Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Intellectual Case for Manned Space Exploration

Scientists are sometimes dismissive of manned* spaced exploration. They think it is a waste of money and effort, often just an exercise in hubristic national chauvinism rather than a scientifically legitimate enterprise. I’ve heard several astronomers and astrophysicists complain about the public fascination with putting people into space. Much better to send the robots, they say. The robots will collect all the relevant data, perform the key experiments, and transmit the results back to Earth. We can interpret and understand from our the comfort of our homes.

Ian Crawford is an exception to this. He is a scientist and a passionate advocate of manned space exploration. What’s more, he is an advocate for largely intellectual, and specifically scientific reasons. He has written many papers over the years setting out his stall. In this post, I want to analyse just one of them, ‘Avoiding Intellectual Stagnation: The Starship as an Expander of Minds’, which appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 2014.

I am primarily interested in the structure of Crawford’s argument. I’ll start by clarifying this structure, particularly the motivating premise (his moral/axiological principle), and then I’ll describe the various sub-arguments he adduces to support his case for space exploration.

1. The Motivating Premise: The Need for Dynamic Stabilism
Arguments for manned space exploration typically have a simple, three-part structure. They start with a motivating premise. This will usually be axiological/deontological in nature. In other words, it will stipulate some duty or value that is important/worthwhile. They will then proceed to a minor premise stating that this duty/value can be satisfied through space exploration. In other words, they will draw some causal link between the project of space exploration and the satisfaction of the duty/value. How close a causal link is open to debate. The strongest case for space exploration will, obviously, suggest that there is some necessary and exclusive causal link between the two. Weaker cases will suggest that there is just some link between the two and thus that space exploration is one of perhaps a number of ways of satisfying the duty/value.

This suggests that the following captures the general structure of all arguments for space exploration:

Motivating Premise: It is important/valuable that we do X; or, it is obligatory that we do X

Causal Premise: Manned space exploration will enable us to do X (or is the only thing that will enable us to do X).

Conclusion: Therefore, it is important/obligatory for us to engage in manned space exploration.

I have looked at a versions of this argument that proceed from a deontological motivating premise previously. Crawford’s argument is different because it is axiological in nature. I don’t read him as saying that we have a duty to explore space, but, rather, that it would be a good thing if we did. It would make our lives go better, and fill them with more meaning and flourishing, if we were to proceed with an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

Why is this? Crawford appeals to the value of an ‘open’ future. In this, he takes his cue from the work of the political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Back in the late 1980s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the imminent collapse of communism, Fukuyama wrote a famous essay titled ‘The End of History’. Inspired by Kant and Hegel, Fukuyama argued that the end of the conflict between liberal democratic capitalism and communism heralded a stabilisation point in history. There would be no more grand ideological conflicts over the best way to live. There would just be practical problems to sort through. This would be good insofar as it called a halt to costly conflicts, but Fukuyama was ambivalent about the ultimate effects of this stabilisation, suggesting that the absence of ideological conflict might sap our lives of meaning:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. 
(Fukuyama 1989)

As someone whose political philosophy is rooted more in the tradition of Hobbes than Hegel I find this quote somewhat ironic. If Hobbes is to be believed, an endless struggle or conflict is a ‘very sad’ thing too. In the extreme, it leads to the state of nature — the war of all against all — in which there is no place for beauty, art and other civilisational virtues. Caretaking the museum of history sounds like a relief after that. So there is presumably some desirable median, between the extreme of endless conflict and perpetual idleness, in which humans can flourish. Perhaps the key is to find the right mix of stability and struggle? If we could call a halt to conflicts over land and political ideology, and struggle instead towards some grand intellectual project, that would seem to be preferable.

And that’s exactly what Crawford urges. His motivating axiological premise holds that an ideal human society is one in which there is both stability and dynamism. More precisely, he argues that the ideal situation is one in which we have achieved relative peace between ourselves, but in which our future is still ‘open’ — i.e. we are not simply caretaking the museum of past achievements. His claim then is that an ambitious project of manned space exploration is the way to do this because of the intellectual challenges and virtues it will promote.

All of which means that Crawford’s case for manned space exploration can be set out like this:

  • (1) It is important/good for us to live in a stable and dynamic society, i.e. one in which our future remains open.

  • (2) Embarking upon an ambitious project of manned space exploration is one way (maybe the best way) in which to maintain an open future.

  • (3) Therefore, it is important/good for us to engage in an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

I’ll say no more about the motivating premise from here on out. I find it persuasive, but I admit that I’m not sure that I can explain why. I think some dynamism and unpredictability is a good thing, provided it is of the right type. Some forms of stability and repetition are good: I enjoy not having to struggle to find food, clothing and shelter. But some struggle is good too because it gives direction and purpose to life, and allows for a sense of achievement and fulfillment. On top of this, there are some intrinsic and instrumental goods associated with struggle. Curing cancer, for example, would involve a lot of struggle but would bring with it a number of intrinsic and instrumental goods, not least of which would be a massive reduction in suffering and hardship. The idea that struggle brings purpose does not have to be a mystical or religious notion, but beyond what I have said I am not convinced that I could say more to defend this idea that it plays an essential part in the good life.

2. The Intellectual Case for Space Exploration: Science, Art and Philosophy
If we set premise (1) to the side, premise (2) becomes the obvious focus of attention. There are a couple of preliminary things to be said about this premise. First, note how, in my formulation, it does not claim that there is a necessary and exclusive causal link between manned space exploration and the goal of maintaining an open future. This is consistent with something that I previously wrote about ‘frontierism’ and space exploration, in which I claimed that there are other ‘spaces’ to explore that could help us to maintain an open future. I also think it is consistent with what Crawford writes, but I do get the impression that he thinks manned space exploration might be the best way in which to maintain an open future, hence why I have added the brackets. The second preliminary comment is simply to note that the goal of maintaining an ‘open future’ is to be understood as shorthand for maintaining some kind of desirable struggle into the future, i.e. avoiding excessive predictability and listlessness. Crawford thinks that an intellectual struggle is the thing we should try to maintain. He does this partly for instrumental reasons but, more importantly, for intrinsic reasons: he thinks there are goods directly associated with and constituted by intellectual progress that are worth achieving.

So how does space exploration enable intellectual struggle and progress? Crawford makes three arguments. The first is that it will enable new forms of scientific investigation and progress. This is probably Crawford’s most famous argument, and he has defended it in a number of papers over the years. In the paper I’m looking at, he offers a brief precis of his position. His claim is partly based on history — space exploration has enabled scientific advances in the past — and partly based on plausible predictions of what would be possible if we did journey through space. He identifies four types of scientific inquiry that would be made possible by this: (i) physical and astrophysical studies conducted using spaceships as observing platforms; (ii) astrophysical studies of the wide variety of stars and their circumstellar environments; (iii) geological (etc) studies of planetary bodies and (iv) astrobiological and exobiological studies of habitable planets. In response to the ‘why not let the robots do all this?’- criticism, he argues that in situ observation and measurement is going to be far better in many cases, and essential in some, particularly in the search for life on other planets (we cannot penetrate the atmospheres of such planets from a distance). That said, one has to wonder whether this is, to some extent, contingent on current forms and understandings of robotic technology. I have argued elsewhere that creating ‘artificial’ robotic offspring might be the best way to realise the dream of interstellar exploration. This quibble to the side, I do think that Crawford is right in thinking that space exploration would give us a practically limitless frontier of for scientific investigation, which would surely stave off some of the stagnation that he fears.

Crawford’s intellectual case for space exploration doesn’t rest on science alone. His second argument for the intellectual vitality of space exploration looks at its impact on artistic expression. Crawford is a fan of Karl Popper’s ‘three-world’ theory. According to this theory, humans sit at the intersection of three worlds: (a) World One, which is the world of physical objects and events; (b) World Two, which is the world of mental states and events and (c) World Three, which is the world of human knowledge (i.e. theories, concepts, models of reality etc). The ‘worlds’ interact with and relate to one another through a series of feedback loops. Crawford argues that art belongs to World Three (the world of human representations) but is an expression of human subjectivity (World Two) that results from human observations/responses to the physical world (World One) and their place within it. What’s more, artistic expression is made possible when human subjectivity (World Two) speaks through the manipulation of physical objects and materials (World One) to create new artefacts and representations (World Three).

Now, you may of course be wondering: where does space exploration fit into this complex web of feedback loops? The argument that Crawford makes is that space exploration will position humans within new physical ‘landscapes’, which will prompt new observations and subjective reactions, which will in turn prompt new forms of artistic expression. He also argues that it will lead to a ‘cosmicizing’ of the human mind — i.e. an enlargement of perspective — which will add a new dimension to our artistic endeavours. Even without Popper’s theoretical overlay, this argument makes a certain amount of sense. Art has always been, at least in part, a response to the world that we inhabit (though it can also be an anticipation of new worlds), and if space exploration brings us into contact with new experiences and new realities, we can expect our artistic endeavours to respond appropriately. This might help to stave off some stagnation in art, which could arise if we end up ‘caretaking the museum of human history’.

Crawford’s final argument is that space exploration will prompt new developments in philosophy, particularly moral and political philosophy. Why so? Because interstellar exploration will prompt new forms of human association — e.g. interstellar economies and colonies — that will require their own political rules and institutions. Establishing those institutions are working out their operations will provide lots of opportunities for philosophers and lawyers. It may also allow for more experiments in living. Similarly, interstellar exploration will throw open new ethical challenges and questions, such as the ethics of terraforming, multi-generational starships, planetary colonisation, the relationship between humans and machines, the duty to continue and diversify ‘life’, and the relationship between humans and other, potential, moral subjects such as alien life. Philosophers are already starting to explore these issues (see, for example, my recent interview with James Schwartz on this very topic) but one can imagine that the intellectual excitement would increase greatly if we embarked on an ambitious programme of space exploration. All that said, and as noted in my interview with James Schwartz, you could question how ‘new’ the philosophical inquiries being proposed here really are. As with much of philosophy, it often seems like we end up re-deploying old concepts and analyses to new problems. Perhaps that is enough novelty to stave off the threat of intellectual stagnation, but if you are looking for something radically new, you might be disappointed.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, Crawford defends manned space exploration on the grounds that it will help to maintain a desirable balance between stability and dynamism. It will do so by staving off intellectual stagnation and providing some direction/purpose to human endeavours. In particular, Crawford argues that manned space exploration will stave off stagnation in science, art and philosophy by giving us new frontier to explore, new experiences to express, and new ethical and political challenges to overcome.

I don’t have too much to say by way of conclusion. The purpose of this post was not to critique Crawford’s argument but to understand it. Hopefully I have succeeded in this. The only thing I will say to conclude is to reiterate the point I made above: that space exploration is one way in which to stave off intellectual stagnation. It may not be the only way. If you take a more abstract interpretation of what an intellectual ‘frontier’ is, you see that there are other ‘spaces’ that humans could explore to similar effect. For example, I presume there are frontiers of mental and physical experience that we are yet to fully explore (through drugs and enhancement technologies); and ‘virtual’ reality could give rise to new frontiers too. Perhaps pursuing progress on all these fronts would be most desirable.

* Is this unnecessarily sexist language? Probably, but I’m not sure if there is an alternative term. ‘Peopled’ or ‘personned’ don’t sound right to me.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Trouble with Instrumentalism: On the Quest for Ultimate Purpose

The Trap Door Spiders was a literary dining club that met in New York in the middle part of the 20th century. It was home to a number of luminaries, but its best-known members were probably the science fiction authors (and publishers) Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague DeCamp and Lester Del-Rey. Indeed, the club was immortalised and parodied by Asimov in his series of short stories about the ‘Black Widowers’ dining club.

The Trap Door Spiders met once a month for dinner. One member of the club would invite a guest and, once the meal was over, the other members of the club would ‘interrogate’ the guest. The interrogations would invariably start with the following question:

How do you justify your existence?

Polite, post-prandial chit-chat this was not. The question was an ominous, intimidating one. The guest was being held to account for how they spent their time — to think of their life as fitting into some larger scheme of value (social, political, economic, scientific) and to justify it by explaining how it contributed to that larger scheme.

While this is not the typical, after-dinner fare, the question itself speaks to something deep within the human condition. We often do feel that, in order for our lives to have meaning, they have to be situated relative to some larger scheme of value. In other words, we feel that the day-to-day activities that make up the mundane details of existence have to be justified in terms of something else. Some people are highly self-conscious about this, often feeling anxious because they don’t think their lives measure up. The audacity of the Trap Door Spiders’ question was in bringing these anxieties to the surface.

In this post, I want to consider the merits of such anxieties. Should we really think about our lives in this way? Should we worry if they cannot be justified in terms of their contribution to a larger scheme of value? I’m going to argue that we shouldn’t. To be more precise, I’m going to argue that it is a mistake to always value our activities in terms of their contribution to something else, partly because this is not how value works in all cases, and partly because doing so gets us into a misguided quest for ultimate purpose.

1. Chains of Value and the Infinite Regress
To start out, it will help if we have a clear sense of the problem that arises when we value our actions in terms of their contribution to something else. As noted above, it is very common for us to do this. You could almost say it is natural, though doing so would raise all sorts of unnecessary questions about what is meant by ‘natural’. But think about any actions you performed today. Why did you do them? In many cases the answer that first springs to mind will be an instrumental one, i.e. you did them because they helped you to achieve something else. Why did you eat? To avoid starvation and to keep going for another few hours. Why did you get up and go to work? To earn an income that you can use to support your lavish lifestyle. And so on. In each of these cases, the value of your actions seems to lie in their contribution to something else.

For ease of analysis, let’s introduce some notation to depict what is going on here. Let’s denote actions with the letter ‘A’ and the goals to which they contribute with the letter ‘G’. According to the instrumentalist account outlined in the previous paragraph, A derives its value from G:

A ← G

Now let’s think about G in a little more detail. Where does it derive its value from? Again, it is natural to think about this in terms of some other goals to which it contributes. Why did you want to stave off starvation? So you could continue to work and earn an income; so you could be a more pleasant companion to your spouse and children; so you could butter-up some client for work; so you could avoid death; and so on. The G we originally identified fits within a larger chain of Gs from which it too derives its value.

G1 ← G2 ← G3;….
Once you go down this route, you get into trouble. An infinite regress seems to arise. If each individual Gn derives its value from another Gn+1, you have to ask where does that Gn+1 derive its value from? Gn+2? Surely this cannot go on forever (lives are finite after all). So what is holding up the entire ‘chain of value’? Is there some final G, some ultimate G, that holds everything together?
You could argue that there must be, that our lives have to have some overarching purpose in order for them to have value. But what might that purpose be? We could, arbitrarily, pick one. For example, I could decide that the ultimate goal of my life is to leave as many offspring as possible. That might provide some measure of purpose and meaning to my day-to-day activities, but I think my choice of ultimate goal could be rightly criticised. What is so valuable about leaving as many offspring as possible? How does that justify my existence? I’m sure the Trap Door Spiders would be sceptical if I offered that as my response to their after-dinner interrogation.

So we need something else. If we are to follow the instrumentalist paradigm, we need some ultimate goal that is more intuitively satisfying and less open to sceptical doubts. We need something that provides a rock solid sense of purpose to our lives. Are we ever going to find this? Should we even try? I offer two responses: ‘no’ and ‘no’.

2. The Case Against Ultimate Goals/Purposes
The first response is justified on the basis that the quest for ultimate purpose is, ultimately, forlorn. We will never find what we are looking for. I take this response from the work of Stephen Maitzen.

To see why the quest is forlorn, we need first to get a clearer understanding of what is meant by an ‘ultimate purpose’. Philosophers append the word ‘ultimate’ to different things. Some philosophers talk about ultimate ontological entities. These are entities that lie at the foundations of reality and from which all other entities derive their essence. Some talk about ultimate causes. These are causes the kick-start the entire chain of causation we observe within the universe. In both of these cases, the word ‘ultimate’ means something like ‘foundational’ or ‘primary’.

When appended to the word ‘purpose’, ‘ultimate’ carries a similar connotation, but it also seems to mean something else. In order to truly count, an ultimate value must be, in some sense, incorrigible or unquestionable. That’s the only way it is going to avoid the problem of apparent arbitrariness that we identified above. That problem arose when we ‘stepped back’ from a suggested final end and considered it from another perspective: maybe having lots of children makes my life meaningful but how valuable is it for the rest of my community, city, nation etc? The broader our perspective, the more trivial and insignificant any purpose we propose will start to seem. Indeed, from a cosmic perspective, everything we do looks pretty silly. We are, after all, just ‘motes of dust floating in sunbeam’, on an obscure planet, in an obscure solar system, in an otherwise hum-drum galaxy. It puts one in mind of the the total perspective vortex in Douglas Adams’s Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: one you get an absolute perspective on everything, you lose the will to go on.

The most common solution to this problem is to turn to God. He is after all the ultimate being: the foundation of reality and the primary cause. His perspective is naturally cosmic since he created the cosmos. If He has some purpose in mind for us — e.g. to enter into the kingdom of Heaven and worship him forever — then surely it is an ultimate purpose?

Many people put their faith in God for this reason. But does God really help with this? If you don’t believe in God, and if you think there are good reasons not to, then there is little reassurance to be found in this solution to the problem. But even if you do believe in God, it’s not clear that he provides the satisfactory answer. For one thing, there is the problem of knowing what God’s final purpose actually is. More fundamentally, there is the problem that even God’s alleged final purposes are questionable. Maitzen pinpoints this in his critique:

Any purpose that we can begin to understand, we can step back from and question. Consider what theistic religions offer as God’s actual purpose for our lives: glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. Surely we can ask — I hereby do ask — “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the question “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” We’re not asking a confused or senseless question like “What time is it on the Sun?” or “Why is here here?” It’s the same question that [a theist] would aim at any life purpose an atheist might offer. We can sensibly question any possible answer to it in just the same way. 
(Maitzen 2011, 36)

Theists will often resist this by offering us a promissory note: God’s ultimate purpose might seem questionable (or even opaque) to us right now, but it will all make sense in the end. You just have to have faith. But that doesn’t really provide any reassurance. It doesn’t provide us with the rock solid, incorrigible and unquestionable foundation of value that we were hoping to find. But Maitzen’s point — which he himself derives from the work of Thomas Nagel — is that if that’s what we are hoping to find, we will forever be disappointed. Any allegedly ultimate goal or purpose we care to articulate will be questionable. There is always some perspective we can take on it that will challenge its true value and significance.

What does this mean for the quest for value in life?

3. Intrinsic Values and Fleeting Pleasures
It means that we should stop looking for ultimate ends. Forget about finding some overarching purpose that gives your life meaning at a cosmic scale. You are never going to get it. But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon all hope. There is still plenty of value out there. Iddo Landau, in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World has some useful advice in this regard.

He argues that we can, in many instances, abandon the instrumentalist paradigm that gives rises to the problem of ultimate purpose. Not all of our actions have to be justified in terms of their contribution to something else. Some actions are intrinsically valuable. It might seem like a trite point, but it is generally accepted that there are some activities that have this property. Watching an entertaining movie, playing a challenging sport/game, engaging in mutually pleasurable sexual congress. Each of these is an action that can be enjoyed for its own sake. It does not need to serve some other purpose. Such purposes could be found, of course — I could claim that I am watching the movie in order to unwind and recover in advance of tomorrow’s stresses and strains; I could argue that I am engaging in sexual congress in order to procreate — but those purposes are not strictly necessary. In answer to the question ‘why are you doing that?’, I need say no more than ‘because’. There is a potential model for a meaningful life in this:

We need not feel that our life is meaningless just because we cannot name an ulterior goal or end for it, since the supposition that in order to be meaningful a life must have an external goal or purpose is incorrect. The assertion, “I have no general goal or purpose to my life, I just live a life that includes a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value” can be a good reply to questions such as “What do you live for?” or “What is the goal of your life?” 
(Landau 2017, 139)

In other words, forget about larger goals and purposes: just fill your life with lots of intrinsically valuable moments.

That might not be enough for some people. They might be so deeply wedded to the instrumentalist paradigm that they cannot imagine living without some larger goals. That’s fine too. Such people will simply need to accept that the goals they serve may not have ultimate value. The goals could have some intrinsic value (e.g. making great art or advancing human knowledge), that may be questionable from a particular perspective, but you cannot hope to eliminate all such questions. Some valuable ends may just be brute facts of reality.

Furthermore, there may be a basic logical error underlying the quest for ultimate purpose, that could provides some reassurance for the avowed instrumentalist. As I noted above, the quest for ultimate purpose derives, in part, from a fear about infinite regresses: the chain of instrumentalist justification cannot go on forever. But why not? If each and every link in the chain is justified by a prior or subsequent link, why do we need an overarching justification for the entire chain? There is nothing logically contradictory or absurd about a chain of justification that lacks some final link or some external justification. Your life may simply sit within an infinite chain of justification. You can rest assured that what you do is fully justified in terms of the links within this chain without having some external, cosmic justification. Of course, there are problems with this insofar as we do not know whether our universe is going to be infinite in either duration (as best we can tell it is not past-infinite, but it might be future-infinite) or in chains of justification (maybe the heat death of the universe will bring an end to all valuable activity even if the universe is future-infinite), but there are uncertainties regarding the ultimate fate of the universe that might provide some hope that we (potentially) sit within an infinite chain of justification.

4. Conclusion
In sum, although it is tempting to justify our activities in terms of their contribution to some larger scheme of value, it is a temptation that can lead to some tangled thinking. Once you get into this habit of mind, it is easy to look for some ultimate purpose/end that your life can serve. This is dangerous because it is unlikely that any purpose you find will satisfy the demands of ultimacy. This doesn’t mean that life is devoid of purpose or value. Activities can be self-justifying and we can make do with temporary, fleeting purposes too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Running to Stay Still: The Vice of Delayed Gratification

We’ve all heard of the Marshmallow Test. Put a kid in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Tell them that they can eat that marshmallow now, if they want, but if they can refrain from eating it for ten minutes, you’ll give them three. Then leave the room and see what happens. Invented by Walter Mischel and his colleagues back in the 1960s, the Marshmallow Test was intended to be a test for self control. Could children delay gratification for that long? What strategies would they use to resist temptation?

Although the Marshmallow Test was interesting in its own right, it only gained notoriety when Mischel and colleagues performed follow up studies on the original experimental cohort. They discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification were far more successful in later life: they had higher rates of educational attainment, lower rates of obesity and so on. The inference was obvious: the capacity to delay gratification was the key to success (with the obvious caveat that this is a statistical trends, not an immutable law).

This feels right. We are taught from an early age that delayed gratification is the sine qua non of getting ahead. Study hard for 15+ years and you might get a decent entry-level job. Struggle through years of low-paid, contingent, grunt work, and you might get a full-time gig. Put in long hours, show-up, suck-up, and you might eventually be able to afford a house. The rewards always lie in the future; the graft is always in the present.

Is this really the best way to live? It seems right to suggest that the best things in life take time and effort — that we shouldn’t always satisfy our immediate lusts and longings. But there must be some upper limit to this? Surely we can’t delay gratification forever? In the remainder of this post I want to consider this issue by looking at something the philosopher Iddo Landau writes about in his recent book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Following him, I want to argue that delayed gratification has a dark side: it can make our lives less meaningful.

1. Meaning and the Paradox of the End
Landau’s book discusses many of the obstacles to meaning in life. Landau is — as Campbell and Nyholm point out in their review of his work — like an inverse-Schopenhauer: where Schopenhauer was thoroughgoing pessimist, Landau is an irrepressible optimist. Contrary to the many meaning sceptics, Landau thinks it is possible to find meaning in life, as long as we avoid the mistake of perfectionism (i.e. looking for an ideal or perfect form of meaning). His book explores this possibility by critically assessing the many objections to meaningfulness.

One of the objections he considers is the ‘Paradox of the End’. The name seems to be original to Landau but the idea underlying the objection is a familiar one. We usually think of our lives as a series of means-ends projects. I go to college to study to get a degree. I train hard for months to run a marathon. The awarding of the degree and the completion of the marathon are the ‘ends’; the studying and training are the ‘means’. Some ends are relatively trivial — saving enough money to buy a nice meal out — others are grand and important — toiling for years at a laboratory bench in order to discover the latest scientific breakthrough. The pursuit of grand and important ends is usually thought to be central to the good life. Orienting our activities towards ends is what gives shape and purpose to our lives.

But what happens if we achieve our ends? Far from making our lives more meaningful, some people have argued that such achievements actually rob our lives of meaning. We are invariably disappointed by our achievements. They are never quite as a good as we hoped. Once we have achieved them, we quickly move on to the next project — like junkies searching for the next hit. There are many bits of folk wisdom that reinforce this belief — ‘the anticipation of something is better than actually having it’, ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ — and there are some philosophers who seem to have believed in it. Landau cites the famous example of John Stuart Mill. Trained from an early age by his father to be the leader of the utilitarian movement, Mill had a complete breakdown in his early adulthood when he contemplated what would happen if he actually succeeded in this project:

I had what might be truly called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world…[Later] it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”. At this my heart sank within me… 
(Mill, Autobiography)

Of course, Mill never achieved his goal. One could, consequently, dismiss his depression as a recognition of the difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) of his task. But you cannot dismiss all such episodes. I can speak from personal experience. I have often set myself goals and, when I have achieved them, felt surprisingly underwhelmed as a result. I always have to move on to the next thing, hoping it will bring me some measure of satisfaction.

This sense that the achievement of ends is undesirable is the essence of the ‘Paradox of the End’. Landau explores several different ways of formulating it, but here’s my preferred version:

Paradox of the End: The pursuit of ends seems to be essential to give our lives purpose/meaning but the achievement of ends seems to strip this away.

Technically, there is no strict paradox here (in the sense of two logically contradictory statements). But there is definitely something odd going on. How could it be that directing ourselves towards ends is essential to meaning but the attainment of them is not? Should we engage in acts of self-sabotage in order to prevent the attainment of goals? Should we constantly delay gratification?

2. Escaping the Paradox and Avoiding Delayed Reward
Landau offers two main responses to the paradox. The first is to argue that the paradox only arises in some cases and that its proponents overlook or ignore the cases to which it does not apply. The second is to argue that even in those cases in which it does arise it is often our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. Let’s consider both of these responses in more detail.

Think about the goals you have achieved in your own life. Were you always dissatisfied when you achieved them? Landau argues that this is unlikely, at least not when we consider all the projects that make up a typical human life. He gives a few examples of ends that people generally feel proud of once attained and whose worth does not seem to diminish in the rear-view mirror of memory. One example is ‘having raised children successfully’ (though I’m curious as to what ’success’ means here) another is ‘having been part of helpful social or political movements’ (Landau 2017, 150). People’s enjoyment of these ends remains relatively constant over time. Similarly, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise in the case of ‘regulative goals’, i.e. goals that serve as ideals which we approximate over time but never quite achieve. For example, trying to be a more moral person, or to learn and understand more about the world. We can never hope to achieve moral perfection or complete understanding, but we can get better and this provides a constant source of motivation and direction in life. Finally, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise for non-instrumental activities, i.e. activities that are performed for their own sake because they are intrinsically rewarding. Experiencing beauty in the world around you, listening to uplifting music, engaging in deep conversations with your family, are all examples of this sort of activity. There is no goal to be achieved here but there is plenty of value.

The more interesting response, at least to me, is the second one: that even in the cases where the paradox appears to have some bite, it is our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. This is where we return to the Marshmallow Test and the dark side of delayed gratification. As Landau puts it:

…the paradox is not a constant in human life. It is, rather, a variable that can be changed — the result of several factors that can be largely controlled. Many of these factors are related to education: there are several problematic elements in education that exacerbate the tendency to undervalue achieved ends, and changing these elements will decrease the extent to which the paradox is experienced. 
(Landau 2017, 153)

So what are these ‘elements’ that need to changed? There are at least four mentioned by Landau, though they are all variations on the same thing. The first is ‘workaholism’. This is something that often gets trained into us at school and in early adulthood. We believe that we should always be working; that if we aren’t working we are wasting time. The guilt at not writing and researching — often experienced by academics — is a good example of this. The problem with workaholism is that it encourages us to undervalue achievements, not to rest for a moment to enjoy what we have, to always move on to the next thing. The second element is ‘stinginess with compliments’, which Landau argues is a common feature of modern education. Teachers don’t want to students to become complacent or lazy; they want to train them to develop a ‘growth mindset’ and to have more ‘grit’. This means they always highlight things that students could improve, rather than what they have done well, when giving feedback. Again, this encourages dissatisfaction with achievements because we are trained to find some fault in what we have done. The third element is ‘hyper-competitiveness’. We are often ranked relative to our peers and encouraged to interpret our successes relative to theirs. This is a surefire path to constant dissatisfaction because there is probably always someone out there who is better than you in some respect: there is always something they have that you do not. The fourth element is ‘overstating future rewards’, i.e. selling people a future that will always fail to live up to the hype. This is another surefire path to dissatisfaction.

These four elements contribute to a culture in which people become too good at delaying gratification and as a result experience a constant listlessness. They can never feel happy with what they’ve got. The conclusion, for Landau, is that if we moderated our educational and cultural environment to reduce or eliminate these four elements, we could mitigate the paradox of the end.

3. Conclusion
There are other factors affecting the paradox of the end. Landau mentions several in his book, including our tendency to mis-estimate rewards and to confuse waning satisfaction with a lack of genuine reward. I’ve dwelt on the delayed gratification/delayed reward angle here because it’s the part I found most insightful. It rings true to my own experiences. I feel like I am often guilty of workaholism and hyper-competitiveness and that this breeds a constant sense of dissatisfaction with what I do. I am always reluctant to celebrate any of my personal achievements (to the extent that I have had any) or to recategorise them as non-achievements as soon as they are done. I also worry that this is something that I am passing on to others. It’s safe to say that I am pretty stingy when it comes to compliments on student assessments: I’m constantly searching for the flaws and not the strengths. This is my natural mode of thought. It is a habit that has become deeply ingrained.

So I think there is much wisdom in what Landau has to say. There is a vicious side to delayed gratification and we would be well advised to avoid it. That said, I’m not sure what the best response to it is. The most obvious would be to steer a middle-course, to avoid the vice of immediate gratification as well as the vice of delayed gratification. But what is that middle course? Should we have any ambitions at all? The natural thing to say is that we should, but we should have them in moderation, and avoid becoming so tunnel-visioned that we cannot stop to smell the roses (or whatever your preferred cliche is) from time to time. But that strikes me as being too obvious. I wonder whether there is something in the logic of Landau’s (and other’s) philosophical assessment that suggests that a life of ambition is not the best course to steer? I’ll take up that question in a subsequent post.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Episode #38 - Schwartz on the Ethics of Space Exploration

  use Jim schwartz.jpg

In this episode I talk to Dr James Schwartz. James teaches philosophy at Wichita State University.  His primary area of research is philosophy and ethics of space exploration, where he defends a position according to which space exploration derives its value primarily from the importance of the scientific study of the Solar System.  He is editor (with Tony Milligan) of The Ethics of Space Exploration (Springer 2016) and his publications have appeared in Advances in Space Research, Space Policy, Acta Astronautica, Astropolitics, Environmental Ethics, Ethics & the Environment, and Philosophia Mathematica.  He has also contributed chapters to The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth, Human Governance Beyond Earth, Dissent, Revolution and Liberty Beyond Earth (each edited by Charles Cockell), and to Yearbook on Space Policy 2015.  He is currently working on a book project, The Value of Space Science.  We talk about all things space-related, including the scientific case for space exploration and the myths that befuddle space advocacy.

 You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Stitcher and iTunes (the RSS feed is here).

Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:40 - Why did James get interested in the philosophy of space?
  • 3:17 - Is interest in the philosophy and ethics of space exploration on the rise?
  • 6:05 - Do space ethicists always say "no"?
  • 8:20 - Do we have a duty to explore space? If so, what kind of duty is this?
  • 10:30 - Space exploration and the duty to ensure species survival
  • 16:16 - The link between space ethics and environmental ethics: between misanthrophy and anthropocentrism
  • 19:33 - How would space exploration help human survival?
  • 23:20 - The scientific value of space exploration: manned or unmanned?
  • 28:30 - Why does the scientific case for space exploration take priority?
  • 35:40 - Is it our destiny to explore space?
  • 38:46 - Thoughts on Elon Musk and the Colonisation Project
  • 44:34 - The Myths of Space Advocacy
  • 51:40 - From space philosophy to space policy: getting rid of the myths
  • 58:55 - The future of space philosophy

Relevant Links

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Unjust Sex and the Opposite of Rape (2)

William Hogarth, After

(Part One)

This is the second part of my series on John Gardner’s article “The Opposite of Rape”. As I explained in part one, my goal in this series is to consider whether or not Gardner’s analysis in that article is problematic in some way. I tend to think it is not — with one possible exception — and I’m trying to justify that opinion here. The main justification is that Gardner’s analysis is quite similar to that offered by certain feminist scholars of sexual ethics. In this sense, it is not so much problematic as it is unoriginal. I set this up in part one by discussing Ann Cahill’s article ‘Unjust Sex vs Rape’. You should really read part one before proceeding any further…

…Still here? Good. As you will now, no doubt, remember I concluded part one by suggesting that Cahill’s analysis of ‘unjust sex’ can be taken to endorse two propositions:

Proposition 1: There is more to ‘bad’ (i.e. morally unwelcome) forms of sex than rape and sexual assault; or, to put it a different way, the mere presence of sexual consent is not enough to make a sexual interaction morally commendable.

Proposition 2: Because of this, an excessive focus on consent in discussions of sexual ethics can be misleading, and possibly unhelpful, because it does not move the needle sufficiently toward a normative ideal of male-female sexual relations.

My claim is that Gardner’s analysis can also be taken to endorse these two propositions. The main difference is that whereas Cahill starts with morally problematic sex, Gardner starts with morally commendable sex. This is what he means by the ‘opposite’ of rape. The choice of words may be a little unfortunate, but the inquiry itself seems perfectly legitimate: if rape is undeniably bad, what is undeniably good? Gardner has an answer for this.

1. Good Sex as a Kind of Teamwork
When we try to figure out what makes sex ‘good’ we confront an embarrassment of riches. There are many things that make sex good: it provides intense physical pleasure, it brings people closer together, it allows for playful experimentation and, in some cases, enables procreation. Gardner agrees with all this. He thinks there are many dimensions to good sex. Nevertheless, he wants to focus on just one. He does so because he thinks it is important when it comes to distinguishing good sex from rape/sexual assault. That dimension is the collaborative one. Good sex, according to Gardner, is a collaborative enterprise. It is when two (or more) people ‘come together’ as one (Gardner explicitly references the Beatle’s song and the possible double entendre in his article).

This is where the teamwork idea comes in. Teamwork is a collaborative enterprise par excellence. It happens when a group of people get together and coordinate their actions toward a common goal/purpose. But it is more than that. Commonality of purpose is not enough. The people in a team are responsive to one another: there is a ‘sustained interpersonal feedback loop’ (2017, 6) between them. Their collaboration is more the sum of its parts. There is a joint intention at play. They don’t just do things for themselves; they do things for the team, as a collective.

Gardner uses lots of examples to flesh this out. One, taken from Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, is about a group of people who spontaneously collaborate on trying to rescue someone from a hot air balloon (with tragic results for one person when the team disintegrates). Gardner makes much of this example in his article, but I’m not going to go through it here because it would take too long to explain and seems to me to be unnecessarily complicated. Other examples, which are much more straightforward, include an orchestra/band/jazz improv group working together to play music. Gardner particularly likes the jazz improv example because it involves spontaneous, playful collaboration, and not simply the repetition of rote-learned notes. Nevertheless, in each case, the group of musicians is working together with a joint intention to make good music.*

Good sex then, according to Gardner, is a kind of teamwork. It involves two or more people working together toward a joint end. What is that joint end? Well it could be many things but the most obvious (and the most intrinsic to the sexual activity itself) is mutual pleasure and satisfaction. The partners are, to put it bluntly, trying to ‘get off’ together:

…I propose that we think of good sex as a kind of team activity (for which ‘teamwork’ serves as a mere shorthand [because it is odd to think of sex as work]). Not only do the sexual partners have common intentions regarding the pleasure and satisfaction that each is to bring to the other and the general menu of ways in which that pleasure and satisfaction is to be achieved and such like; each also has a version of the infinitely reflexive intention I just described. Each intends that they do it together, that it be a joint pursuit and not just a pursuit in common… 
(Gardner 2017, 7)

Good sex is not, however, perfectly symmetrical. Being part of the same sexual team, doesn’t mean that the parties to the sex are doing the same things to each other and taking on the same roles. Teamwork sometimes has this feature but often does not. Usually there are different parts to be played by different team members — think, once again, of the jazz improv group and the different instruments being played. But teamwork is symmetrical in one critical respect: all parties to the activity are agents. They all take on some active role in achieving the common purpose; no one is a passive recipient of the actions of the other. Gardner expresses this in a typical philosophical way. He says that a good, two-party, sexual interaction is an agent-agent interaction; it is not an agent-patient interaction. It is two people doing something together not one person doing something to another.

It is worth noting how similar this is to Cahill’s analysis of ‘bad’ sex. As you’ll recall from part one, Cahill argues that bad sex — be it unjust or rape/sexual assault — is not characterised by symmetry of agency. Indeed, one of its distinctive features is that female sexual agency lacks the same power as male sexual agency. In the case of unjust sex, female sexual agency is extremely limited; in the case of rape/sexual assault, it is dismantled or disenabled. The fact that there is this similarity in the analysis — albeit arrived at from different directions — is one of the things that convinces me that Gardner’s analysis is in line with what Cahill says.

2. Gardner’s Dangerous Idea: Does consent matter?
There is, however, one aspect of Gardner’s analysis that could be problematic. Having concluded that good sex is distinguished by its collaborative (agent-agent) nature, Gardner proceeds to consider the role of consent in sexual ethics. He doesn’t define consent but does offer some general comments about it that are suggestive.

For one thing, Gardner is adamant that consensual activities often involve agent-patient asymmetry. Indeed, he hints that this is the most natural/normal form of consensual activity. If you consent to something it usually means that you are waiving your claim right to non-interference by another. For example, if I consent to being medically examined by my doctor, I am waiving my claim right to bodily integrity/privacy, and waiving his/her duty to respect my bodily integrity/privacy. The doctor then takes on the agent role — he/she performs the examination — and I take on the patient role (literally) — the examination is performed on me. It is not an active collaboration. I merely signal a willingness to forgo rights that I would otherwise have. It is this signalling that is the hallmark of consent.

Understood in this way, Gardner argues that people expect consent to do too much work in sexual ethics. Consent is a concept that applies to many different domains of human activity. It plays an important moral role across those domains. But it cannot morally vindicate sex because (a) it tends to presume the agent-patient asymmetry and (b) good sex involves agent-agent symmetry. So, while consent might make a sexual interaction permissible (barely and bleakly), it cannot make it commendable. This is true even of recent attempts to reform the concept of consent, e.g. the move towards affirmative consent or, even, ‘enthusiastic and willing’ consent. The former because it still allows for agent-patient asymmetry and the latter because it probably stretches the concept of consent too far. As Gardner himself puts it:

Taking the concept of consent to be the only legitimate currency for the evaluation of sex puts the concept under a lot of pressure to do a lot of work. Consequently, many have been tempted to reintroduce other currencies of evaluation indirectly by packing them into a ‘refurbished’ ideal of consent….One wonders how those who place such demanding restrictions on (valid) consent can possibly interact with their doctors, lawyers, electricians, taxi drivers, decorators, auto mechanics, hairstylists, dentists, bank tellers, dry-cleaners and the many others whose everyday interactions with them call for their consent. 
(Gardner 2017, 12)

But here’s where we get to Gardner’s potentially dangerous idea. All of the comments to this point suggest that there are at least two distinct ethical dimensions along which one can evaluate a sexual interaction: (i) the collaborative dimension and (ii) the consensual dimension. In other words, you can ask of any sexual interaction ‘Was it collaborative?’ and ‘Was it consensual?’. The following diagram captures the idea.

Now, from my perspective, this is an odd way to think about it. To me, it seems to make sense to collapse the consensual dimension into the collaborative one — that is, to assume that any collaborative sexual interaction must also be consensual. It would strike me as odd to suggest that two people had engaged in a collaborative sexual act (a ‘good’ sexual act) that was non-consensual. But Gardner doesn’t seem to see it that way. Although he is never explicit about it, he says several things that suggest that he views the consensual dimension as being distinct from the collaborative one. The clearest example of this is when he suggests that consent may be ‘unnecessary’ to good sex:

Here, I am advancing the more explosive proposition that, when the sexual going is good, consent is also unnecessary. Before you explode, bear in mind that my case proceeds, not from the thought that consent is too high an expectation for our sex lives, but rather from the thought that it is too low an expectation. Ideally, I suggest, the question of consent does not arise between sexual partners, for the question of consent belongs to sex individualistically, even solipsistically conceived… 
(Gardner 2017, 13)

I call this a ‘dangerous’ idea partly because it goes against so much of the orthodox thinking about sexual ethics. Nowadays, ‘consent’ is seen as the sine qua non of permissible sex. Consent simply must be present in order for sex to be permissible. But what Gardner suggests in this quote is that there are types of permissible (in fact, morally ideal) sex that do not involve consent. This not only goes against the orthodoxy, it also takes Gardner away from the Cahill-style argument about unjust sex — there was nothing in what Cahill said that suggested that consent was irrelevant/unnecessary to good sex (though she was skeptical about its central role in contempoary discussions of sex).

I appreciate, of course, what he is trying to say. People in long term intimate relationships have frequently told me that the giving and receiving of consent plays no explicit role in their ongoing sex lives. They just don’t think about it that way. But, of course, the mere fact that they don’t think about it in that way doesn’t mean that consent isn’t, at least implicitly, given. Furthermore, I think Gardner’s idea could be particularly dangerous if it is translated into practice. Say that there is some dispute as to the propriety of a sexual interaction. Gardner’s argument suggests that there are two ways to establish its propriety: (i) prove that it was consensual or (ii) prove that it was collaborative. But how do people prove that sex is collaborative? Is there a danger that a collaborative standard could be more subjective and prone to epistemic disputes of the he said/she said variety? This is a problem that has long afflicted debates about consent, of course, but there have been recent improvements in this regard with the introduction of evidential rules for proving the existence of non-consent. Would we need to create a new set of rules to make a collaborative standard workable?

3. Avoiding the Dangerous Idea
Gardner does not answer that question. The reason for this is that shortly after introducing his dangerous (“explosive”) idea, he marks out an escape route from its more unpalatable consequences. His escape route hinges on a distinction between agreement and consent. This is not a distinction I find useful, but I’ll try to explain what he says.

He argues that two people can agree to a collaborative enterprise without consenting to that enterprise. He gives the example of two people who agree to meet at a certain time and location. They both give undertakings to be at the relevant location at the relevant time. The meeting is a joint activity and exhibits agent-agent symmetry. But it would be strange indeed to suggest that it involved both parties consenting to be at the same location at the relevant time. The two parties do not signal and exchange consents with one another. Agreement is, thus, distinct from consent.

This gives us a way to avoid the unpalatable conclusion. Perhaps cases of permissible sex that do not involve consent do involve sexual agreement? Perhaps, as Gardner puts it, ‘when sexual consent is unnecessary that is only because we are lucky enough to have sexual agreement instead?’. That sounds plausible, but it then reframes the argument, particular when you think about it in terms of some practical dispute as to the priority of a sexual interaction. Instead of the dispute hinging on the epistemic signals needed for reasonable belief in consent it hinges on the epistemic signals needed for belief in agreement. It’s not entirely clear how different those are going to be from the current status quo — particularly since consent is often defined in terms of agreement (something Gardner is aware of and, not surprisingly, disagrees with).

Gardner isn’t entirely happy with this agreement vs consent, get-out-of-jail-free card. One problem he has with substituting agreement for consent is that he is still committed to the collaborative ideal and he thinks that some collaborative actions do not involve any prior agreement. There can be spontaneous collaboration in which there is joint activity and intention, but no prior exchange of undertakings. The balloon-rescue example from Ian McEwan’s novel is trotted out at this point again, as is spontaneous musical improvisation. Some people might suggest that you can imply agreement from spontaneous collaboration, but Gardner thinks we should resist this suggestion because it would neutralise the normative power of agreement.

By this point in the paper, Gardner seems to have painted himself into a corner. He has suggested that consent is not necessary for permissible sex (and not sufficient for ideal sex). He has spotted the unwelcome (‘explosive’) implications of this view and tried to avoid them by suggesting that we substitute agreement for consent, but then he has found that unsatisfactory. In the end, he hits upon the following solution to his dilemma. He distinguishes between two types of agreement (i) performative agreement and (ii) cognitive agreement. Performative agreement involves the actual making of an agreement with someone, i.e. the prior exchange of undertakings; cognitive agreement involves being in agreement with another, i.e. being of one mind/sympatico with them. The latter may be what arises in cases of spontaneous collaboration and it may be what saves Gardner’s position from it potentially unwelcome implications. Furthermore, Gardner argues that being of one mind with someone else requires an ‘ongoing consensus’, which suggests a need to check-in with your collaborator to see whether there still is agreement. This is similar to the view — common among consent theorists — that sexual consent in an ‘ongoing’ act, i.e. you retain the right to withdraw consent at any time. But Gardner doesn’t like this understanding of consent because he thinks it means that consent loses some of its distinctiveness as a normative concept. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that there would be no point to consent if it did not mean that you forego some of your rights to prevent/deny another person performing an act on you for some extended period of time.

So, through some elaborate conceptual engineering, Gardner is able to arrive at a position on collaboration and agreement that is not far from the mainstream view on sexual consent. Was it worth all the effort to end up in the same place? Maybe — maybe Gardner is right that our thinking about sexual consent has become hopelessly confused and that we need an alternative conceptual vocabulary to capture what is going on in cases of normatively bad and normatively ideal sex. My own sense is that it is unnecessarily confusing, particularly if we are to continue to accept, as Gardner seems to be urging, that there are two kinds of permissible sex: (i) consensual and (ii) collaborative (with cognitive agreement).

4. Conclusion
To briefly sum up, Gardner thinks that consent is not enough to morally vindicate sex. There is lots of (morally) bad (though not impermissible) sex that is consensual. Some additional ingredient is needed to move us from bad to good. That ingredient, according to Gardner, is teamwork. Good sex is a collaborative act in which two (or more people) work together to accomplish a common purpose (sexual pleasure/fulfillment) as a team. This does not mean that they take on symmetrical roles in the collaborative act, but it does mean that they are both agents. The problem with consensual sex is that it does not require both parties to be agents. Indeed, consent, as a concept, is more naturally applied to cases in which one party (the agent) does something to another (the patient). The danger with becoming fixated on the consent standard is that it could, consequently, perpetuate the gendered stereotype of women (the patients) giving up sex to men (the agents).

In saying all this, I think that Gardner is being consistent with a long-standing view among feminist critics of sex-under-patriarchy and the centrality of the consent standard in modern thinking about sexual ethics. I’ve tried to demonstrate this by illustrating the similarities between his views and the views of Ann Cahill. Where Gardner differs from this long-standing view is in his suggestion that consent may not be necessary for morally permissible sex. This is a more dangerous idea and one that could lead to problems in practice. Gardner tries to avoid these unwelcome implications by substituting the concept of agreement for that of consent. In doing so, he thinks he is being more conceptually precise, but he ends up endorsing a view that is not that dissimilar to the one endorsed by many consent theorists.

* Having played in bands that were prone to improvisation, this seems a little bit idealistic to me. In many instances, one member of the collective will try to dominate and hog the limelight. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Gardner is focused on ideals rather than realities in his article.

AEON Article - Embracing the robot: is a human-robot relationship wrong?

I have an article in the online magazine Aeon. It's about the moral/social desirability of human-robot relationships. Here are the first two paragraphs:
There is a heartbreaking scene in the middle of Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The hero of the movie, a replicant called K, lives a drab existence in a dystopian, future Los Angeles. The one bright spot in his life is his patient and sympathetic partner, Joi. They share many affectionate moments on screen. But then she is killed, in the midst of declaring her love, in one of the movie’s most gut-wrenching moments. I know I shed a tear when I first saw it. 
There is, however, something unusual about Joi. She is a mass-produced, artificially intelligent hologram, designed to be the perfect partner. She learns from her interactions with K, and shifts her personality to suit his moods. Her ‘death’, such as it is, is due to the fact that she can exist only in the presence of a particular holographic emanator. When it is destroyed, so is she....
You can read the full thing here.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Foundations of Conscientious Objection: Against Freedom and Autonomy

Along with my colleague and friend Yossi Nehushtan, I recently had a paper accepted for publication in the journal Jurisprudence. The paper deals with the philosophical grounding for toleration of conscientious objection. Contrary to a common view, we argue that conscientious objections ought not to be tolerated on the basis that they are expressions of autonomous/free choice. Check out the full details below:

Title: The Foundations of Conscientious Objection: Against Freedom and Autonomy
Journal: Jurisprudence
Links: Official; PhilPapers; Academia
Abstract: According to the common view, conscientious objection is grounded in autonomy or in ‘freedom of conscience’ and is tolerated out of respect for the objector's autonomy. Emphasising freedom of conscience or autonomy as a central concept within the issue of conscientious objection implies that the conscientious objector should have an independent choice among alternative beliefs, positions or values. In this paper it is argued that: (a) it is not true that the typical conscientious objector has such a choice when they decide to act upon their conscience and (b) it is not true that the typical conscientious objector exercises autonomy when developing or acquiring their conscience. Therefore, with regard to tolerating conscientious objection, we should apply the concept of autonomy with caution, as tolerating conscientious objection does not reflect respect for the conscientious objector’s right to choose but rather acknowledges their lack of real ability to choose their conscience and to refrain from acting upon their conscience. This has both normative and analytical implications for the treatment of conscientious objectors.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Unjust Sex and the Opposite of Rape (1)

William Hogarth, Before

The Opposite of Rape” is the title of an article by the legal philosopher John Gardner. It was published in late 2017 in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. In the article, Gardner tries to delineate the differences between good sex and rape. Doing so, he argues, helps to identify certain blindspots in contemporary debates about sexual ethics, particularly debates about importance of consent. For some reason, several people have asked me for my thoughts on this article. I’m not quite sure why. The subtext of each of these requests, at least as I read it, has been that there is something unusual or improper about Gardner’s analysis — that his discussion of ‘the opposite’ of rape is unwelcome. Initially, I thought nothing of this, and I put the article at the end of my already extensive reading list. But then the requests kept coming so I figured I better read the thing.

Now that I have done so, I’m not quite sure what the fuss was about. Obviously, many philosophical discussions of rape and sexual assault are fraught with risk. If you take a overly analytical perspective on the different ethical grades of sexual activity (good/bad/indifferent/permissible/forbidden), you risk sounding detached and unsympathetic to the plight of victims of sexual assault. If you use an inapt or awkward analogy, the risk escalates. Gardner might be guilty of some of these things. But, overall, I find his argument relatively unobjectionable. Indeed, if I had any complaint, it would be that it is not particularly original. What Gardner says about the distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘good’ sex, and about the dangers of focusing too much on consent in discussions of both, has been said already. What he adds is a particular conceptual framework for thinking about the distinction (viz. that ‘good sex’ is ‘teamwork’), which has one potentially controversial implication that he tries to avoid.

Over the next two posts, I want to justify my take on Gardner’s article. I do so by initially comparing it to another article — ‘Unjust Sex vs Rape’ by Ann Cahill — which I think advances a very similar thesis. This comparison should help to confirm my suspicion that Gardner’s argument is not hugely original. I will then consider the one potentially disturbing implication of Gardner’s argument and assess the extent to which he avoids it.

1. Sex in the Gray Area
”All sex is rape.” You have probably come across this quote. It is often attributed to the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, and it is usually held up as a reductio of the radicalist school of thought. Surely not all sex can be rape? The quote is, however, of dubious provenance. MacKinnon herself has denied ever saying it, and I have never seen a direct quote from her work confirming that she did. Nevertheless, there are aspects of her theory of sexuality that might be taken to endorse it, or something pretty close. It would take a long time to explain MacKinnon’s theory in full, but the gist of it is that women’s sexuality is shaped by patriarchal social structures. From an early age, women learn and internalise a certain understanding of their own sexuality and men learn and internalise a complementary understanding. Specifically, they learn that:

Women’s sexuality is, socially, a thing to be stolen, sold, bought, bartered, or exchanged by others. But women never own or possess it, and men never treat it, in law or in life, with the solicitude with which they treat property. To be property would be an improvement. 
(MacKinnon 1989, 172 - taken from Cahill 2016, 749)

In other words, women adopt a passive mode of sexuality and men an aggressive mode. Sex is something that men take from women; and it is something that is defined solely by reference to male desires and needs. While this doesn’t quite mean that all sex under conditions of patriarchy is equivalent to rape, it does mean that all sex under conditions of patriarchy should be treated with suspicion. Because women are indoctrinated by patriarchal norms, their own expressions of consent to sex are not necessarily dispositive. This puts MacKinnon in something of a bind as it seems like no heterosexual sex could be morally legitimate from the perspective of her critique. As Cahill puts it:

Although MacKinnon has vociferously denied that her theory of sexual violence entails the claim that all heterosexual sex under patriarchal conditions is rape, one cannot find in her work a detailed, compelling articulation of how any given heterosexual interaction could sufficiently escape the pernicious effects of patriarchal structures. 
(Cahill 2016, 749)

Cahill, and others, try to escape from this bind. Unlike MacKinnon, they think that there are circumstances in which sex can escape from the pernicious effects of patriarchy; but like MacKinnon, they think that some heterosexual sex, even if freely and affirmatively consented to by women, is normatively suspicious. As a result, they call for a more nuanced understanding of the spectrum of possible forms of heterosexual sex. At one of the spectrum lies rape and sexual assault — both of which are undoubtedly impermissible and rightly criminalised. At the other end lies ‘good’ sex — which is undoubtedly permissible and probably good. In between, there is a gray area where sex can be indifferent/‘meh’ or, if not quite as bad as rape and sexual assault, not good either. Cahill calls this latter type of gray area sex ’unjust sex’. It’s bad, but not as bad as rape and probably not worthy of criminalisation either (though, to be clear, in the article under discussion Cahill doesn’t discuss criminalisation and I am not sure what her opinion on it is).

What are the distinctive features of unjust sex? The feminist scholar Nicola Gavey interviewed women about the phenomenon in her 2005 book Just Sex?. In these interviews, the women all felt that they had not been raped, but they had had sex under conditions in which they felt unable to express their true desires not to have sex. As Gavey put it, each of these women ‘found herself going along with sex that was neither desired nor enjoyed because she did not feel it was her right to stop it or because she did not know how to refuse’ (2005, 136 - sourced from Cahill 2016, 748). Cahill argues that in cases of unjust sex women typically go along with having sex because it helped to ease tension that might otherwise arise between themselves and their partners, and/or because it was the quickest way to achieve their own desires, such as the desire to sleep.

These descriptions give us a general sense of what unjust sex involves. The question now is whether anything more can be said. Is there a philosophically richer analysis of unjust sex that explains why it is bad and why it is different from rape and sexual assault? Cahill has tried to answer that question in her work.

2. What makes sex unjust?
Rape* and unjust sex have some obvious similarities. They both lie on the negative end of sexual spectrum: they are, in other words, both ‘bad’ forms of sex. What justifies this joint designation? It cannot be the lack of consent. Although the absence of consent is usually taken to be hallmark of rape; it is not the hallmark of unjust sex. Cahill and Gavey are adamant about that. In cases of unjust sex, women do signal consent to sexual activity and, what’s more, take themselves to have signalled consent to sex. This is important because it suggests that consent — whatever its merits as a moral concept — does not automatically render sex morally commendable. This is something that Gardner is also keen to emphasise, as we shall see when we discuss his work.

So if it’s not the lack of consent that justifies the joint designation what does? The answer, according to Cahill, is the disregard for female sexual desire. In both rape and unjust sex, female sexual desire is weightless/powerless: its presence, or more importantly, its absence, makes no difference to whether the sexual interaction occurs or not. Rape adds to this a total disregard for female sexual agency.* In rape, the sexual interaction occurs against the will of the woman, not just against her desire. She experiences the total dismantling or disenabling of her sexual agency.

Unjust sex is different. In cases of unjust sex, female sexual agency is not dismantled. Indeed, one of the distinctive features of all the cases discussed by Gavey is that the women were usually explicitly or implicitly required to express their agency by signalling consent. The men with whom they had sex sought some input from them. Nevertheless, their agency was highly restricted. Cahill uses a nice metaphor to explain what happens. She suggests that in cases of unjust sex female sexual agency is ‘hijacked’. The men (or, more broadly, the patriarchal structures within which the sexual interaction takes place) hijack the woman’s agency and look for it to be expressed in a particular way: to accredit the sex and, if necessary, use this against the woman at a later point. Cahill puts it like this:

…the woman’s agency can be deployed only to facilitate the specific sexual interaction whose content (that is, the particular acts that will make up the interaction) is predetermined and remains largely unmarked by the specific quality of the woman’s sexual subjectivity. Her sexual agency is employed in a weak way, as a mere accreditation of the sexual interaction that is being offered to her. 
(Cahill 2016, 755)

How does this hijacking take place? What happens is that it is clear to the woman in the situation that there is only one valid way in which to express her agency, namely: to affirm the proposed sexual interaction. If she refuses or suggests an alternative, her response will be questioned and challenged, and she will be perceived as being difficult or obtuse. At this point actual coercion may be used to force her into the sexual activity, moving us from unjust sex to rape. This hijacking has an insidious effect on female sexual agency. Because there is no obvious dismantling or overpowering agency — as there is in cases of rape — female sexual agency does appear to make a causal difference to the sexual activity. But the difference it makes is minimal and so it’s true limitations are hidden.

3. Conclusions and Implications
That brings us to the end of part one. I have gone through Cahill analysis of unjust sex in some detail both because I think it is interesting and because it points in a very similar direction to Gardner’s analysis in ‘The Opposite of Rape’. I’ll explain why in part two, but to set up that discussion let me mention two important propositions that I think it is possible to draw out of Cahill’s analysis (even if she does not explicitly endorse them herself):

Proposition 1: There is more to ‘bad’ (i.e. morally unwelcome) forms of sex than rape and sexual assault; or, to put it a different way, the mere presence of sexual consent is not enough to make a sexual interaction morally commendable.

Proposition 2: Because of this, an excessive focus on consent in discussions of sexual ethics can be misleading, and possibly unhelpful, because it does not move the needle sufficiently toward a normative ideal of male-female sexual relations.

What I will argue in part two is that Gardner’s analysis leads him to endorse the same propositions, albeit from a different direction. Instead of starting with ‘unjust’ forms of sex he starts with ideal forms.

* Note: I’m just going to refer to ‘rape’ from here on out, rather than ‘rape and sexual assault’. This is not because I don’t appreciate the distinction between the two things, but simply for convenience since they can be lumped together for the purposes of this discussion.

Cahill, like other feminist scholars, uses the term ‘agency’ in contradistinction to the term ‘autonomy’. This is because ‘autonomy’, to her, connotes an atomistic individual acting apart from social institutions and relations; ‘agency’ is supposed to correct for this and refers to the powers and capacities that we have as a function of our interaction with social institutions and relations. There is a rich literature on this distinction though it should be noted that modern theories of autonomy (e.g. the theory of ‘relational autonomy’) are not that different from feminist theories of agency. A classic paper on the topic is Kathryn Abrams ‘From autonomy to agency: feminist perspectives on self-direction’.