Sunday, August 28, 2016

Can I maintain the view that human flourishing is the exercise of practical wisdom whilst remaining a fan of the social intuitionist model of ethics?

If you want to understand individual human flourishing it is desirable to study the contributions of different academic disciplines. That is how I justify the eclectic approach adopted on this blog. That raises the possibility, however, that the views I find persuasive from different disciplines could sometimes be irreconcilable.

The above question arose because I am attracted to the view of individual human flourishing, as the exercise of practical wisdom within a teleological process. This view was presented by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen (hereafter referred to for brevity as D&D) in their recently published book, The Perfectionist Turn, which I have not long finished reading. The teleological (developmental) aspect was discussed briefly in my last post.

I have previously been persuaded that the social intuitionist model, presented by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, seems to pretty well fit known facts about moral reasoning. Haidt observes:
‘Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. That’s why I say that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” You’ll misunderstand moral reasoning if you think about it as something people do by themselves in order to figure out the truth’ (p 49).

On first appearances, it does look as though it might be difficult to be a fan of both social intuitionism and D&D’s philosophical approach:
‘Succinctly stated, human flourishing is understood by us to mean “the exercise of one’s practical wisdom.” (p 33)
Practical wisdom, as understood in our account, is the central integrating virtue of a good human life’ (p 57).

However, Haidt also recognizes the role of practical wisdom. He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to discuss the relationship between moral reasoning and intuitions. The rider represents reason and the elephant represents intuition. As well as performing a public relations function in explaining and justifying the elephant’s actions, the rider can also help the elephant to reach its goals and avoid disaster because it can look further into the future and learn new skills.

As previously discussed on this blog, I think Haidt’s rider and elephant metaphor is much more realistic than Plato’s metaphor in which reason, the ‘human charioteer’, controls the dumb beasts of passion.

Haidt’s social intuitionist approach recognizes that the rider evolved to serve the elephant. It explains why people tend to have strong gut feelings about what is right or wrong, which they maintain even when they struggle to construct justifications for those feelings. Importantly, however, Haidt also recognizes that the rider is responsible for training the elephant. He suggests in his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis that ‘virtue resides in a well-trained elephant’:
The rider must take part in the training, but if moral instruction imparts only explicit knowledge (facts that the rider can state), it will have no effect on the elephant, and therefore little effect on behavior. Moral education must also impart tacit knowledge – skills of social perception and social emotion so finely tuned that one automatically feels the right thing in each situation, knows the right thing to do, and then wants to do it. Morality, for the ancients, was a kind of practical wisdom’ (p 160).

D&D argue that practical wisdom has three dimensions: the effective and excellent use of practical reason (the intellectual faculty used for guiding conduct); the development of character; and self-understanding. The authors view self-understanding as particularly important:
 ‘In sum, self-understanding is at the centre of practical wisdom because one’s self is, finally, the object of ethical reflection; and to reflect well is what it means to perfect one’s self’.

As D&D explain it, making norms of behaviour one’s own involves more than choosing to accept them. It involves self-realization – realization of their value given one’s own dispositions and circumstances, and the contribution they make to one’s own personal development.

How should we view Haidt’s moral foundation theory in the light of the role of practical wisdom in individual human flourishing? Haidt and his colleagues have identified moral foundations by connecting the adaptive challenges of life that evolutionary psychologists frequently wrote about to the virtues that are found in some form in many cultures.

They have identified six moral foundations:
·         Care/harm makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need.
·         Fairness/cheating is concerned with reciprocity. It makes us sensitive to issues relating to trustworthiness, opportunism and punishment.
·         Loyalty/betrayal makes us sensitive to group interests.
·         Authority/subversion makes us sensitive to issues relating to rank and status.
·         Liberty/oppression makes people notice and resent signs of attempted domination by bullies and tyrants.
·         Sanctity/degradation evolved to help us meet the challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It makes it possible to invest objects with irrational and extreme values, which in turn helps to bind groups together.

Stemming from the preceding discussion about self-understanding, one point that could be made about moral foundation theory is that it might be useful for readers of this blog to do the test at, and reflect on the results. I was surprised by the results when I did the test a few years ago.

Finally, it seems to me that an important moral foundation is currently missing from the list. It is still universally (I hope) considered a virtue for individuals to accept responsibility for realizing their potential or, to use more ancient language, developing their own talents and abilities.   

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How can we know what we ought to do?

Dear readers, I would like you to consider a particular approach to the question of how we can know what we ought to do. I have used James’ reasoning about whether or not he is a good person in order to illustrate this approach. In case you are wondering, James is a figment of my imagination.

When you ask James whether he is a good person, he says he would like to think of himself as a good person, but he is not as good as he would like to be. He will tell you that he doesn’t claim to be righteous, but neither does he pursue his own pleasure without regard to other people and the norms of the society in which he lives. He says he is happy most of the time, satisfied with his life as a whole, and his conscience does not trouble him much.

James has been fairly successful in his life so far. He was moderately successful in sporting and academic pursuits. He is a friendly person and his relationships with other people are generally cordial. He loves his family. His marriage might not be blissful, but it has survived longer than the marriages of most of his friends. He has been a dependable and caring father to his children, but regrets not spending more time with them while they were young. James has pursued a successful career, which has been a source of great satisfaction to him.

James has a healthy lifestyle. He says that this is about cultivating good habits rather than following a strict diet and exercise regime. He claims that having a healthy lifestyle is just a matter of being the person he has potential to be.

This idea of being the person he has potential to be seems to motivate James’ behaviour in many other aspects of his life including management of finances and work habits. James says that most of the time he can manage himself best by reminding himself of his aspirations and exercising a gentle discipline, rather than by setting detailed rules and attempting to use willpower to comply religiously. He likes the idea of being spontaneous. Nevertheless, he says that there are some lines that he will never cross in his personal behaviour. He regards himself as personally responsible for his conduct, but is inclined to listen politely when people disapprove – at least until he decides whether or not they should be told to mind their own business.

James has always perceived himself to have potential to express many of the traditional virtues. It has been integral to that perception for him to develop and make good use of his reasoning powers and self-knowledge, and to develop his own character in ways that he values. As well as temperance, he has shown a great deal of integrity and courage in many aspects of his life. He takes pride in being honest and trustworthy.

James is also kind. He has not sought a reputation for kindness. He objects to being told that he has an obligation to help those less fortunate than himself. He explains his altruism – he would not object to my use of that term – as being in his nature. His acts of kindness come from the heart, without him expecting anything in return, except for the people he helps to be willing to help themselves to the extent that they are able. He is not a “soft touch”.

James says that becoming a good person is like playing cards well. He says that rather than bemoaning the fact that you have not been dealt a better hand, it is better to maintain good humour and focus on how best to play the cards you have been dealt. You never think of cheating and you avoid playing with people who cheat. You like to win, but you participate mainly to enjoy the social interaction. Playing the game is also a learning experience. You learn how to perceive opportunities, develop strategies, cooperate with others, and to win and lose graciously. As you learn to play well you become a better person.

You might be surprised that the line of reasoning James employs in evaluating whether he is a good person is somewhat controversial among philosophers. I have constructed his line of reasoning so that it is broadly consistent with the ethics of responsibility as espoused by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in their new book, The Perfectionist Turn.

The “perfectionist turn” referred to in the title is a turn away from the ethics of respect, which views personal ethics in terms of norms of social interaction, toward the Neo-Aristotelian, eudaimonic, naturalistic ethics of responsibility. This is called “perfectionist” because it is grounded in a developmental (teleological) process which serves to orient a person towards her or his flourishing. The perfectionism referred to has nothing to do with the psychological usage of the word in terms of striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards.

The reason why many philosophers would suggest that James is confused in his explanation of the motives for his good behaviour is because it is teleological.  James seems to be committing the error of attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is” because he has not provided a reason why he ought to be the person that he has potential to be.

From my reading of The Perfectionist Turn, I think the authors would defend James' reasoning on the grounds that he is describing his natural inclination to engage in activities that constitute the actualization of his potential or his fulfillment. Awareness of his potential for flourishing provides James with reason and motivation, and is the basis on which he determines what he ought to do.

Some critics will probably suggest that if we view individual human flourishing as our measure of goodness we have no way to judge that a person like the great Mongol warrior and emperor, Genghis Khan, was not a good person. I am not sure whether Genghis Khan believed his military conquests were helping him to achieve his potential as a human, but it seems reasonable to argue that he was deluded if that was what he thought. The authors acknowledge that through lack of awareness or misapprehension of what their good consists of humans often make the wrong decisions. They have an Afterword in the book devoted to “big morality” and the potential for some individuals to do great harm, or great good. The thrust of their argument there is that it is to the particular individual soul that one must appeal in the final analysis because “it is the nature and quality of that particular soul which will produce the actions that are to become the objects of moral concern”.

However, the authors also note that the perfectionist turn “is not a turning away from metanorms”, which were the subject of their earlier book, Norms of Liberty (2005). As I see it, there will always be some deluded egocentric leaders who will need to be prevented from impeding the flourishing of other humans. Even the activities of rational self-directed humans seeking to flourish in their own way will sometimes clash with the activities of other rational self-directed humans. As Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen still acknowledge, we need a political/legal order that answers the questions that they asked in Norms of Liberty:

how is it possible to have an ethical basis for an overall or general social/political context -a context that is open-ended or cosmopolitan - that will not require as a matter of principle, that one form of human flourishing be preferred to another? How, in other words, can the possibility that various forms of human flourishing will not be in structural conflict be achieved?” 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Will neural lace save us from the super-intelligent robots?

If neural lace sounds like something out of a science fiction novel that is probably because that is where the idea originated. A couple of months ago, however, a group of scientists published a paper about injecting an ultra-fine mesh into brains to create neural lace. The mesh has been tested on mice, which survived the implantation and are thriving. Suggested uses for neural lace include “monitoring brain activity, delivering treatment for degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, and even enhancing brain capabilities”.

In terms of economics, innovations to enhance brain capabilities seem to have many characteristics in common with other innovations. It seems reasonable to expect that, as with other successful technological advances, entrepreneurs developing the technology will initially be able to charge a high price for it. As suggested by Anders Sandberg, of the Future of Technology Institute at Oxford, the price of some brain enhancements (pills and gadgets) can be expected to fall as a result of competition, while the price of service-heavy enhancements (genetic engineering) is more likely to stay expensive. On that basis, there could be potential for the price of neural lace to fall fairly rapidly and for it to become widely used within a few decades, if it offers substantial benefits to users.

 Another reason to expect the price of neural lace to fall rapidly is that research in this area is likely to be undertaken in several different countries. It seems unlikely that the government of any one country will be able to protect the rents of entrepreneurs who develop the technology by suppressing international competition for a prolonged period.

Elon Musk’s proposal to develop neural lace to prevent humans becoming house pets of intelligent machines provides a further reason to expect neural lace to be priced for the mass market. Elon has several other highly ambitious projects on his plate, but he seems willing to add neural lace to the menu. His attitude: “Somebody’s got to do it. If somebody doesn’t do it, then I think I should do it”.

Elon Musk established OpenAI as a not-for-profit venture, so his neural lace project would presumably not be aimed at maximizing shareholder value. Perhaps Elon can attract sufficient potential investors (or donors) to be able to fund the necessary research and development.

So, why not join Elon’s fan club and help him begin work on neural lace as soon as possible to save our descendants from the robots? Michael Cook, a bioethicist, has given three good reasons to proceed cautiously:
“Take privacy. If you can hack a computer, you can hack a brain. Integrating your memories and cognitive activity with the internet allows other people to see what you are doing and thinking 24/7 — a kind of upscale parole bracelet.
Take autonomy. In our culture, this is the most cherished of our personal values. But once brains are integrated into an information network, they can be manipulated in increasingly sophisticated ways. And since technology always serves its owner, we could easily become the tools of Google or the government.
Take responsibility. There might be no crime, as the neural lace could shut down the ‘hardware’ whenever passions threaten to overwhelm social norms – as defined by the network.”

Elon Musk’s claim that humans are already cyborgs should be rejected. The fact that we, as individuals, may have a presence on social media does not mean that we have ceased to be uniquely human. Individuals can have brain implants and still be uniquely human.

Neural lace will not be worth having unless it can be developed in such a way as to enable humans to protect the privacy, autonomy and responsibility that is integral to their individual flourishing.