Saturday, January 27, 2018

Episode #36 - Wachter on Algorithms, Explanations, and the GDPR

s200_sandra.wachter.jpg

In this episode I talk to Sandra Wachter about the right to explanation for algorithmic decision-making under the GDPR. Sandra is a lawyer and Research Fellow in Data Ethics and Algorithms at the Oxford Internet Institute. She is also a Research Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute in London. Sandra’s research focuses on the legal and ethical implications of Big Data, AI, and robotics as well as governmental surveillance, predictive policing, and human rights online. Her current work deals with the ethical design of algorithms, including the development of standards and methods to ensure fairness, accountability, transparency, interpretability, and group privacy in complex algorithmic systems.

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


Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 2:05 - The rise of algorithmic/automated decision-making
  • 3:40 - Why are algorithmic decisions so opaque? Why is this such a concern?
  • 5:25 - What are the benefits of algorithmic decisions?
  • 7:43 - Why might we want a 'right to explanation' of algorithmic decisions?
  • 11:05 - Explaining specific decisions vs. explaining decision-making systems
  • 15:48 - Introducing the GDPR - What is it and why does it matter?
  • 19:29 - Is there a right to explanation embedded in Article 22 of the GDPR?
  • 23:30 - The limitations of Article 22
  • 27:40 - When do algorithmic decisions have 'significant effects'?
  • 29:30 - Is there a right to explanation in Articles 13 and 14 of the GDPR (the 'notification duties' provisions)?
  • 33:33 - Is there a right to explanation in Article 15 (the access right provision)?
  • 37:45 - Is there any hope that a right to explanation might be interpreted into the GDPR?
  • 43:04 - How could we explain algorithmic decisions? Introducing counterfactual explanations
  • 47:55 - Clarifying the concept of a counterfactual explanation
  • 51:00 - Criticisms and limitations of counterfactual explanations
 

Relevant Links


   

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Papers on the Ethics of Sex Technology (Index)



Much to chagrin of everyone I know, I've written quite a number of papers about the ethical, legal and social implications of sextech. Most of it focuses on the media-friendly topic of sex robots, but I've also written about virtual reality, consent apps and intimate self-tracking. Anyway, I thought it might be useful to provide links to all of this material in one post. With the exception of the first three, all are available in open access repositories. I'll update the list when full versions become available.


Books


(No open access version of this, but you can read a sample chapter here)


Articles


  • Danaher, Nyholm and Earp (2018) 'The Benefits and Risks of Quantified Relationships', American Journal of Bioethics 18(2): W3-W6 (Academia; ResearchGate)

  • Danaher, J. (2018). The Law and Ethics of Virtual Sexual Assault. In Barfield and Blitz (eds) The Law of Virtual and Augmented Reality (Academia; Philpapers)








Monday, January 15, 2018

Episode #35 - Brundage on the Case for Conditional Optimism about AI


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In this episode I talk to Miles Brundage. Miles is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute and a PhD candidate in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology at Arizona State University. He is also affiliated with the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO), the Virtual Institute of Responsible Innovation (VIRI), and the Journal of Responsible Innovation (JRI). His research focuses on the societal implications of artificial intelligence. We discuss the case for conditional optimism about AI.

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


Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:00 - Why did Miles write the conditional case for AI optimism?
  • 5:07 - What is AI anyway?
  • 8:26 - The difference between broad and narrow forms of AI
  • 12:00 - Is the current excitement around AI hype or reality?
  • 16:13 - What is the conditional case for AI conditional upon?
  • 22:00 - The First Argument: The Value of Task Expedition
  • 29:30 - The downsides of task expedition and the problem of speed mismatches
  • 33:28 - How AI changes our cognitive ecology
  • 36:00 - The Second Argument: The Value of Improved Coordination
  • 40:50 - Wouldn't AI be used for malicious purposes too?
  • 45:00 - Can we create safe AI in the absence of global coordination?
  • 48:03 - The Third Argument: The Value of a Leisure Society
  • 52:30 - Would a leisure society really be utopian?
  • 56:24 - How were Miles's arguments received when presented at the EU parliament?
 

Relevant Links


 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

3 Podcasts about Bitcoin and the Blockchain




I have done several episodes of the Algocracy and Transhumanism Podcast on the philosophical and social implications of bitcoin and blockchain technologies. I thought it might be worth collating them together in this post for people who are interested in the topic.

Remember you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. The RSS feed is available here.


Episode #9 - Rachel O'Dwyer on Bitcoin, Blockchain and the Digital Commons:  
In this episode I talk to Rachel O’Dwyer about the digital commons, money, bitcoin and blockchain governance. We look at the historical origins of the commons, the role of money in human society, the problems with bitcoin and the creation of blockchain governance systems. You can download the episode here or listen below. 

Episode #14 - Aaron Wright on Blockchain Technology and the Law 
In this episode I speak to programmer and lawyer Aaron Wright. Aaron is an expert in corporate and intellectual property law, with extensive experience in Internet and new technology issues. He is a professor at Cardozo Law School and the Director of the School’s Tech Startup Clinic. I speak to Aaron about the issues arising from his forthcoming book about blockchain technology and the law (co-authored with Primavera De Filippi) that will be published by Harvard University Press. You can download here or listen below 

Episode #28 - Angela Walch on the Misunderstandings of Blockchain Technology 
In this episode I am joined by Angela Walch. Angela is an Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. Her research focuses on money and the law, blockchain technologies, governance of emerging technologies and financial stability. She is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Blockchain Technologies of University College London. Angela was nominated for “Blockchain Person of the Year” for 2016 by Crypto Coins News for her work on the governance of blockchain technologies. She joins me for a conversation about the misleading terms used to describe blockchain technologies. You can download here on listen below. 







Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Utopia of Games: Intelligible or Unintelligible?




According to Bernard Suits’s classic philosophical dialogue The Grasshopper playing games represents the highest ideal of human existence. The Grasshopper is set in a hypothetical post-instrumentalist future. That is: a future of technological abundance in which humans can have their every wish granted to them by smart machines. Need a house? In the world of the Grasshopper, you just have think about it and the mind-reading machines in the environment will build it for you. In this world, instrumental activity has been effectively limited. You don’t have to do anything in order to get something else. Activities are to be pursued strictly for their intrinsic merits.

This is, consequently, a world in which humans have nothing left to do but play games. One of the main functions of Suits’s dialogue is to provide a philosophically tractable definition of a ‘game’. These are defined as activities that humans voluntarily choose to perform and that interpose artificial obstacles between them and some arbitrarily chosen goal. Since all obstacles are artificial in a post-instrumentalist society, all activities are games. They can be fun to play, but they are ultimately inconsequential: nothing of value hinges on success in the game. You don’t earn money or gain access to other opportunities. You are playing the game purely for the hell of it.

The desirability of Suits’s game-playing utopia has been criticised over the years. I have written about these criticisms before. In this post I want to look at another criticism of the idea. This one comes from a paper entitled ‘Endless Summer: What kinds of games will Suits’ Utopians Play?’ by Christopher Yorke. It claims that Suits’s utopia runs into problems because it is unintelligible. I’m going to offer a detailed reconstruction and analysis of this argument from unintelligibility over the remainder of this post.


1. The Argument from Unintelligibility
Yorke’s paper doesn’t set out the objection to Suits’s utopia with the clarity that I would like. If you read it, you’ll see that he presents a series of concerns, starting with one about the impossibility of designing games that would be sufficient to stave off boredom in the post-instrumentalist world, and building into a general objection to the very idea of a post-instrumentalist world. On my reading, these objections can be united under a common argumentative framework - the argument from unintelligibility. I think this captures the core of what Yorke has to say, but in presenting it in this way I am going to be deviating from the structure of Yorke’s article. So, be warned that from here on out you are getting my take on Yorke’s argument, rather than a pure summary, in what follows.

The argument from unintelligibility works like this:


  • (1) In order to be rationally/motivationally compelling, a utopian project/vision must be intelligible (i.e. give some clear sense of how we get from here to there).

  • (2) Suits’s utopia of games is not intelligible.

  • (3) Therefore, Suits’s utopia is not rationally/motivationally compelling.



The surface structure of the argument is unfussy, but there is complexity buried beneath. Premise (1) is not something that is explicitly defended in Yorke’s article but I think it is implied and does some of the argumentative work. As it stands, I think that premise (1) is plausible. Classically, utopias are conceived as ‘blueprints’ for the ideal society. The most famous utopian work in the Western canon — Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia — is a detailed description of the organisation and functioning of a utopian society. The blueprint is supposed to guide us, to help us advocate for and realise political and social change. Of course, the blueprint model is not favoured by everyone. Some people prefer to conceive of utopianism as an ongoing process rather than a project that arrives at a stable end-state. But even if you prefer this procedural or horizonal approach to utopianism, you still need some clear sense of what the procedure is supposed to require. It’s not going to be compelling to ask people to sign up to something that is completely vague, unspecified or incomprehensible. So intelligibility looks like a must.

Suits’s utopia seems to fit, broadly, within the ‘blueprint’ class of theories. His book provides a sketch of a post-instrumentalist society and claims that it would represent the ideal of existence. Thus, it looks like he is following the classic utopian playbook and so should be held to the same standards: he should provide a vision that is rationally/motivationally compelling.

There is, however, an alternative interpretation of Suits’s book, one that is supported by Suits himself. Perhaps he is not trying to say that post-instrumentalism is desirable but, rather, that it is inevitable? If we look at general progress in technology to date, we see that it has primarily been about getting machines to do things on our behalf. If we perfect this technological progress, we will inevitably end up in a world in which machines can do everything we desire without requiring any effort on our part. We will then arrive at Suits’s hypothetical society. We will then be lucky that this society happens to coincide with what Suits calls the ‘ideal of existence’, but his goal is not to tell us how we are to get from here to there — that’s going to happen anyway. According to this interpretation, premise (1) does not apply to Suits’s argument.

The problem with this interpretation is that Suits is then trying to walk a very fine line. He is saying that his game-playing utopia is inevitable but that it will also be great. The latter makes it seem like something we should be getting behind: something that we should find rationally compelling. Furthermore, Suits suggests that there are certain things we should be doing to prepare for the post-instrumentalist reality, in particular we should start designing the games we will play to stave off boredom. This looks like a utopian project, one that needs some intelligibility if it is to be compelling.

If this is right, premise (1) does apply to Suits’s argument and we can move on to premise (2). This is the real nub of Yorke’s critique and it is defended in two different ways. We’ll look at both in what follows.


2. The Unintelligibility of Utopian Games
The first defence of premise (2) focuses on the nature of the games we will be playing in the post-instrumentalist society. Suits is clear that games will provide the difficulty and challenge that is needed to stave off boredom in this world, and he is clear that we need to start “the immense work of devising these wonderful games now”, but he is not clear on what these games will look like. This suggests to Yorke that the utopian games are epistemically inaccessible and hence unintelligible.


  • (4) In order for Suits’s utopia of games to be intelligible we need to have a clear sense of what utopian games will involve (particularly since we have to start designing them now).

  • (5) We have no clear sense of what utopian games will involve.

  • (2) Therefore, Suits’s utopia of games is not intelligible.



Before we get into the main part of this argument we have to clear up a potential source of confusion. The concept of a utopian game is somewhat ambiguous. Given how he defines games (as the achievement of arbitrary goals through the voluntary triumph over artificial obstacles) and how he characterises the post-instrumentalist society, there is a sense in which any activity undertaken in that society counts as a game. In other words, all activities in the post-instrumentalist society are ‘games by default’. This includes things like building your own house, or hunting for your own food, or doing scientific research: since machines can do these things for you any attempt to do them for yourself would involve the artificial imposition of obstacles between you and a goal. These activities would not be games in any other society. These ‘games by default’ should be contrasted with ‘games by design’, which are deliberately designed to function as games, and are always and everywhere game-like.

You might think that one way for Suits to overcome the unintelligibility problem is to fall back on ‘games by default’; to say that we do have some clear sense of what utopian games will look like: they will look like the instrumental activities that we perform today. For what it is worth, this is how I always interpreted the utopia of games. I imagined that it would consist of many of the activities that motivate us today, performed for fun (for their intrinsic merits) rather than necessity. But Yorke resists this interpretation of the argument. He thinks it doesn’t account for what Suits actually says. In particular, he thinks that if you focus on games by default you can’t make sense of Suits’s worries about boredom in a post-instrumentalist society, nor his injunction that we ought to start the work of designing the games that the utopians will play. This suggests that games by design are necessary too.

The problem then is that Suits provides no guidance as to what these games will look like. You can read between the lines of his book, however, and find some guidance as to what they will not look like. For example, Suits stipulates that in Utopia no one can be wronged or harmed. Yorke argues that this rules out immoral games:

So games that necessarily, in the course of playing them, incur irreparable physical harm upon their participants — such as Russian Roulette and Boxing — will be excluded from the utopian set. Similarly, games that require players to engage in immoral behaviors like bald-faced lying in order to play effectively — Werewolf and Diplomacy come to mind — will be off the menu. 
(Yorke, 8)

Similarly, Suits argues that all interpersonal problems will be eliminated in his utopia, which suggests that all cheating or unsportsmanlike behaviour will be impermissible:

…in Suits’s utopia, his utopian games will not be ruined by the bad behavior of their players. Cheating, trifling, spoilsporting, bullying, and grousing behaviors will all be preemptively (if somewhat rather mysteriously) eliminated.  
(Yorke, 8)

Finally, Suits says that the games cannot be boring. This, according to Yorke, rules out quite a large number of games:

Boring games would include soluble games (those with a dominant strategy that, once known, leave no opportunity for the exercise of meaningful player agency, like Tic Tac Toe), games of pure chance (those that leave no opportunity for the exercise of meaningful player agency because strategy and tactics cannot have impact on their outcome, such as Snakes and Ladders), and games of pure skill (like Chess — since utopians will have endless hours to devote to its study, and potentially live in a time ‘when everything knowable was in fact known’). 
(Yorke, 9)

The problem is that once you rule out all of these kinds of game — immoral ones, ones that involve unsportsmanlike behavior and ones that are boring — you end up with a space of possible utopian games that is epistemically inaccessible to creatures like us. The utopian games are clearly going to be very different from the kinds of games we currently play, and we have no concrete idea of what they will actually involve. This leads to unintelligibility. That’s the essence of Yorke’s first argument
I have some problems with this argument. I think Yorke sets too high a standard on what counts as immoral and boring.

For me, the immorality of conduct depends largely on the context and the consequences. Boxing might be immoral if it entails, as Yorke insists, irreparable harm (though you might dispute this on the grounds that people can consent to such harm). But why assume that harm would be irreparable in Suits’s utopia? If we have reached a state of technological perfection would this not also involve medical perfection? Think about the world of Star Trek. I remember several episodes where crew members were injured playing games on the holodeck, only to have their injuries quickly healed by the advanced medical technology. If that becomes possible for boxing-related injuries, then I don’t see how boxing retains its immorality. Likewise, I think that within the context of game, behavior that would ordinarily count as lying or deception, can lose any hint of immorality, particularly if it is required for success in the game. Indeed, I would go further and argue that it is not even possible to ‘lie’ when playing a game like Diplomacy. The standard philosophical definition of lying is to utter deliberate falsehoods in a context that ordinarily requires truth-telling. The context of the game Diplomacy is not one that ordinarily requires truth-telling. Deception is built into the fabric of the game: it’s part of what makes it fun. And since there are no serious long-term consequences of this deception, it’s once again hard to see where the immorality is. So, for me, the kinds of games that Yorke is quick to rule out would not be ruled out in Suits’s utopia.

I have similar issues with Yorke’s characterisation of boring games. I might concede that soluble games and games of pure chance and pure skill would eventually become boring, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be entertaining for a period of time (e.g. while people are figuring out the solution or developing the skill) and it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t create a neverending series of such games to stave off the boredom. In other words, Suits’s injunction against boredom need not be interpreted as an injunction against individual games that might eventually be boring, but as an injunction against the total set of games that utopians might play. Furthermore, just because a game might be soluble does not mean that humans will be able to solve it using their cognitive capacities. Machines might be able to solve many games that humans currently cannot, but that does not mean that the machine-solutions will be epistemically accessible to humans. A world of post-instrumental technological abundance is not necessarily one in which humans acquire superior cognitive abilities…or is it? That’s where we come to Yorke’s second argument.


3. The Unintelligibility of a Post-Instrumentalist Society
Yorke has another strategy for defending premise (2). This one takes aim at the very idea of a post-instrumentalist society. He argues that there is a significant ‘cultural gap’ our society and the one imagined by Suits. This post-instrumentalist society is consequently unintelligible to us from our current standpoint. One way in which you can test this is to look to Suits’s descriptions of that society. Yorke argues that they are not truly post-instrumentalist.

Recall, the basic definition of a post-instrumentalist society: it is one in which the need for all instrumental activities has been eliminated. But when you read what Suits has written, it’s clear that not all instrumental activities have been eliminated. He still talks about the need to eat and to stave off boredom. These are instrumental goals that need to be addressed by different activities. Furthermore, since human beings are biological creatures they will always have such instrumental needs. In fact, human beings are, in many ways, the quintessential instrumentalist creatures: we are distinguished from all other species by the flexibility of our means-end reasoning:

Scott Kretchmar argues from an anthropological standpoint that human beings have always been a need-driven species, and that this helps to explain how we have become the problem-solving and problem-seeking animals we are today [reference omitted]. We needn’t completely buy into a Darwinist line to appreciate Kretchmar’s perfectly reasonable observations about our species’ unique relation to obstacles, which stands as one of our defining characteristics. 
(Yorke, 16)

The point here is that a truly post-instrumentalist society would be one in which humans are radically different from what they currently are, i.e. one in which we have achieved some ‘posthuman’ state of existence. But since we have not currently achieved this state of existence, the idea is clearly be unintelligible to creatures like us. To state this in argumentative form:


  • (6) Suits’s utopia of games rests on the idea of a truly post-instrumentalist society.

  • (7) A truly post-instrumentalist society would only be intelligible to posthumans.

  • (8) We are not posthumans.

  • (2) Therefore, Suits’s utopia of games is not intelligible.


You can resist this argument. Premise (6) is particularly vulnerable to critique. As Yorke himself points out, since the idea of a truly post-instrumentalist society is so difficult to imagine, it’s probably not what Suits’s was trying to describe or defend. We can think of the instrumentalist nature of a society as something that exists in degrees. We currently live in what we might call a ‘hyper-instrumentalist’ society — i.e. one in which instrumentalist activity is rampant and central to our existence. This represents one extreme end of the spectrum of possible societies. At the other end is the completely ‘post-instrumentalist’ society — i.e. the one in which the need for instrumentalist activity has been completely eliminated. Between these two extremes, possibly closer to the post-instrumentalist end, lies the ‘hypo-instrumentalist’ society — i.e. the one in which many, but not all, instrumentalist activities have been eliminated.



It’s likely that Suits’s utopia of games is intended to exist in a hypo-instrumentalist society, not a truly post-instrumentalist society. In particular, it is supposed to exist in a society in which any need for physical labour in order to secure the basic goods of life — food, shelter, material consumables etc. — has been eliminated by technology. Other instrumental needs — e.g. the need for status, friendship, entertainment etc — may well remain.

Moving Suits’s utopia away from the extreme of post-instrumentalism could make his world more relatable to our own, but it all depends on how far away it is. Yorke seems to think that Suits’s imagined world of plenitude is so ‘irreducibly foreign’ from our world of scarcity that even the hypo-instrumentalist society is unintelligible to us:

I post that utopian hypo-instrumentality, and the alien values and culture which must of necessity accompany such a state of being, constitute a fatal obstacle to the project of utopian relatability. 
(Yorke, 18)

I’m not sure that I agree with this. I don’t think the idea of a post-scarcity society is as unintelligible as Yorke claims. Although there is undoubtedly much poverty and immiseration in a world today, there are some pockets of post-scarcity. In developed economies there is a seeming abundance of material goods, food and energy. It may well be an illusion — and one that is revealed as such in emergency situations — but for all practical, day-to-day purposes it gets pretty close to post-scarcity. Furthermore, there are some groups of people — super-wealthy elites — who probably get pretty close to living a post-scarcity life when it comes to these material goods and basic services. We could look to them for guidance on what a post-scarcity society would look like.

There are however deeper philosophical problems with hypo-instrumentalism and post-scarcity. The main problem is that the human capacity for instrumentalism, and for finding new forms of scarcity, may be infinite. What were once ‘wants’ can quickly turn into ‘needs’ and can be pursued with all the vigour and urgency that entails. So while we may eliminate certain instrumental needs from human life (e.g. the need for food or shelter), I think humans would quickly reallocate their mental resources to other perceived needs (e.g. the need for social status). This new need could then be pursued in a hyper-instrumentalist way, i.e. become the major focal point in society. I could easily imagine this happening in Suits’s utopia of games. So I’m not sure that we can ever achieve hypo-instrumentalism.

That said, I don’t think this makes Suits’s claim that games represent an ideal of existence unintelligible. It might make particular reading or interpretation of that ideal unintelligible, but the basic idea that we would be better off playing games than dedicating our time to securing our basic material well-being, could still be salvageable.





Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Moral Duty to Explore Space (1): The Positive Case



Space exploration has long been a source of fascination and wonderment to me. I grew up reading the classic science fiction novels of the mid-20th century, many of which idealised the notion of space travel. I also grew up watching the various Star Trek TV series of the 1990s, which seemed to embody a positive and progressive vision of humanity’s future in space. Our best hopes for the future, it seemed to me at the time, lay in exploring space. Space would provide a near-infinite arena in which to discover new truths and expand the possibilities of being.

And yet, when I turned to academic life, I found very few philosophers willing to seriously debate the merits of space exploration. This struck me as odd given how prominent the idea was in popular culture. If philosophers engaged with technology at all, it tended to be in the fields of biology, warfare and the internet. All worthy inquiries, to be sure, but why the lack of interest in space? I had to turn to scientists and science fiction writers for that, but they would often ignore or develop superficial analyses of the philosophical questions — the questions about meaning and value — that interested me.

Fortunately, this great silence is coming to an end. There has been a noticeable uptick in writings about ‘space ethics’ in the past few years. Philosophers like James Schwartz and Tony Milligan are doing some stellar work (sorry!) on this topic. Schwartz, for example, has written an interesting moral defence of space exploration. Indeed, he has gone even further and argued that not only is it morally permissible for us to explore space, it may actually be morally obligatory for us to do so.

I want to analyse Schwartz’s argument over the next two posts. I start, by looking at the positive case: the reasons for thinking that we have an obligation to explore space. I follow this up in the next post by looking at the objections to this positive case.


1. The Basic Structure of the Positive Case
Before we get too embroiled in the details of Schwartz’s argument, it will be helpful if we can clarify its intention. Schwartz is trying to present a moral case for space exploration. He doesn’t offer a clear definition of what is meant by ‘space exploration’ but, reading between the lines, it seems to mean something like this:

Space Exploration: The use of manned or unmanned spacecraft (and other technologies) to explore our solar system (including its planets and asteroids) and beyond. ‘Exploration’, here, is not limited to simply observing and recording details about the outer space environment, but also includes using resources from that environment, intervening in the natural environment on other planets and space bodies, and potentially settling (or ‘colonising’) those environments.

This might seem like a long-winded definition, but I think it is important to be clear on each of its elements. In particular, it is worth emphasising the fact it covers both manned and unmanned space exploration, and includes exploiting and otherwise manipulating the outer space environment.

How can you make a moral argument for such space exploration? You start with a simple motivating moral principle:

Motivating moral principle: We have an ethical duty to ensure the survival of the human species, and to protect the environment that we inhabit here on Earth.

For many people, this principle will be uncontroversial. I suspect that if you asked most people whether we have a duty to ensure our own survival and the survival of the ecosystems we inhabit, they would probably agree that we do (at the very least they would agree to the former if not the latter). Philosophers, however, may be inclined to disagree, arguing that we don’t necessarily owe a duty to an abstract class like ‘the human species’ and others arguing that there is nothing intrinsically valuable about the non-human environment. There are significant debates here about how we conceive and understand value and duty. We’ll have to set most of those to the side for now and work with the moral principle as set out above. Nevertheless, rest assured that Schwartz does entertain some criticisms of the motivating moral principle. We’ll get to some in due course.

So what, then, is the positive case for space exploration? There are three prongs to Schwartz’s argument, each one set out as a distinct sub-argument:

The Argument from Resources: We have an ethical duty to explore space in order to gain access to valuable resources.

The Argument from Asteroids: We have an ethical duty to explore space in order to protect the Earth from existentially threatening asteroid impacts.

The Argument from Solar Burnout: We have an ethical duty to explore space in order to ensure our survival beyond solar burnout.


Let’s look at each of these arguments in more detail.




2. The Argument from Resources
Schwartz sets out the argument from resources in the following manner (I have shortened this slightly):


  • (1) There are plentiful resources in space (on asteroids, comets, planets etc.).

  • (2) We need basic resources to survive and we will eventually exhaust the resources available to us here on Earth.

  • (3) Therefore, we will need to acquire resources from space in order to ensure our long-term survival.

  • (4) We are obligated to do what is necessary to ensure our long-term survival and to protect our environment.

  • (5) Therefore, we are obligated to explore outer space in order to acquire necessary resources from it.


There are two potentially controversial premises in this argument. Premise (1) is potentially controversial because even if it is true that there are plentiful resources in space, they may not be the kinds of resources we need to survive. What do we know about the resource makeup of space that would justify this view? Schwartz notes that breathable air and drinkable water are probably the two most important resources for human survival. We know that water exists elsewhere in our solar system (and on asteroids and comets) and can be extracted from these bodies with more or less difficulty. Breathable air is, however, in short supply, though it may be abundant beyond our solar system. There are, nevertheless, other resources, particularly metals, available on asteroids and other planets. These are essential for various industrial processes and exist in such abundance that they could satisfy human needs in this regard for a long time. So while we may not find every resource we need in space, we can certainly find resources that are valuable.

Premise (2) is probably the more controversial premise. It seems to suggest that we will, inevitably, exhaust the resources available here on Earth. This is something that environmentalists and conservationists could reject. They might agree that we will exhaust the resources if we continue as we are currently doing, but if we could reduce the human population, and switch to more sustainable and environmentally renewable modes of production, we could preserve the resource base indefinitely. Schwartz concedes this possibility but offers three responses to it. First, he thinks that certain strategies for conservation could prove depressing and less than ideal. For instance, depopulating the earth by (voluntarily) reducing fertility could be depressing since procreation is such a deeply embedded need for so many people. Second, he thinks that even if we could conserve the Earth’s resources, this is a risky process and we should probably have a back-up plan in case it fails. Acquiring resources from space would be an obvious back-up plan. Third, he says that even if you ultimately accept the conservationist view, you don’t defeat the case for space exploration because there are other arguments to contend with.


3. The Argument from Asteroids
The second argument works like this (again, this is slightly modified from Schwartz’s presentation):


  • (6) It is very likely that at sometime in the future a catastrophic event such as an asteroid (meteorite) impact will render Earth’s biosphere uninhabitable.

  • (4) We are obligated to do what is necessary to ensure our long-term survival and to protect our environment.

  • (7) Therefore, we are obligated to prevent catastrophic events such as meteorite impacts.

  • (8) Developing planetary defence technologies is the only way to meet this obligation.

  • (9) Therefore, we are obligated to develop planetary defence technologies.


This argument is more philosophically interesting than the previous one. We can take it for granted that premise (6) is true. We have ample evidence from the past to suggest that such catastrophic impacts can occur and that these have radically altered the Earth’s biosphere. While they may not completely wipe out all forms of life, they have certainly been destructive and if we want to ensure our survival we would be best advised to avoid them.

But here is where we run into a philosophically interesting debate, one that has to with the exact nature of our obligation to protect ourselves and the environment (i.e. premise (4)). Schwartz’s notes that there is a range of preservationist views that dictate different approaches to this obligation. The two extreme ends of the range can be characterised in the following manner:

Weak Preservationism: We have an obligation to (roughly) maintain current levels of bio-diversity, but not all existing forms of life nor all existing habitats.

Strong Preservationism: We have an obligation to protect all (or most) currently existing species in their current environments.

Weak preservationism does not generate an obligation to create planetary defence technologies. If we have no specific obligation to protect the Earth’s species and habitats as currently constituted, we could discharge our preservationist obligation by creating ‘space-arks’ or off-world colonies/settlements. This still results in a obligation to explore outer space and so would still support Schwartz’s overall case. Nevertheless, it’s only if we embrace strong preservationism that we are obliged to create planetary defence technologies.

This however raises its own questions. Why embrace the strong preservationist view? Is there something intrinsically valuable about the current set of species and habitats that warrants their preservation? Schwartz looks at an argument from Holmes Rolston III that call this into doubt. Rolston observes, reasonably enough, that there have been many extinction events in the history of the Earth. The last great extinction occurred at the end of the Cretaceous period and resulted in the end of the dinosaurs. This extinction is thought to have been precipitated by a meteorite impact. But there is a paradox here. In a very real sense, we owe our existence to that impact. If it did not happen, dinosaurs could still be the dominant species. It was only through their extinction that our small rodent-like ancestors gained the ascendancy, and evolved into the many diverse forms we see on Earth today. There is, consequently, a ‘creative potential’ embedded in destructive events like meteorite impacts. This creative potential could be viewed as, on balance, a good thing: it’s good to have some evolutionary change and dynamism rather than stasis and preservation. So maybe we shouldn’t be looking to protect ourselves from catastrophic events like meteorite impacts?

Schwartz again offers three responses. First, he argues that we could accept the value of ‘creative potential’ in nature without accepting the need to permit catastrophic events. There may be other ways to preserve that creative potential. Indeed, human beings could, through genetic engineering, be a major new source of creative potential (Schwartz doesn’t say this but it occurred to me as I read his argument). Second, there is a danger in Rolston’s strategy since there is no guarantee that catastrophic events like meteor impacts always lead to future creativity. If the impact was of sufficient magnitude it might wipe out all creative potential on Earth. Prudence would, again, seem to militate against this approach. Finally, a basic concern for current sentient life, and an awareness of the danger of instrumentalising that life (i.e. treating it as a means to some other potential, but not fully specified, good) would tip the balance in favour of planetary defence.


3. The Argument from Solar Burnout
The last of Schwartz’s three arguments works like this:


  • (10) Living organisms from Earth require habitable environments in order to survive.

  • (4) We are obligated to do what is necessary to ensure our long-term survival and to protect our environment.

  • (11) Therefore we have an obligation to ensure that Earthlings have access to permanent habitable environments.

  • (12) One day, the sun will burn out and render the Earth uninhabitable; pursuing interstellar colonisation is the only way to secure permanent access to habitable environments.

  • (13) Therefore, we are obligated to pursue interstellar colonisation.


This is obviously a very long-term argument. The sun is not going to burn out anytime soon. But if it makes sense to think about our obligation to survive on billion-year timescales, the significance of solar burnout cannot be ignored. We will have to confront it sooner or later.

There are, of course, some objections to that argument. An obvious one is that all the hope underlying it — that we will be able to access permanent habitable environments — is forlorn. Avoiding solar burnout is just a stop-gap measure. According to our best available theories, the universe itself will eventually burnout (experience a heat death) and become uninhabitable. We cannot outrun our destiny. Schwartz concedes this point, but argues that even if the universe is going to undergo a heat death it is not going to undergo one for a very long time. The sun will burnout in about 5 billion years, but this only represents 5 trillionths of the currently estimated habitable lifespan of the universe. So we can definitely hope for a much longer survival through interstellar colonisation than we can by hanging around on Earth.

This is probably true, but I’m not sure how much moral (or persuasive) weight it should carry. I don’t think humans are well-equipped for moral reasoning on billion or trillion year timescales. Although the difference is huge mathematically, I suspect it all blurs into one when we start to think about it. At least, it does for me. Consequently, I’m not sure that the survival advantage highlighted by Schwartz is intelligible at the moment.

Setting that aside, there is still another problem: that interstellar travel is (currently) technically impossible. This impossibility could be thought to undermine any moral obligation to pursue it since, if we follow Kant, ‘ought implies can’. In other words, if we can’t do it, we don’t have any obligation to do it. Again, Schwartz concedes the current technical impossibility of interstellar travel, but argues that it is not logically impossible, and so we may have a lesser obligation to at least pursue its technical possibility. So while we may not currently have an obligation to travel between the stars, we may have an obligation to try to make it possible in the future.

Okay, that’s the end of Schwartz’s positive case for space exploration. I’ll look at the criticisms and replies the next day.




Thursday, January 4, 2018

Episode #34 - Lin on the Rise of Cyborg Finance

Tom-Lin-Photo-300x400.jpg

 In this episode I talk to Tom Lin. Tom is a Professor of Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. His research and teaching expertise are in the areas of corporations, securities regulation, financial technology, financial regulation, and compliance. Professor Lin and his research has been published and cited by numerous leading law journals, and featured in The Wall Street JournalBloomberg News, and The Financial Times, among other media outlets. We talk about the rise of 'cyborg finance' (Cy-Fi) and the regulatory challenges it poses.

 You can download the episode here, or listen below. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher (the RSS feed is here).



Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:30 - What is cyborg finance?
  • 5:57 - What explains the rise of cyborg finance? Innovation, Regulation and Competition
  • 9:00 - The problem of systemic risk in the financial system
  • 15:05 - "Too Linked to Fail" - The first systemic risk of cyborg finance
  • 19:30 - "Too fast to save" - the second systemic risk of cyborg finance
  • 23:00 - The problem of short-term thinking in the financial system
  • 27:15 - Does cyborg finance undermine the idea of the 'reasonable investor'?
  • 34:57 - The problem of cybernetic market manipulation
  • 37:44 - Are these genuinely novel threats or old threats in a new guise?
  • 41:11 - Regulatory principles and values for the age of cyborg finance
 

Relevant links





The Final Frontier: Space Exploration as a Utopian Project




It is said that Alexander the Great, after his conquests in Asia, looked out over his lands and was sad because there was nothing left to conquer. Of course, this was not true. There was plenty of land left to conquer at the time. Nowadays, however, we have something to be sad about. Virtually every inch of our planet has been mapped, or settled or controlled by our fellow human beings. True, there are areas of the deep ocean that are beyond our remit, and environments that are simply too harsh or unpleasant for us to live in for very long, but we know about them, have explored them to some extent, and can make choices about whether we want to live there. There are no real frontiers left on earth.*

Space is a different matter. Space is, to borrow a phrase, the final frontier. If we move out into space, we will be explorers once again, facing new challenges and possibilities. Is this something we should welcome? Could (manned) space exploration be conceived of as a utopian project — something that fulfils the highest ideal for human society? Maybe. In his article ‘Prospects for Utopia in Space’, Christopher C. Yorke considers the connection between space exploration and utopianism. He argues that a certain kind of utopian project is indeed compatible with space exploration, but it faces opposition from another popular conception of utopianism. I want to analyse his argument in this post.


1. Three Flavours of Utopianism
I’ll start where Yorke starts by distinguishing between three different approaches to utopianism. They are:

Teleological Utopianism: This is a type of utopianism that focuses on achieving some stable, ideal end-state for humanity. It is commonly associated with specific ‘blueprints’ for the ideal society. These blueprints are supposed to ‘draw us forward from the present to a more desirable future’ (Yorke, 2). They are supposed to motivate political action and change.

Discursive Utopianism: This is a type of utopianism that focuses on using idealistic blueprints to critique certain features of present society. It is not focused on achieving some particular ideal, but rather identifying and describing several alternatives to our current position. It is primarily a historical and literary movement, looking at how dissatisfaction with the present is pushing us toward something different and better.

Horizonal Utopianism: This is a type of utopianism that focuses on constantly shifting horizons of desire for humanity. The idea here is that there is no single, ideal blueprint that represents a stable end-state for humanity. Utopia is, rather, always just over the horizon: it is something we aim for but never quite achieve. If we achieved it, it would no longer be a utopia. The utopian project is thus conceived of as a constant process — a treadmill of elevating possibilities — not a journey with a fixed destination.


Hopefully, these definitions are reasonably clear. I think the contrast between the teleological and horizonal models is obvious and intuitive: they are contradictories. The discursive model is a little more opaque to me. I get that utopianism in literature is often used to critique and/or satire current social situations, and to articulate different possibilities for humanity, but I’m not entirely sure where discursive utopianism sits, conceptually speaking, relative to the other two.

Fortunately, I can ignore this. Yorke’s main argument has to do with the contrast between the teleological and horizonal approach. He argues that space exploration can be utopian if we conceive of utopianism in horizonal terms; it is not utopian if we conceive of utopianism in teleological terms. Let’s look at both parts of the argument now, starting with the rejection of teleological utopianism.


2. Space Exploration and Teleological Utopianism
Yorke’s argument for the incompatibility of teleological utopianism and space exploration is remarkably straightforward. It works something like this (the construction is mine, not Yorke’s):


  • (1) Teleological utopianism is motivated by a vision of the ideal end-state for humanity, i.e. it is about achieving a state of existence that is best for beings like us.

  • (2) An existence in space (either outer space or other planets) is not best for beings like us.

  • (3) Therefore, space exploration is not compatible with teleological utopianism.


The critical premise here is premise (2). Why assume that space is not the best place for beings like us? Yorke favours a biological incompatibility argument. We are evolved to live in a certain set of habitats and ecosystems. On Earth, we live in environments that are not too hot and not too cold. We are shielded from solar radiation by the Earth’s magnetic sphere. We have symbiotic relationships with bacteria and other organisms. These are just some of the factors that make an earth-bound existence convenient for beings like us. Space is different. We are not evolved to live there. It is a much harsher environment, not congenial to our flourishing. If we go there, we would have to live in highly protective and restrictive spaces that we create for ourselves. If there is life on other planets, we could be exposed to new biological threats and diseases. In the words of Dr McCoy from Star Trek: “space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence”.

This all seems plausible, insofar as it goes. It does, however, highlight a problem with the argument. The motivating assumption behind premise (1) is that teleological utopianism requires a form of existence that is best for beings like us, i.e. being that are constituted as we are currently constituted. But why assume that human nature is fixed in our utopian blueprint? Could we not also change that in order to achieve some more ideal state of existence? This, after all, is what the transhumanist project is all about: escaping from the limitations of our biological form. This could be achieved through genetic and biological manipulation, and it could also be achieved through closer integration with machines (cyborgisation). Indeed, the first article discussing the idea of the cyborg was Klines and Cline’s article on manned space exploration and the need for cyborgisation. So, in many ways, transhumanism has always been part of our imaginings about our future in space.

Yorke acknowledges this. But he argues that if we did incorporate transhumanism into our teleological blueprint, we are likely to end up with something that is closer to a horizonal model of utopianism. Why? Because if nothing is really fixed — not even human nature — the prospects of a stable end-state for humanity are slight.


3. Horizonal Utopianism and Space Exploration
Yorke’s argument for the compatibility between horizonal utopianism and space exploration is also remarkably straightforward. It is, however, a bit stronger than an argument for mere compatibility. It claims that space exploration might be the only way to preserve the horizonal model of utopianism. The argument, as best I can tell, works like this:


  • (4) Horizonal utopianism is about ensuring that there are no fixed horizons of human possibility; it requires that we constantly push out toward new frontiers.

  • (5) Space exploration is the only way to ensure no fixed horizon for humanity.

  • (6) Therefore, space exploration is compatible with (and maybe the only way to preserve) the horizonal approach to utopianism.


Premise (5) is the key to this argument. Its defence comes in two parts. The first part argues that staying on earth means accepting a fixed horizon. The second part argues that space has limitless horizons. To support the first part you can follow the reasoning I set out in the introduction to this post, i.e. point out that we have conquered and explored virtually all corners of the earth, and that, even if there are some elements left to conquer and explore, there is no getting around the fact that the Earth is finite: we will eventually exhaust its horizons. To support the second part, you can point to the virtually limitless frontiers of space. As Yorke puts it:

In the unconquerable vastness of space, the unyielding aspirations of humankind might meet their material match. If, indeed, space represents the final frontier of human desire, because the conditions for its complete possession can never be met, then the horizonal model of utopia may indeed have a novel and central role for outer space to play within it. 
(Yorke, 8)

He follows this up later on with a reaffirmation of the limits of life of Earth:

In the barest physical sense, but also in an important psychological one, the abandonment of space exploration is the acceptance of a fixed horizon for humankind. 
(Yorke, 11)

This supports the view that Yorke’s argument is not just about the compatibility between horizonal utopianism and space exploration, but also about the preservation of the horizonal ideal.

But this, of course, raises a deeper question: is the horizonal model actually an ideal? To answer that, Yorke looks at a contrast between two theories: ‘frontierism’, which he derives from the work of Frederick Turner; and ‘consolidationism’, which he associates with the work of Immanuel Kant. Frontierism is an idea that is deeply embedded in the US psyche. It can be supported by a virtue ethical approach to the good life. The idea is that the frontier of possibility represents a set of obstacles to human existence (physical, mental, social etc.). By trying to overcome these obstacles, we build character and develop our virtues. Furthermore, the greater the obstacles, the greater the virtues being developed. Since space would be filled with many great obstacles, it could provide the ideal arena for developing virtues. This is why it would be a good thing to explore the final frontier of space. (For what it’s worth, I think this is wrong. Frontierism can work both ways: overcoming obstacles can bring out the worst in us as well as the best, particularly if the obstacles drive us to extremes of behaviour).

Contrast that with consolidationism. This is the view found in Immanuel Kant’s essay ‘Perpetual Peace’. It holds that limits on humanity are a good thing because they will force us to reach some accommodation with one another (to achieve the perpetual peace of Kant’s title). It is when we are pushing towards a new frontier that we get into conflict; reaching the limits existential possibility will lead to stability. As Yorke describes it: “Consolidation of Kant’s variety models humanity as a liquid, which will come to rest peacefully once it fully spreads to the edges of its container (Yorke, 16).

A full consideration of the merits of consolidationism lies beyond the scope of this post. Fortunately, we don’t need a full consideration. Yorke criticises it on the grounds that it contains one significant, conceptual flaw. Consolidationism only incentivises peace if we all agree that we have reached the limit: that there are no lands (in a metaphorical sense) left to conquer. As long as there is the ‘live’ possibility of a new frontier, our restlessness and ambition can takeover once again. Space is a ‘live’ possible new frontier. Even if we are not currently exploring it and populating it, we can at least envision that possibility. We can imagine, and even start to create, the technologies that will enable us to explore this final frontier. That means consolidationism is highly unlikely to take hold in the real world. Frontierism — and with it the horizonal model — provides a more practical and unifying vision.


4. Some lingering concerns
All that said, there are some lingering doubts one can have about the merits of the horizonal view and its link to space exploration. Yorke himself acknowledges two. The first concerns the distinction between individual and collective horizons. Obviously what counts as a horizon (or new frontier) for me may not count as a horizon for humanity as a whole. I have never been to China, for example. Exploring China would mean exploring a new frontier for me. Indeed, I have lots of horizons left to explore on Earth: I can thus carry out my own utopian project right here without ever thinking about going into space. But obviously my personal horizons are not the same as humanity’s as a whole. If we are to follow the horizonal model, we must think in terms of collective horizons, not individual ones.

The other concern that Yorke discusses is the potential tension between the horizonal case for space exploration and other moral considerations that may weigh against space exploration. The horizonal model does not provide an all-things-considered case for space exploration. It could be that space exploration is unwise or immoral for other reasons, e.g. it would waste valuable resources or destroy the environment. You need to factor in these other moral considerations when making the all-things-considered case for space exploration.

I have my own doubts about the horizonal case for space exploration. My main worry is the lack of precision on what counts as a ‘horizon’ or ‘frontier’. Throughout much of the critique of consolidationism, Yorke seems to presume a geographical/physical conception of horizons. The problem with Earth is that its geographical limits have been reached (or, at least, will be eventually). But I think we should favour a broader, more conceptual understanding of horizons. Humans exist in multiple realms/dimensions — the mental, social, emotional, biological, geographical — each of which has its own current horizons of possibility. If we adopted this broader conception of horizons, premise (5) of the horizonal case for space exploration would be much weaker than it currently appears to be. We may have reached our geographical limits on Earth but have we reached our mental, social and biological limits? I would say not. Exploring geographical space is just one way of realising the horizonal model; there are others too. It surprises me that Yorke doesn’t consider this in more detail in his article, particularly given that his earlier comments about transhumanism hinted at a broader conception of horizons.

This is not to deny the value of space exploration. If we are committed to the horizonal model, I think space exploration would be a good idea since it would be good to push out on all frontiers. I also think there are other moral considerations that weigh in favour of space exploration. But I will have to leave discussion of those to some other time.

* I’m speaking loosely and abstractly about the human species as a whole. There are many people who do not have a choice over where they live for political and personal reasons. Also, the language of conquest and colonisation is deeply problematic since it historically involves taking control of land that has been settled and controlled by others.



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Popper's Critique of Utopianism and Defence of Negative Utilitarianism



Every year when I go home for Christmas, I revisit my old library. It’s the set of books that I read when I was in my early 20s, back when I was finishing my undergraduate degree and going on to postgraduate studies. Although I have read many more books since then, those books hold a special place in my heart. I read them at a formative stage in my life: when I was first developing my philosophical views. I probably remember more about those books than I do about the ones I have read in the last three or four years.

This past week, when I was home again for the Christmas break, I picked up one of the books that had quite an influence on me when I first read it: Karl Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations. I was very interested in the philosophy of science at the time and Popper was a giant in the field. But Popper’s philosophical interests extended well beyond the philosophy of science. He defended a general theory of knowledge, based on the acceptance of profound uncertainty, that he used to resolve some classic problems in epistemology (e.g. Hume’s problem of induction) and to develop a distinctive political ethos. I was never much interested in Popper’s political philosophy when I first read his work, but when I picked up the book again over the Christmas break I decided to take a look at the more political essays. One, in particular, caught my eye. It was his essay on ‘Utopianism and Violence’.

I have recently developed an interest in utopian theory — it’s part of a book project that I am currently working on — and I am eager to read anything about it. Popper was a critic of utopian theories, believing that many of famous utopian works in philosophy (like those of Plato and Marx) were dangerously authoritarian. What I want to do in the remainder of this post is to analyse and evaluate the argument against utopianism that Popper presents in this essay. It’s not a particularly rigorous presentation, but there are some interesting titbits, and it does espouse a popular concern about utopianism.

The argument itself comes in two parts. The first part is a critique of the violent impulse that lies at the heart of utopianism; the second is a defence of an alternative, anti-utopian view. I want to see how well the logic of both parts holds up.


1. Does Utopianism Lead to Violence?
It would probably help if we started with some clear sense of what ‘utopianism’ is. This is not easy since people use the term to refer to different things: a set of views in political philosophy, a description of historical political and social movements, a genre of literature, and so on. Fortunately, Popper provides us with his own preferred definition. He says that ‘utopianism’ is the political philosophy according to which:

[W]e must first attempt to become as clear as possible about our ultimate political ends and only afterwards can we begin to determine the means which may best help us to realise this state. 
(Conjectures and Refutations, 481)

I have seen this referred to elsewhere as the ‘teleological’ or ‘blueprint’ model of utopianism. It is the notion that we must first sketch the blueprint for the ideal society and then work out how to get there.
Popper’s major critique of blueprint utopianism is that it leads to violence. This is something that appears to be borne out by the historical evidence, but Popper wants to go beyond historical evidence in his argument. He claims that there is an impulse to violence that is inherent to all blueprint utopian movements. The impulse to violence is the natural consequence of three fundamental assumptions.

These assumptions form the backbone of Popper’s argument. I will call them the ‘plurality assumption’, the ‘conflict assumption’, and the ‘irrationality assumption’ respectively. Knitting them together into a logical argument, I take it that Popper’s case against utopianism looks something like this:

(1) Plurality assumption: Humans have different preferred ultimate ends (i.e. different groups have different conceptions of utopia).

(2) Conflict assumption: On at least some occasions (and perhaps many) the different utopian visions come into direct conflict, i.e. it is not possible to realise one vision without eliminating another.

(3) Irrationality assumption: It is not always possible to resolve these conflicts by rational means; oftentimes violence is the only way to eliminate the conflict.

(4) Therefore, utopianism oftentimes leads to violence.


The conclusion is somewhat modest. The claim is not that utopianism always and everywhere leads to violence, but simply that it has a tendency to do so. Furthermore, the plurality and conflict assumptions are reasonably uncontroversial: it seems obviously true to say that people have different conceptions of the ideal society and that these conceptions can conflict. Think about the conflict between communists and anarcho-capitalists or between secular humanists and radical Islamists. Each is, according to its supporters, utopian, but they are hardly compatible.

That said, plurality and conflict by themselves need not lead to violence. If there were some objective hierarchy of value, that could be agreed upon by all, it may be possible to resolve the conflicts by rational argument. This is exactly what Popper disputes with the irrationality assumption. His case for this assumption rests on the belief that values are not subject to scientific investigation and analysis. This means they are not open to the same kind of objective (or intersubjective) agreement:

[S]ince we cannot determine the ultimate ends of political action scientifically, or by purely rational methods, differences of opinion concerning what the ideal state should look like cannot always be smoothed out by the method of argument. 
(Conjectures and Refutations, p. 483)

This might strike you as a self-defeating claim. Popper himself concedes that rational argument is not completely out of bounds in the political arena. He acknowledges that what he is trying to do in his essay is present rational arguments against utopianism, which he hopes will persuade many people. This suggests that it might be possible — however improbable in practice it may be — for people to actually rationally coordinate on some blueprint for an ideal society at a particular moment in time. Does this possibility hold some hope for the utopian?

Popper says ‘no’. He has another argument that deals with this scenario. This argument is a slight variation on the first one, focusing on how values can change over time:


  • (5) The ultimate aims/ends of society can change over time, i.e. what seemed desirable to a group of people at T1 may seem much less desirable at T2.

  • (6) It would completely undermine any utopian project to allow for such changes in value over time: the purpose of a utopian project is to realise a particular blueprint for society.

  • (7) Therefore, utopians will have an incentive to stamp out new alternative views, and they will do this by means of violence.



This argument is logically looser than the first. There is something of a leap from the premises to the conclusion. Nevertheless, I believe my reconstruction is fair to what Popper says in his essay. He has an enthymematic style of presentation that leaves some of the key premises unstated. Furthermore, the logical leap to the conclusion is shortened, somewhat, when we learn that Popper’s definition of violence includes “propaganda, the suppression of criticism and the annihilation of opposition”. In other words, it’s not just kidnapping and assassination that counts as violence.

This, however, leads me to two criticisms of Popper’s argument. The first is concerned with his definition of violence. I think Popper may be over-extending the definition of violence and as a consequence may be misdiagnosing the problem with utopianism. As Aldous Huxley famously said to George Orwell, what is likely going to be truly insidious about utopian (or ‘dystopian’ - the line between the two is thin) societies is not that they use violence to enforce their preferred vision, but that they use techniques of mind control to get you to agree with their vision. People won’t be afraid to express their true opinion for fear of retaliation from the regime; they will wholeheartedly agree with what the regime has to say. Now, to be clear, I think there is something less than ideal about such a society, but I don’t think it is because it leads to violence. I think it is problematic because of how it impacts on freedom of thought and autonomy. This suggests to me that ‘violence’ is not always the most appropriate concept to use to critique utopianism.

The second criticism, which is perhaps more significant, has to do with how Popper defines utopianism. He defines it as having a blueprint for the ideal society, fully formed, before one embarks on a political project. We could accept his definition as being purely stipulative, in which case his claims about the use of violence and suppression by a utopian regime might be plausible. But this would then cause us to overlook another prominent strand of utopian thought: the one that does not sketch out detailed blueprints for the ideal society, but rather thinks in terms of expanding frontiers of progress. There is a famous Oscar Wilde quote that captures this sentiment:

A map of the world that does not include utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.

This progressive conception of utopianism would be more tolerant of the shifting sands of opinion over time. This might stem the impulse to violence that Popper sees in the utopian outlook. (This is not to mention the ‘meta-utopian’ philosophy of Robert Nozick, which is explicitly designed to address the problems of plurality and conflict).


2. What Political Ideals are Appropriate?
Popper goes beyond mere critique in his essay. Although dismissive of utopian projects, he wants to maintain some role for idealism in the political sphere. Indeed, Popper has an optimistic bent when it comes to the future. From whence does this optimism spring?

It is here that Popper’s ‘negative utilitarianism’ rears its head. Popper does not think that society should aim at realising optimal states of happiness and well-being in the future; rather, he thinks we should try to eliminate ‘concrete evils’ in the here and now. The elimination of such evils is all we need for political idealism (of a sort) to flourish.

You might wonder whether this ‘elimination of concrete evils’-strategy is substantially different from blueprint utopianism. Popper argues that it is. He does so for largely epistemic reasons, two of which figure prominently in his essay. These form quasi-independent lines of support for his political project.


(5) We have better knowledge/understanding of what it takes to eliminate concrete evils because we have direct and immediate acquaintance with them; we only know ideal situations through, often vague, imaginings.
(6) There is far greater intersubjective agreement about the most serious concrete evils than there is about ideal societies.
(7) Therefore, we ought to focus on eliminating concrete evils, not on blueprint utopianism.


There is something to be said for the premises of this argument. Concrete evils exist in the here and now. They are not merely hypothetical or potential. There are people suffering from war, disease, famine, displacement and so on. Even if we ourselves are not suffering, we can easily gain epistemic access to the suffering of others (if we are willing to expose ourselves to it). No one has similarly direct acquaintance with an ideal society. Furthermore, many people agree on the major ‘concrete evils’ that exist in the world today.

That said, I’m much less optimistic than Popper is on both of these fronts. I think there are two objections to his line of thinking. First, I think the distance between the elimination of evils and the realisation of ideals is shorter than he seems to think. Indeed, you could argue that identifying a concrete evil carries, by some necessary implication, an agreement on an ideal. In other words, if X is a concrete evil, then not-X (or the opposite of X or denial of X) is going to be a necessary element in the blueprint for an ideal society. If you draw together enough not-Xs, you might come up with something that looks an awful lot like a utopian political project.

To be fair, though, I think there is some conceptual distinction between the elimination of concrete evils and the realisation of ideals. If we take it that ‘great physical pain’ is a concrete evil, then the opposite of this (the ideal state) would be something like ‘great physical pleasure/joy’. It might seem like in identifying the concrete evil you, necessarily, develop a conception of the ideal. Nevertheless, trying to eliminate great physical pain, does not, by itself, mean that you are trying to bring about great physical pleasure. There is an intermediate state of being — one in which pain is absent — that you are trying to bring about. This is illustrated in the diagram below. Popper could argue that his political project is about aiming for these intermediate states, and so could deny the charge that it amounts to the same thing as utopianism.



This, however, leads me to the second objection to Popper’s argument. I think his argument is vulnerable to the same criticisms about conflict and plurality, and dynamic change, that he threw at blueprint utopianism. For one thing, I’m not at all convinced, as Popper seems to be, that there is widespread agreement on the most important concrete evils facing society today. Popper was writing in the mid-20th century when there may have been more agreement about this, particularly in the West, but I think that time has past. Just as there are incompatible hierarchies of value thwarting utopian projects, so too are there incompatible hierarchies of disvalue thwarting negative utilitarian projects. Different groups often disagree about what deserves priority. Furthermore, what counts as a concrete evil shifts over time. Once upon a time bullying and sexual harassment wouldn’t have got a look in when it came to identifying society’s greatest challenges; nowadays they are front and centre.

Ironically, I think this leads Popper to develop a utopian philosophy of his own, albeit one that is closer to the progressive model that I identified at the end of the last section. One of Popper’s main problems with blueprint utopianism seems to be that it treats current social orders as ‘mere means’ to an end. This can justify great evils. His preferred approach — progressive negative utilitarianism — doesn’t make this mistake:

We must not argue that a certain social situation is a mere means to an end on the grounds that it is a merely historical situation. For all situations are transient. 
(Conjectures and Refutations, 486)

We should instead aim to eliminate currently identified concrete evils and, if and when we succeed with this, move on to newly identified evils. In this manner we can progressively asymptote towards a more ‘ideal’ society, without ever fixating on a particular blueprint or model.

I think there is some wisdom in this idea.