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Frankenstein & Philosophy

Moral Blind Spots

Gerald Jones discusses how we judge the past, how we will one day be judged, and what we can do about it.

We do not know how the future will judge us – but judge us it will. Just as we look back at the past and find it wanting, so our descendants will find us wanting. There are flaws in our social and moral practices that we can’t quite see; but knowing this, we can seek out these moral blind spots and throw light on them.

Yet something is vitally different in our own case. In Frankenstein, a human created a version of itself, but in so doing fashioned a monster that could not be controlled and which wrought terrible judgement upon its creator. For the first time in our history we possess the technology, and the will, to do what Victor Frankenstein did. We are close to being able to both transform ourselves and to create minds in our own image. Transhumanism is no longer science fiction, and artificial intelligence is seemingly just over the horizon. Whether artificial mind or biological enhancement, our creation may one day be judging us with the same terrible outcome as in Frankenstein. In this sense, Mary Shelley’s prescient novel casts its shadow more widely over us than ever before, and we would do well to heed its message.

But first let us take a look at why we might not be able to.

Historical Easy Cases

Moral philosophers often pride themselves on dealing with ‘hard cases’ – difficult moral dilemmas that test an ethical theory, throw a harsh light onto its faults, and then nudge the discussion of ethics forward. But here let’s think instead about ‘easy cases’ for ethics, in particular, historically easy cases; that is, those practices of past civilisations which we straightforwardly judge and condemn. Our scrutiny of historically easy cases will prompt a new concept – of moral blind spots – that will cast doubt on our own ethical certainties.

Take the historically easy case of the Lindow Man. At some point in the First Century AD, on a remote moor in Cheshire, England, a young man of high birth was ritually killed, or rather, overkilled: his throat cut, he was axed in the head and garrotted, and his naked body thrown into a bog.

Pollice Verso
Pollice Verso
Jean-Leon Gerome 1872

Contemporary Roman judgements of ritual sacrifice were harsh: Roman commentators left many descriptions of the horrific superstitious practices of Celtic human sacrifice, including rumours of huge Wicker Men into which people were herded to be burnt alive.

We share the same revulsion over human sacrifice as Caesar and friends. Yet something else strikes us: how could the Romans have condemned the Celts so harshly and yet themselves practise ritual human slaughter on a scale unseen in Celtic Europe? Mary Beard estimates a death rate of 8,000 gladiators per year – meaning that over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of young men died in arenas across the Roman Empire.

A moral denunciation of gladiatorial combat is uncontroversial now, as it combines historical distance (which always eases judgement; after all, there are no ancient Romans around to explain themselves or to take offence) with condemnations of slavery (most gladiators were slaves), killing for entertainment (50,000 thumb-jabbing spectators could be squeezed into the Colosseum), and death on an industrial scale (nearly 10,000 gladiators fought in the games to celebrate Trajan’s victory over the Dacians). Why couldn’t the Romans see what we can now easily see – that just like the ritual sacrifice of the Celts, their murder of humans for entertainment is morally indefensible?

The past contains many such examples of easy moral cases, where the actions of our ancestors are so repugnant that we wonder why they couldn’t see that themselves. Oft-cited examples of historically easy cases include: state-sponsored slavery; church-disseminated misogyny; the beheading of enemies in war; the torture of prisoners in peace; the widespread slaughter of animals – hang-on, that still goes on…

Our ethical forerunners lived in such societies. They were rare thinkers who had clear sight of how the moral fabric of their universe might be woven differently, and who beat a path to a new way of thinking and living. And yet… and yet, even these progressives, who took the moral high ground, and who should have known better, tolerated or encouraged or participated in social practices we now judge as abhorrent. Such thinkers include Aristotle, who, along with other ancient philosophers, held that women were by nature inferior to men; Tertullian, who, along with other Christian Romans, was an advocate of slavery; Bentham, who, despite saying of animals “‘the question is not ‘can they reason?’… but ‘can they suffer?’”, still ate meat daily; Heidegger, who, along with many other Weimar intellectuals, was an anti-Semite Nazi… the list goes on. Did they ignore the words of the First Century preacher who admonished us all to take the plank out of our own eye before we attempt to remove the speck from our brother’s? Or was it just planks all round, so that no one could see?

Moral Blind Spots

The prevalence of historically easy cases suggests that our ancestral civilisations and our moral forebears fell prey to a figurative blind spot.

We all have a literal blind spot – a disc at the back of each eye where the optic nerve reaches the retina and there are no rods or cones to receive and process the light that hits there. So there is no visual information available from this optic disc. Usually our brain or our other eye fills in the blank.

dot and cross

You can find your own blind spot as follows:

• Tip the page on its side and close your right eye.

• Hold the page at arm’s length and focus on the • . You should see the X out of the corner of your eye.

• Move the magazine very slowly towards you, keeping the • in focus.

• At some point the X will disappear, as the light bouncing off it falls on the blind spot of your open eye.

With only one eye open we could not see the X, no matter how hard we tried. Just so, it’s as if our ancestors had only one eye open when it came to morality, and they couldn’t see the inconsistencies in their application of their values. So a ‘moral blind spot’ refers to the psychological bias and limitations we have, as individuals and as communities, which prevents us from seeing flaws or inconsistencies in our moral judgements, actions, and social practices. But when we look back at our ancestors’ cultural practices we do so with both eyes open: we can see that if the Roman commentator Strabo condemns the Celts for their practice of human sacrifice, then he should also condemn gladiatorial combat; we can see that if Bentham argues we shouldn’t cause animals unnecessary suffering, then he shouldn’t be eating so much meat.

Every society takes a view on, and judges, its precursors, even societies which have looked back at previous civilisations as if they were a glorious Golden Age. Renaissance thinkers such as Fra Acciaiuoli acknowledged both the barbarism and beauty of ancient Rome, urging his contemporaries to condemn the former even whilst emulating the latter. Five hundred years later we see beauty in Fra Acciaiuoli’s Italy and praise it, but at the same time we are appalled at the systemic misogyny of both Renaissance culture and the Reformation-era Church, which encouraged the murder of possibly as many as tens of thousands of women as witches.

This judgement of the past is all-pervasive. So is it likely that whilst we see moral blind spots in every preceding society, we ourselves have no moral blind spots? However morally enlightened we think we are, we will not be immune to the censure of our descendants. One day some of our standard accepted social and cultural practices will be seen as just more historically easy cases.

Blind Spots of Ignorance & Blind Spots of Weakness

There are differing explanations given by philosophers and psychologists as to why the Romans couldn’t see the cruelty of gladiatorial games, or why Enlightenment philosophers could find little cause to extend rights to slaves. So the concept of a moral blind spot encompasses a spectrum of different explanations:

Type 1: Moral blindness – we cannot see what might be wrong, perhaps lacking the necessary facts that would enable us to make a judgement. William Talbot discusses moral blindness throughout Which Rights Should Be Universal? (2005).

Type 2: Moral myopia – we fail to see an issue as a moral issue, perhaps as the result of a distortion in our moral vision. Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy coined this phrase in their analysis of business ethics in ‘How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics’ (2004).

Type 3: Moral complacency – we don’t look hard enough for what might be wrong, perhaps being overly certain of our own goodness. Immanuel Kant urges against such certainty in his analysis of good will in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785).

Type 4: Moral cognitive dissonance – we can see a contradiction or conflict in our values and actions, but have developed strategies to block this knowledge from our decision-making. In ‘The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgement’ (1973), Lawrence Kohlberg argues that reducing cognitive dissonance can help us develop a more sophisticated moral understanding, but he notes that such moral growth is not automatic and will be much harder for some individuals and in some societies.

Type 5: Moral blind-eye-turning – we can see that we’re applying our moral principles inconsistently, but we turn away from this as if it isn’t happening. The psychoanalyst John Steiner identifies the process of Turning A Blind Eye (1985) as a common mechanism for dealing with (that is, ignoring) facts we know but are uncomfortable with.

Type 6: Moral weakness – we can see what might be wrong, but we do nothing about it through weakness of the will. This observation has a long history: in the Ethics, Aristotle argues that weakness of the will (akrasia in Greek) explains why we fail to take the right course of action even when we can see it.

Type 7: Moral muteness – we can see what might be wrong, but we don’t talk about it (perhaps through fear, oppression, convention, or taboo) and so nothing changes. This concept, like moral myopia, has emerged from contemporary business ethics – particularly Frederick Bird and James Waters in ‘The Moral Muteness of Managers’ (1989).

These seven types can be grouped into two categories (something Aristotle would approve of as he loved categorising things):

Moral Blind Spots of Ignorance (Types 1-3): Not knowing and not being able to see that a social practice is wrong.

Moral Blind Spots of Weakness (Types 4-7): Seeing something as wrong, but being unwilling to change it.

Understanding this spread of reasons should make our judgements of moral blind spots more nuanced: when were our ancestors unknowingly ignorant of problematic facts, practices, and inconsistencies; and when did they wilfully turn away or pretend these issues didn’t exist?

The Importance of the Concept

An awareness of the possibility of moral blind spots will change how we see our own culture. It will prick our self-righteousness; throw doubt on our moral certitudes; force us to scan our own behaviour, and scrutinise our own cognitive dissonance – what facts are we now ignoring that are relevant to our moral action? And it will encourage us to offer support for moral early adopters – which of our contemporaries will one day be recognised as the Mary Wollstonecraft or Martin Luther King of the early Twenty-First Century? Seeking out our moral blind spots will provoke us to anticipate how we will one day be judged by our descendants, and perhaps ‘future proof’ our moral practices.

The concept should also force us to step down from the moral high ground with regards to both our ancestors and our contemporaries. We all, even the moral reformers, have moral blind spots, and this should be reflected in a more nuanced judgement of the past. Take this example:

• Xavier is an Eighteenth Century philosopher who fights against slavery, but gives no thought to the mistreatment and oppression of women. He knows such inequality exists, but, through moral muteness, does nothing to raise awareness or to prevent such harm.

• Yasmine is a Twentieth Century philosopher who condemns Xavier. Yasmine fights and campaigns against the subjugation of women, but gives no thought for the mistreatment and oppression of gay, lesbian or transgender people. She knows such inequality exists, but, through turning a moral blind eye, does nothing to raise awareness or to prevent such harm.

• Zac is a Twenty-First Century philosopher who condemns Yasmine. Zac is woke about intersectionality and fights tirelessly for LGBTQ+ equality, but has no qualms about driving short distances in a car, tolerating excess plastic in food packaging, flying around the world, and eating meat. Zac is aware of the damage this causes to the environment and to animals, but, through weakness of the will, does nothing to raise awareness or to prevent such harm.

Current convention seems to tolerate public condemnation of Xavier/Yasmine/Zac because of their moral failings in one ethical sphere, despite their work as moral reformers in another sphere. But an understanding of moral blind spots would bring a more nuanced appraisal of these thinkers. It might make Zac say, “I acknowledge that Yasmine and Xavier had moral blind spots. That’s not good, and I wish it weren’t so, but I understand why and I will take their progressive work and build on it. Just as I hope that someday in the future my own moral blind spots will be understood, and my own progressive work will nevertheless be built upon.”

Moral Blind Spots & Moral Realism

At this point it is important to attend to the meta-ethical elephant in the room – namely the issue of moral realism. We now avoid what we believe to be some of the moral errors of our ancestors, because we can see what they couldn’t: in theory at least, we have abolished slavery, hunted down child abusers, extended rights to everyone, stopped human sacrifices, etc. These positive changes imply that there has been moral progress. The idea of moral progress in turn seems to imply that there must be an objective moral yardstick by which our moral judgements can be measured – which is the position of a moral realist. So the concept of moral blind spots is comfortably compatible with moral realism.

But what if moral realism is incorrect? What if morality isn’t objective, but is instead relative to each society, which creates its own moral principles and rules? Does moral relativism make the concept of moral progress, and moral blind spots, incoherent or irrelevant?

At first sight it might seem so. After all, if morality is relative then there is no external standard which we can use to say ‘our society no longer makes moral mistakes’ or ‘our ancestors were wrong’ (since their morality was right for their culture).

However, the seven causes of moral blind spots I outlined above remain relevant even if there is no objective morality. This is because each type raises practical issues that, if addressed, will improve our judgements, making them more reasonable and consistent. In turn, a moral relativist response to each type might be:

(1) Moral blindness. We can make the effort to go fact-finding;

(2) Moral myopia. We can become clear when an issue is a moral issue;

(3) Moral complacency. As a society we can encourage self-criticism and challenge;

(4) Moral cognitive dissonance. We can attempt to identify and remove any contradictions in our value system;

(5) Moral blind-eye-turning. We can acknowledge hypocrisy or inconsistency, and endeavour to be consistent in how we apply our values;

(6) Moral weakness. We can identify strategies to overcome individual weakness of the will;

(7) Moral muteness. We can talk about moral issues, and create structures and laws that encourage open dialogue.

None of these actions depend on moral realism, but all are actions which, if successful, will lead to progress even from a moral relativist perspective, and make us better placed to overcome our moral blind spots. So whether morality is objective or relative, the concept of moral blind spots is still useful to us in future-proofing our moral framework.

So What Are Our Moral Blind Spots?

Now we reach the crux of the matter. How will we be judged by our descendants? What moral blind spots are we susceptible to which we cannot ourselves presently see?

In Homo Deus (2015) Yuval Harari talks with horror of how we will be judged in the future for our treatment of animals. Meanwhile, Barack Obama speaks of Putin being ‘on the wrong side of history’. Molly Ringwald looks back on the films she made with John Hughes in the 1980s and is struck by the director’s moral blind spot in his use of racist stereotypes. And in a previous edition of this esteemed magazine, Peter Adamson asks what you can do “when your favourite philosopher is a bigot” (Philosophy Now Issue 123).

Steven Pinker discussed with Matt Ridley which of our routine habits will be viewed with most horror in a few generations’ time (Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?). Pinker said it’s easy: it’s meat-eating supported by the industrial breeding of animals for slaughter. Each year we kill sixty billion chickens, one billion sheep, and three hundred million cows globally, in circumstances that are often barbaric. And yet, like Bentham, our moral blind spot means we can’t reduce our meat consumption.

In The Expanding Circle (1981), Peter Singer argues that our cultural and moral practices evolve as societies encounter other communities. From these clashes emerges a broader understanding of who is ‘in the tribe’, and so who is considered worthy of moral value. This expanding circle has led to the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, universal suffrage, the safeguarding of children, and the extension of rights to animals. With an understanding of this moral trajectory, we can imagine our descendants continuing the expansion of this circle to one day include the environment (and so condemn our moral blind spot towards it), and artificial intelligence too.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah poses the question ‘What will future generations condemn us for?’ in the Washington Post (September 26, 2010). He highlights four of our moral blind spots: our prison system; our institutionalisation and isolation of the elderly; (again) our destruction of the environment; and (again) our industrial meat production. We might add to Appiah’s list: the continued widespread tolerance of sexism and misogyny, for example in the workplace, in pornography, and in everyday life; human created mass-extinctions (throughout the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ era); unfettered consumerism with supply lines tracing back to child or exploitative labour; the continued toleration of an economic system that allows for a tiny minority of super-rich alongside billions of poor; and the failure to address ablism, that is, the continued exclusion of people with a disability from participation in work and in society (this includes the everyday use of terms such as ‘blind spot’ or ‘myopia’ as negative descriptors).

These are the moral blind spots we’re beginning to notice. We may still be condemned for our failure to act swiftly enough on them – they are blind spots of weakness. But there will be other moral blind spots that we cannot even begin to see now – blind spots of ignorance.

Moral Blind Spots, Transhumanism, & AI

We cannot assume that our descendants will be like us – making our ‘blind spots of ignorance’ that they will see nigh impossible for us to identify, as our descendants will have different culturally-endowed mental apparata enabling them to see what we cannot. But there is a growing concern, articulated by Nick Bostrom, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, and others, that our descendants will also literally have different mental apparata – they will not be human, but transhuman.

‘Transhumanism’ describes a loose movement across a variety of disciplines aimed at enhancing human beings using technology and/or genetics. Improvements might include better health, longer lives, greater intelligence, deeper perception. Transhumanism encompasses the range of ways in which human modification can be achieved through applying technology to our bodies, including genetic enhancement (gene screening/profiling/therapy), nanotechnology, and cyborgisation (humans with both organic and mechanical bodily parts – such as those presently being developed to help people with Locked-In Syndrome communicate and move).

There is also the promise of developing superintelligence. Bostrom defines this as “any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest.” It primarily refers to the exponential possibilities of artificial intelligence once human-type intelligence has been replicated in machines, but it can also refer to highly enhanced human cognitive capabilities.

Yet there are also possible problems with these developments which show a moral blind spot in our society of potentially overwhelming significance.

Frankenstein well illustrates the significant moral blind spots human beings often have when pursuing scientific and technological advances, such as our capacity to ignore our inability to predict the possibly disastrous results of our creativity and experimentation, and our complacency about taking adequate (or any really effective) precautions to minimise the serious risks involved. So the concern is that, as with Mary Shelley’s doctor, we are in the early stages of creating something, whether transhuman or AI in nature, that we will not be able to control, and which will one day judge us. Bostrom describes this as an existential threat to humanity, and urges philosophers, scientists and policy makers to put in place control mechanisms before we continue further research in either area, to prevent one of our creations from judging us, and from eliminating us, for moral reasons that only it can see.

© Gerald Jones 2018

Gerald Jones is co-author of the best-selling ‘Philosophy in Focus’ series, and of A Level Philosophy textbooks for Hodder.

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