric complaint that the thought experiment is unrealistic. All thought experiments are unrealistic, that is why they are thought experiments rather than real ones. Philosophers know that considerations of self interest play a role in real life, but we ask that you do your best to bracket these considerations in an effort to develop a clearer understanding of morality.

That is not good enough.

Just how are we supposed to bracket considerations of self-interest in this case? Are we asked to disregard our moral emotions altogether?  It is these, after all, that predict a future I wish to avoid. But to do that is to squelch one of our main sources of moral evidence as well. Alternatively, should we allow ourselves to pay attention to the moral emotions, but only for the purpose of moral judgment, taking care (a) not to let considerations of self-interest infect these judgments, and (b) not to confuse the best decision with the morally correct one?

Wow. I have never heard the trolley problem presented like that. It is is not at all clear that we have this ability. But if it could somehow be trained up, I'm betting we would end up with a very different data set.

G. Randolph Mayes
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to build a brain in a vat

Philosophers love thought experiments. They're fun, memorable, engaging tools for getting us to think about perplexing intellectual or moral problems. When engineered well, thought experiments can shed light on obscure concepts, raise challenging questions for dominant modes of thought, or guide us to recognize a conflict between two deeply held intuitions. When engineered poorly, however, they can instill a false sense of understanding or create needless confusion in the guise of profundity. Sadly, many of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy are engineered poorly.

Consider one of the most famous modern examples of this problem, Gilbert Harman's "Brain-in-a-Vat" thought experiment.[1] A descendant of Rene Descartes' "evil demon" hypothesis[2], this thought experiment is designed to motivate general skepticism about sense perception and the external world. What if, we are asked to imagine, you're not really here right now, but instead you are just a disembodied brain, suspended in fluid, with a complex computer stimulating your brain in all the right places to artificially create the experiences you take yourself to be having. For example, the computer could send signals to your visual cortex making you think you’re looking at a blog post on The Dance of Reason, when in fact you’re looking at no such thing, because you have no eyes. Hypothetically, the thought experiment says, there would be no way to tell the difference between a reality where your brain is directly stimulated in this way, and one where you actually have a body that interacts with the world at large. Given this indistinguishability, how can we ever really rely on our senses? How can we ever have any kind of empirical knowledge at all?



Many late-night hours have been spent trying to answer this skeptical riddle. As an intellectual puzzle, an amusing game to getting us thinking, or to kick start a conversation in an intro to philosophy course, it works just fine. But as a tool for trying to understand how humans know the world, it is deeply misleading.

The problem, in short, is that neurologically speaking conscious experience simply does not work the way this thought experiment presumes it does. The brain is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for having experiences. This is not because, as Descartes argued, we have some nonphysical aspect to our mental lives, but rather because a disembodied brain is physiologically incapable of producing the panoply of experiences that we all have every day.

Consider, for example, emotions. While the processing of emotions takes place in the brain the key ingredients that make up the neurocorrelates of emotions—hormones and neurotransmitters—are created by the endocrine system, the network of glands distributed throughout the body.[3] Without these glands you would never feel love, anger, sorrow, joy, lust, hunger or disgust. The absence of these feelings would be a dead giveaway that you were a disembodied brain in a vat.[4]

But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to an endocrine system, you would need circulatory and lymphatic systems to transport the hormones from the glands to the (very specific!) parts of the brain where they are needed in order to give rise to specific emotions. You would also need a digestive system to get the chemical precursors that fuel the endocrine system, while your integumentary system (skin, hair) is essential for flushing byproducts the other systems can’t use. Lastly, all those organs need to be supported by something, making a skeletal system indispensible as well.

In short, the only way to build a brain in a vat is to make the vat out of a human body.

I suspect two objections are occurring in your brain right now. First off, how do I know we need these systems to feel emotions? What if I only think that because the evil genius programming the computer controlling my brain has led me to believe this in the first place? Haven’t I failed to take the force of the skeptical argument seriously?

Okay, I reply, but how do we know we even need a brain in the first place? Why doesn’t the thought-experiment work if it’s just a vat and a computer? For that matter, how do we know there are such things as vats or computers or evil geniuses at all? In order to be expressible in language the thought experiment has to be grounded in something, some kind of experience that explains how our experiences might be systematically misled. If the skeptic can help themselves to a host of experience-based ideas to fund their thought experiment it seems disingenuous of them to object when I do the same to defund it.

The second objection charges me with taking the thought experiment too literally. The point of the thought experiment was to explore epistemology and the limits of our sense perception, not the neuroanatomical foundations of our emotions. We can acknowledge the facts about the physiological basis for hormones and still benefit from pondering fantastic hypotheticals such as these.

This objection precisely illustrates the problem with thought experiments I mentioned in the first paragraph. Epistemology is not bounded by the limits of our imaginations alone. Human beings come to know things by using our brains and bodies, and the empirical realities of those brains and bodies places constraints on what knowledge can be, how it can work, and how we can attain it. When we abstract away from real flesh-and-neuron human beings we are left with nothing human in our epistemology. Whatever is leftover has little bearing on anything worth caring about.

Thought experiments that are accountable only to our imaginations are unlikely to provide us with insight into complex topics like the true nature of minds, morality or metaphysics. As Daniel Dennett says, “The utility of a thought experiment is inversely proportional to the size of its departures from reality.”[5] If we want to contemplate skepticism and the limits of sense perception, there are plenty of ways to engineer realistic thought experiments based on the real-world limitations of the human brain.

Garret Merriam
Department of Philosophy
University of Southern Indiana


[1] Harman, Gilbert (1973). Thought, p5. Princeton University Press 

[2] Descartes, René, (1641), The Meditations Concerning First Philosophy, (John Veitch trans., The Online Library of Liberty 1901 Meditation II, paragraph 2.

[3] Ironically, the endocrine system includes the pineal gland, which Rene Descartes speculated was the point of contact between our immaterial minds and our material brains. Rather than serving as a magic intermediary between two metaphysical planes, the pineal gland is part of what grounds the brain squarely within the body itself.

[4] It is only fair to mention that three parts of the endocrine system—the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the pineal gland—are technically housed inside the brain. The supporter of the Brain-in-a-Vat argument could perhaps lay fair claim to these, as they would be included in the terms of the original thought experiment. None the less, the other parts of the endocrine system (including the thyroid, the adrenal glands, the gonads, and other glands) are distributed throughout the body placing them well out of play for the original thought experiment.

[5] Dennett, Daniel C. (2014), Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, p.183, Norton, W.W. & Company, Inc.