Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Excuse Me?

“I never knew!” That was my go-to excuse when I was a kid. Whenever I was caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, I would try to absolve myself from blame by suggesting that I didn’t know that I was doing something wrong. I thought that I shouldn’t be blamed if I didn’t know any better. But excuses come in many shapes and sizes. And in this blog post, I’m interested in a different kind of purported excuse: “I was manipulated!” Is manipulation a legitimate excuse?

A number of philosophers have suggested that being manipulated can excuse one from blame or responsibility. But many of these focus on bizarre thought experiments—involving evil neurosurgeons that can implant desires (Pereboom 2001) or omniscient demigods that can create an evil person by creating a particular zygote under deterministic conditions (Mele 2006). I tend to agree with the sentiment recently expressed by Prof. Merriam that we should be somewhat skeptical about what we can learn through such fanciful thought experiments, but the idea that manipulation diminishes or eliminates blameworthiness can be found is more realistic thought experiments.[1] One of Derk Pereboom’s cases (case 3 in his famous four-case argument against compatibilism) is not so outlandish:

       “[Plum] was determined by the rigorous training practices of his home and community so that he      is often but not exclusively rationally egoistic… His training took place at too early an age for him to have had the ability to prevent or alter the practices that determined his character… He has the general ability to grasp, apply, and regulate his behavior by moral reasons, but in these circumstances, the egoistic reasons are very powerful, and hence the rigorous training practices of his upbringing… result in his act of murder. Nevertheless, he does not act because of an irresistible desire.”

Plum ends up committing murder; he kills White for selfish reasons. To make the case even more forceful, let’s stipulate that Plum’s manipulators’ intentions were nefarious. They purposefully raised and trained him this way because they wanted him to end up killing White.

Many seem to think that Plum is not fully blameworthy, or at least less blameworthy than he would have been had he not been intentionally manipulated by some other agents. For some reason, if an agent was influenced by an intentional manipulator then she seems less blameworthy than she would be sans manipulator.

Note that the difference in blameworthiness cannot be accounted for by a difference in the actual psychologies of the agent in question. Empirical tests suggest that people tend to judge X as less blameworthy than Y when X and Y have identical psychologies and perform identical action types, but differ only in their personal histories where X’s psychology was partially due to intentional manipulation and Y’s psychology was not (Phillips and Shaw 2015).

This raises an important question. How can two people with identical psychologies performing identical action types in identical contexts not be identically blameworthy? This is difficult question for those who claim that being manipulated is a legitimate excuse. If two people have identical psychologies and perform identical action types, then it seems they should both be blameworthy to the same degree. However, if we accept this, then we must deny that manipulation is a legitimate excuse. And if we deny that manipulation is a legitimate excuse, then we have some explaining to do: if manipulated agents are blameworthy, why are we inclined to blame them less when we find out that they’ve been manipulated?

I think that manipulation is not a legitimate excuse. Plum is just as blameworthy for killing White as he would have been sans manipulation. And to meet the explanatory burden of why we’re tempted to think that manipulation diminishes responsibility, I have some suggestions.

First, I think that we downplay the blame of some agents in our search for ultimate blame. When someone is manipulated we take note that the manipulated agent becomes something like a pawn in the manipulator’s game. Suppose X manipulates Y into doing Z. When I ask whether Y is responsible for doing Z, I am tempted along this line of thinking: “It’s not really Y’s fault. X is the one to blame!” I think this line of thinking is misguided since it is possible for there to be plenty of blame and responsibility to go around—both X and Y can be blameworthy. But, when assigning blame, I am inclined to be most angry with the person that is ultimately responsible for whatever happened and I think that this clouds my judgment about the blameworthiness of the pawns.

Second, it’s important to note that the practice of blaming involves the moral emotions; it involves negative attitudes like resentment or indignation—what P. F. Strawson called reactive attitudes. To blame someone is not merely to have a belief about them; it is to take a negative affective stance toward them and regard them as deserving of some form of punishment. But there are other moral emotions, too. If someone is wronged, we feel sadness or compassion for them. And the manipulated agent occupies a strange place for our moral emotions. He is deserving of indignation and resentment, but he is also deserving of sadness or compassion; he is both victim (of manipulation) and victimizer (by committing the wrong that he was manipulated into doing). These moral emotions are in tension and I suspect that the compassionate attitude is inappropriately diminishing the indignation.

So if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you can blame me—even if I was manipulated into writing this.

Timothy Houk
Department of Philosophy
University of California, Davis

[1] Also, in criminal law a defendant’s adverse past is sometimes used as a kind of excuse to suggest that the defendant is less blameworthy or should get a more lenient sentence (Vuoso 1987). Although an adverse past is not exactly the same as being manipulated, I think these excuses share similar features.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Analogies between Ethics and Epistemology

It’s increasingly common for epistemologists (both formal and traditional) to explore analogies between epistemic justification (rationality, warrant, etc.) and moral rightness.[1] These analogies highlight the normative character of epistemology; they’re also fun to think about.
This post is about a commonly discussed analogy between reliabilism about justification and rule consequentialism. I’ve started to think that reliabilists have good reason to reject this analogy . But I’m not sure how they should go about doing this. Let me explain.

Begin with reliabilism:

S’s belief that p is justified iff S’s belief that p is the output of a reliable belief-forming process.
A belief-forming process is reliable iff its immediate outputs tend—when employed in a suitable range of circumstances—to yield a balance of true to false belief that is greater than some threshold, T.

Compare this with satisficing hedonistic rule consequentialism:

S’s a-ing is right iff S’s a-ing conforms to a justified set of rules.
A set of rules is justified iff its internalization by most people would produce a balance of pleasure to pain that is greater than some threshold, T’.

The similarity in structure between these two theories speaks for itself. Further, it’s standard to assume that reliabilists endorse veritism, the claim that having true beliefs and not having false ones is the fundamental goal in epistemology. Reliabilism, then, might be said to be an instance of satisficing veritistic process consequentialism.

The starting point for many discussions of consequentialism about justification is a simple counterexample to a naïve consequentialist theory (e.g., Firth, Fumerton, Berker, among others). 
According to the naïve theory:

A belief is justified if, of the available options, it leads one to have the highest ratio of true to false beliefs.

Here’s the counterexample (originally inspired by Firth, 1981): [2]

I am an atheist seeking a research grant from a religious organization. The organization gives grants only to believers. I am a very bad liar. The only way for me to convince anyone that I believe in God is to form the belief that God exists. If I receive the grant, I will form many new true beliefs and revise many false ones. Lucky for me, I have a belief-pill. I take it and thereby form the belief that God exists.[3]

According to the naïve theory, my belief is justified. But my belief is obviously not justified. So much the worse for the naïve theory.

This brings me to my interest—or puzzlement—with the reliabilism/consequentialism analogy. It’s clear that reliabilism renders the intuitively right result in the grant-seeking case, namely,  the result that my belief is not justified. The belief-forming process that generated my belief in God—popping belief-pills—is not a reliable one, and for that reason my belief is not justified. So far, so good. But how can the reliabilist, qua veritistic consequentialist, say this? As far as I can tell, this question hasn’t really been discussed. And that seems strange to me. If reliabilists really are veritistic consequentialists, then shouldn’t they give my belief in God high marks?[4] And given the analogy—one that treats “justified” as analogous to “morally right”—wouldn’t this amount to saying the belief is justified?

One might think that in asking this I’m ignoring an important feature of reliabilism and rule consequentialism, namely, the fact that they are instances of indirect consequentialism. Indirect consequentialists aren’t interested in directly assessing the consequences of individual actions or beliefs, the response goes. Rather, they assess actions, beliefs, etc. indirectly, by reference to the overall consequences of the rules, processes, etc. that generate them.

This point is well-taken. But the problem persists. Satisficing hedonistic rule consequentialism loses its appeal as a consequentialist theory if it doesn’t at least sometimes allow us to break certain general moral rules when complying with them is disastrous (viz. Brandt 1992 87–8, 150–1, 156–7). Similarly for reliabilism, qua an instance of veritistic consequentialism, right? If the view doesn’t sometimes endorse jumping at an opportunity like the one presented in the grant case, it’s hard to see how it’s really committed to the idea that having true beliefs and not having false ones is the fundamental goal in epistemology.

So, I suspect the following: [5] if reliabilists are veritistic consequentialists, they must say something awkward about the grant-seeking case (or at least some case like it—maybe the demon possibility I mention in fn. 4). And I don’t think reliabilists should identify my belief in God as justified. Rather, I think they should push back on the reliabilist/consequentialist analogy itself. More specifically, they should deny—or maybe give a sophisticated reinterpretation of—at least one of the following:

      1. Epistemic justification is analogous to moral rightness
      2. Having true beliefs and not having false ones is the fundamental goal in epistemology
      3. If 1. and 2., then reliabilism is the epistemic analogue of satisficing hedonistic rule consequentialism
      4. If 3., then reliabilists have to say something awkward about the grant-seeking case (or some case like it).
And this is where I’m stuck. 1-4 seem quite reasonable to me. Thoughts?

Clinton Castro
Philosophy Department

[1] I’ve contributed to this trend myself, here (see especially section 4).
[2] This case is different from Firth’s; it is closer to Fumerton’s formulation.
[3] Berker thinks these cases can be generalized: “all interesting forms of epistemic consequentialism condone […] the epistemic analogue of cutting up one innocent person in order to use her organs to save the lives of five people. The difficult part is figuring out exactly what the epistemic analogue of cutting up the one to save the five consists in.”
[4] We can play with some details and make it epistemically disastrous to not take the pill—suppose that if I don’t get the grant the philosophy department will sic a Cartesian demon on me.
[5] I don’t think I’ve made an iron-clad case here!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Fetuses don’t play the violin

Abortion is one of the most controversial topics in America today, but among philosophers what is not controversial is that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is one of the most important and influential articles on the topic. Anthologized countless times, whichever position you take in the abortion debate you cannot claim to have an informed opinion without considering Thomson. Principally driven by her creative and memorable ‘violinist thought experiment,’ Thomson changed the game by granting the central pro-life assumption—namely that the fetus is a person with full moral status—and then arguing that abortion is permissible anyway.

For the uninitiated, Thomson asks us to imagine ourselves kidnapped by the ‘society for music lovers’ and hooked up the titular (innocent, unconscious) ‘violinist’ who is using our kidneys to stay alive. If you unhook yourself the violinist will die. Does the violinist’s ‘right to life’ oblige you to stay hooked up to him for 9 months? Thomson says no: even if the violinist/fetus is a person, no person has the right to use another person’s body against their will.

My concern here is not the conclusion itself as much as it is the methodology Thomson employs. My skepticism towards thought experiments has been a theme for my posts here at The Dance of Reason (see here and here) and Thomson’s are no exception. The violinist was the first of several thought experiments Thomson employed in her article, and part of what makes it such an instructive example of philosophical methodology gone wrong is how seamlessly Thomson crafts each new experiment to counter a successive series of objections. Thomson asks us to imagine diseases that can be cured by the touch of a stranger’s hand; a baby expanding like a balloon and crushing a person to death; humans procreating via ‘people seeds’ that implant in unsuspecting stranger’s carpets. Each thought experiment has a rationally comprehensible connection to the objection that comes before it, yet a common response to this whirlwind of imaginative scenarios is that we’ve lost sight of something crucially important: the biological realities of sex, pregnancy, gestation and birth.

Thomson’s experiments are an excellent example of what happens when philosophers find themselves accountable to nothing other than their imaginations. The relationship between philosophy and science fiction is so strong in no small part because both thrive on imagining what happens when we push past our current limitations. But just as bad science fiction is often born out of concepts that outstrip their connect to the world in which we live, bad philosophy is often born out of imagination untethered to the subject attempting to be illuminated.

To be blunt: I have no idea at all what morality demands of people in a world in which human beings procreate via people seeds that gestate in carpets. Moreover, I’m not sure anyone else does, either. What kind of moral values would be most important if babies could expand rapidly enough to crush a person in a house? How much stock should we put in our intuitions about whether or not it is permissible to unhook ourselves from a stranger using our kidneys to filter his blood? That’s not how biology works, that’s not how ethics works, that’s not how any of this works.

Our moral intuitions are delicate things. They are rooted in our evolutionary history, honed by our cultural upbringing and exist to help us navigate moral decisions in the actual world. When you strip the biological and cultural context out and throw those intuitions into fantastical scenarios they quickly loose perspective. Such ‘intuition pumps’ are easily abused in the hands of a creative philosopher who wants to lead their audience by the nose to their preordained conclusion.

None of this is to say that Thomson’s position is incorrect. To the contrary, I think her basic conclusion is true: regardless of their moral status, fetuses have no right to use a woman’s body against her will. And I understand the impulse to invoke a thought experiment, as pregnancy is such a biologically unique phenomena that it’s hard to find ways to triangulate our intuitions about it. But we don’t need to appeal to fantastic, intuition-pumping hypotheticals to establish Thomson’s point. There are a set of rare, but real-world cases that suffice, namely the phenomena of ‘sleepwalking rape.’

The broader phenomena of ‘sexsomnia’ (people initiating sex while neurologically asleep) is well documented by psychologists. There are several cases in which men accused of rape have, with the help of expert clinical testimony, successfully exonerated themselves in court by arguing they were asleep at the time of the attack.[1]

So let’s ask the following question: would a person being raped by a sleepwalking rapist be justified in killing their rapist in self defense? Like both Thomson’s violinist and a fetus[2] the sleepwalking rapist is both a person with full moral status and innocent of any crime. If a woman killed her sleepwalking rapist would we call that an unjustified killing? I think people could have an honest disagreement here, but I suspect that most people (even pro-life people) will say that it would be justified.

The exact implications this has for abortion is, of course, open ended. There are all sorts of ripostes that a pro-life person could give in an attempt to allow killing a sleepwalking rapist while still maintaining that abortion is wrong. I don’t imagine any single argument can settle this highly controversial issue once and for all. My point here is simply to say that philosophers would be well advised to avoid highly unrealistic thought experiments when actual cases from the real world work just as well, if not better.

[1] And of course, others attempting that defense have failed and been sentenced accordingly.
[2] Like Thomson I am assuming for the sake of argument here that the fetus is a person in the moral sense with full moral status, even though also like Thomson I do not believe this to be the case.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Two Suspicious Concepts

Philosophical questions get answered when we develop concepts that provide novel access to reality. This is how what started as profound philosophical questions about matter became routine questions in chemistry.  Intractable medieval disputes over political legitimacy became routine exercises of democratic politics. 
However, ‘routine’ does not mean easy, as chemistry majors and campaign managers can surely attest.  So we should be suspicious of concepts that make answering philosophical questions a bit too easy.  Maybe they don’t give us novel access to reality.  Maybe they just provide the spurious appearance of an answer.
I’m starting a list… 
1.  Person
The philosophical concept of ‘person’ developed in the Christian theology of the Trinity (three natures, one person) and the Incarnation (one person, two natures).  It entered modern philosophy in a psychologized version with Locke: 
“…(A) thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection…that can consider itself the same in different times and places.” 
Locke treats the concept as applying to kinds.
The following claim I take to be uncontroversial: 
(O)  Our existence conditions, the ‘what-it-is-to-be-me,’ are the existence conditions of a kind of organism. 
It is normative for the kind of organism we are to think, reason, consider itself the same in different times and places, etc. 
That is, human beings are persons. 
Those of us who cannot think, reason…etc., do not fail to be human beings, just to be fully-functioning ones.  So we don’t fail to be persons, just to be fully-functioning ones. 
Some philosophers, Mary Ann Warren for instance, have revised Locke’s concept of ‘person’ to designate a sort of status human organisms can achieve, like being a sorority sister.  Thus human beings are persons only if they have the capacity to think, etc. – and not if they don’t. 
(Does anyone know where this conceptual revision is ever argued for?)
Philosophers like Peter Singer go even further and change ‘person’ from a status into an odd sort of kind itself.  The what-it-is-to-be-me isn’t ‘human being’;  it’s actually ‘person.’  On this view a human organism is born, develops mentally until it can think, reason, etc.  At this point something comes into existence:  a person.  When a human organism ages and loses its cognitive capacities, that curious entity – up to then co-located with the organism somehow and using it to get around – goes out of existence. 
How is this not Platonism?  How does a philosopher who believes such a thing get to look down on a pious Christian (an adherent to a “deviant” and retrograde tradition according to Singer) who thinks the soul is ‘infused’ into the body? 
The concept of ‘person’ in contemporary philosophy makes reaching certain conclusions easier than it should be. 
I propose avoiding it.
2.  Gender
Great effort has been expended to construct a concept of ‘gender’ different from the sex of an organism.  (There is one already, but it’s a grammatical distinction unhelpful here.) 
What could ‘gender’ be as opposed to sex?  Three possibilities:
a)  A social construction by which boys are supposed to (just for instance) wear pants and play with guns, girls to wear dresses and play with dolls. 
This is superficial.   It doesn’t really rise to a philosophical issue.  Such social constructions can change overnight – and have.
     b)  A deeper social construction by which fundamental social roles and sentiments are different among males and females. 
Now it’s very likely true that such fundamental roles have a conventional, not just a biological, element:  We’re convention-making organisms after all. 
But those conventions must be as old as behaviorally-modern humans (50-80,000 years), since they evidently precede the human departure from Africa.  This is sufficient time for those conventional facts to have become realized in our genes, to have become organic facts themselves.  So on this account ‘gender’ is not a concept independent of ‘sex,’ but tied to it by natural necessity.
Furthermore, there is no longer any modal Archimedean Point where we can imagine our having been different.  The counterfactuals are over the modal horizon:  the organisms in those counterfactuals would not be us. 
That leaves…
      c)  A psychological phenomenon:  our gender identity is our “deeply held sense of [our] gender.” (GLAAD)  And that sense may part company with our organic sex.
What is the phenomenology of (3)?  What is this ‘deeply held sense of…gender’? 
In examining my own case, I find myself at a loss.  I just don’t know what ‘feeling male’ is like (or female either). 
My predicament is like Hume’s baffled response to Locke on personal identity. 
“There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SelfFor my part, whenever I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other…I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe any thing but the perception.” 
I have no ‘sense of gender’ or ‘internal experience of gender identity.’  Nor am I ‘intimately conscious of what [I] call [my] Sex.’ 
I have no Dude Qualia, none at all.
Some people deny this.  They claim to have this feeling: “I have been born into the wrong body.”
But if (O) is uncontroversial, who is the ‘I’ who has been born into the wrong body?
At this point the gender theorist turns Platonist too.  There is some ineffable ‘I’ whose existence conditions are not those of an organism, but is somehow connected to one.
I propose avoiding this concept too.
Next candidate for the list: ‘Idea’.
Anybody have additions to my list?

Thomas Pyne

Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

Monday, February 5, 2018

Did Jesus Look Like Joseph?

Before playing the role of pilot Poe Dameron in Episode 7 (and 8, and 9) of the latest Star Wars trilogy, actor Oscar Isaac was playing the role of Joseph of Nazareth (sometimes called “Saint Joseph”) in the 2006 film The Nativity Story. 

One creative liberty that film took in portraying Joseph’s ambivalence about being the social but not biological father of Jesus is a scene I remember well, which the Catholic Register then noted as follows:

“Even after the angelic appearance in his dream, Joseph continues to wrestle with uncertainty and doubt, notably in an affecting moment on the journey to Bethlehem involving an innocent comment from a street vendor.”

Let me fill in some details of this scene.  A street vendor notices a very pregnant Mary traveling with Joseph, and says something like this to the couple (sorry, I am still trying to track down the exact quote on DVD or YouTube): “there is no greater blessing than to see your own face reflected in the face of your child.” This comment leads Joseph to react with stunned silence, and a far-off look in his eyes, since he realizes that he might never have that particular type of experience with this particular baby.

Did Jesus look like Joseph?

You might be wondering why I am asking this question in the first place.

The answer is that I’ve thinking about CRISPR recently. Hold on, let me explain.

I’ve been revisiting questions about the relative importance of genetics in the identity of a human person.

And I’ve been imagining what innovations in applying new genetic technologies within human populations might most push the envelope.

So, naturally, I have been wondering what might happen if someone somehow found an ancient DNA sample from the historical Jesus. And then sought to use it, now, to do some sort of genetic engineering.

You know, harmless stuff like enhancing my “capacity for compassion genes” (if such there be) to be more like the genes Jesus had.  Or creating a genetic replica of Jesus in the lab, to make a genetically ideal human person (this is a twist on the premise behind the comedy Twins, featuring actors Schwarzenegger and Devito).  Or making a Disney-themed fun-park with live genetic replicas of Jesus. (I would call this “Jurassic Jesus” as a nod to the premise of another movie franchise, but blogs and even t-shirts have already taken that label for something different.)

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Anyhow. Imagining such dystopian applications eventually pushed me back to a more basic question: what would the genome of Jesus be like in the first place, and especially in its relationship to the genome of his human (foster) father Joseph?

More precisely, I found myself asking Q1, not Q2:

Q1: Should someone who believes the Apostles Creed—especially the bit “I believe...in Jesus...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary...”—believe that Jesus bore a family resemblance to Joseph, even though they are not directly genetically/genealogically related in the standard way?

Q2: Should someone who does not believe that bit of the Creed believe that Jesus bore that resemblance?

(Q2 seems uninteresting, unless you think that sons sometimes do not look like their fathers, or that Jesus had a different human father than Joseph.)

Q1, of course, relies on an unstated premise: that the family resemblance between a son and his father is based upon one or more similar phenotypes, which are, in turn, themselves based upon one or more similar genetic structures. 

I know, I know, there are exceptions to this general rule; Jesus could have learned to imitate Joseph’s smile, gait, beard, hair, and handlebar mustache, without there being any genetic similarity between them at all.

Still, that unstated premise is why Q1, a question about phenotypic appearance, is really just a proxy for a question about genotypic similarity:

Q3: Should someone who believes the Creed believe that Jesus was genetically similar to Joseph, in ways like a son is typically genetically similar to his own biological father?

I admit that I do not think I know the answer to Q1 or Q3. But since I am just beginning to think it through, I wanted to ask for suggestions from the readers here.  Any suggestions are welcome.

Relatedly, I have also been reflecting on a different intersection between CRISPR and the incarnation.

This intersection concerns a possible future innovation of adding human genetic sequences to non-human individuals, in larger and larger amounts, so that the eventual individual produced by such alterations is a human person.

The following proposition might be suggested for approaching such a case:

P1. If an individual is a human person at one moment of its existence, then that individual is a human person at every moment of its existence.

Two corollaries (I think) immediately follow from P1:

P1-C1: an individual cannot become a human person and continue to exist.

P1-C2: an individual cannot cease being a human person and continue to exist.

But Richard Swinburne, in his book The Christian God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), says this on pp. 192-193:

“The central doctrine of Christianity is that God intervened in human history in the person of Jesus Christ in a unique way; and that quickly became understood as the doctrine that in Jesus Christ the second person of the Trinity became man, that is, human.  In AD 451 the Council of Chalcedon formulated that doctrine in a precise way…Chalcedon assumed that human nature is not (or not invariably) an essential nature.  That is, just occasionally, an individual could become human or cease to be human while remaining the same individual.  It then affirmed that the one individual, the second person of the Trinity, who was eternally divine, became also (at a certain moment of human history, about AD 1) human (i.e. man).” 

In other words, P1-C1 is false.

And that means P1 is false.


Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State