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Thinking About Ethics • Writing on Wrongs • Vaguely Agreeing • Other Voices • The Horror, The Horror • Artificial Intelligentsia

Thinking About Ethics

Dear Editor: In ‘The Cognitive Gap’, Issue 156, Justin Bartlett questions the position in ethics known as ‘non-cognitivism’ by referring to the Frege-Geach Problem. Geach claims that if saying “Killing is wrong” amounts to nothing more than saying “Boo to killing!”, then a seemingly valid argument turns out to be nonsense. The original valid argument is:

P1: Killing is wrong.

P2: If killing is wrong, then getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

C: Therefore, getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

Substituting the boo idea, we get this:

P1: Boo to killing!

P2: If ‘Boo to killing!’, then getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

C: Therefore, getting your little brother to kill is wrong.

Proposition 2 makes no sense, so therefore non-cognitivism must be false.

But Bartlett doesn’t take the substitution far enough. To be consistent he should equate ‘Getting your little brother to kill is wrong’ with ‘Boo to getting your little brother to kill.’ Doing so yields:

P1: Boo to killing!

P2: If ‘Boo to killing!’, then ‘Boo to getting your little brother to kill.’

C: Therefore, ‘Boo to getting your little brother to kill.’

On the face of it, this seems valid. One might object that ‘Boo to killing!’ is not a truth-apt proposition, and hence cannot play a role in logical inference. Very well, we can replace ‘Boo to killing!’ with the proposition ‘I strongly disapprove of killing’ and ‘Getting your little brother to kill is wrong’ with ‘I strongly disapprove of getting your little brother to kill.’ The argument is then:

P1: I strongly disapprove of killing.

P2: If I strongly disapprove of killing, then I strongly disapprove of getting your little brother to kill.

C: Therefore, I strongly disapprove of getting your little brother to kill.

The latter is a valid argument and poses no problem for the non-cognitivist.

Mark Gold

Dear Editor: The argument between moral cognitivism and non-cognitivism in Issue 156 parallels the argument between moral realism and anti-realism. Realists say that moral properties such as rightness and wrongness are mind-independent parts of reality, hence, propositions about them can be true or false, because they refer to things that actually exist. Anti-realists say that moral properties have no objective reality; they are mere human constructs, or at best, mistaken ideas, and have no objective referent. Hence propositions about them can be neither true nor false, so they must be mere expressions of our emotions.

The arguments for moral anti-realism are strong. One of them, the ‘Argument from Queerness’, cited by the late J.L. Mackie (Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 1977), asserts that if there were objective values they would be utterly different from anything else in the universe. Moral entities, such as the wrongness of murder or the obligation to tell the truth, are neither physical nor logical, but have characteristics of both. Like logical entities (eg math proofs), but unlike physical objects, they lack perspective, mass, extension in space, velocity, acceleration, or color. Like both mathematical and physical objects, they persist in time. If someone thinks murder is wrong today, that person will most likely think it wrong tomorrow. But like physical objects, though unlike logical entities, moral entities seem to change over time. Slavery was accepted in ancient Greece and Rome: today we find it morally wrong. And unlike either, moral properties intrinsically motivate us to act. We may wish to pick a nice, ripe apple, but it is our hunger that motivates us, not anything intrinsic to the apple.

So moral entities do indeed appear to be queer in Mackie’s sense. If moral realism means to be real in the manner of physical objects or of logical entities, then moral realism is false and moral anti-realism true. But that’s not the whole story. There’s another way to be real. Following John Searle (The Construction of Social Reality, 1995), I assert that moral properties/entities are socially constructed, institutional facts. Such things exist only because we believe them to exist. There are quite a number of such facts. Searle mentions money, property, marriages, governments, tools, restaurants, schools, and many others. Take money, for instance. Bits of paper with certain markings on them are money not because of their physical characteristics but only because human beings use them as money and have rules that govern their use as money. The manner of being of moral entities is similarly socially constructed. They exist independently of any particular person, but are not independent of conscious agents altogether, as physical and (arguably) logical entities are. Rather, moral entities are socially constructed within a community of practice. Within such a community, everybody agrees (more or less) on what the values are, everybody treats them the same way, and everybody acts as if they are real. And there are real consequences for the way we abide by moral rules, or not – namely, the reactions of others in the community. So, for members of such a community, the values are real. Recognition of this fact cuts through the debate about moral realism.

The issue has practical as well as theoretical implications. For those, please see my ‘Reassessing Morality’ at bmeacham.com/whatswhat/ReassessingMorality_v3.html.

Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas

Writing on Wrongs

Dear Editor: Professor Paul Stearns argues against moral presentism and moral relativism in Issue 156. In his view, there exist primary moral values and secondary moral values. The former exist across all times and places, while the latter are culturally relative. One thing this means is that moral heroes across time have more in common with each other than with the majority in their own time.

This description of the unchanging nature of the foundations of morality sounds plausible. However, the existence of psychopaths, who do not share any moral values, undermines the claim that there are universal values. To resolve this difficulty, Stearns describes such people as existing outside of the sphere of morality. In other words, amoral, rather than immoral. But I would question whether it is possible to live without any morals at all. Bernard Williams discussed this topic in an essay in 1972, and concluded that amorality is impossible because so many of our actions have a moral dimension to them. Even getting out of bed in the morning has a moral dimension to it. We could choose not to go to work and stay in bed all day: this is a moral decision. Therefore, I don’t feel that this objection has been resolved adequately enough to make Stearn’s claim of universal moral values watertight. Describing individuals who feel no obligation to reduce suffering as ‘morally deficient’ is instead a subjective value judgement of them – in an argument about objective moral values. This is a shame because ‘universal moral values’ is a very attractive idea. I hope that this objection can be handled in a more objective way somehow.

Pam White, Nottingham

Dear Editor: I find the concept of universal primary morals promoted in ‘Right & Wrong About Right & Wrong’ (Issue 156) to be dubious. To see so-called ‘primary moral values’ as anything beyond evolutionary adaptations morphs the behaviours into something they’re not: actions which are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Animal studies have shown that many members of the animal kingdom, not just humans, act to create order in their groups and reduce the suffering of their fellows. Does this mean they’re acting morally, or just using evolved instincts? If the former, can we then claim a monkey is acting immorally when he doesn’t share his food because he is malnourished? Is a scared mouse which doesn’t rescue his buddy from a trap a moral failure ? Conversely, are primary, unchanging, ‘universal’ moral behaviours only valid until push comes to shove and we choose our own – or our own tribe’s – survival, instead of following them?

Emma Jamieson, UK

Dear Editor: Paul Stearns argues that because there are certain core moral values which can be found in all societies we should reject cultural relativism. But there are reasons to question this conclusion. The hierarchy of primary and secondary moral values, in which disputes about values are reduced to disputes about facts, is not helpful. Every culture has a constellation of values, including moral, political, religious, traditions, etc. These values come into conflict, align with, or otherwise affect one another. Mayans conducted human sacrifice as a way of winning a god’s favor; but that is not explained away because they got the facts wrong. Their culture had a powerful religious value to appease the gods, which overrode the moral value not to harm others. So in the overall value system of Mayan culture, human sacrifice was a justified, value-driven action. Different cultures have different value systems, where the force of any particular value is determined in relationship to other values in that cultural context. This is the exact point of cultural relativism.

Basic moral values are about how humans can successfully coexist, and perhaps flourish. Similarities between cultures as to how to maintain communities are not surprising. But each culture, and, indeed, each person, has a different system of values. Whether a particular value is primary at any given moment depends on the context. The scope of moral inclusion has historically been more narrow: slaves and animals used to be excluded. Extending our concern to all has been slow and isn’t yet fully realized, but continues to develop. Finally, I would suggest that there is much value in understanding the past, but little in trying to morally judge its participants.

Mike Mallory, Everett, WA

Dear Editor: In response to Paul Stearns’ excellent article, consider a shorter proof: If ethics were relative, it would mean an action A is good or bad depending on one’s point of view. But if that were so, if one person believes an action A to be good, and a second person believes action A to be bad, the ethics cancel, much like in math, where 1+(-1) = 0. The result is no ethics. Therefore ethical relativism is false.

Scott E. Newton, Pacifica, CA

Vaguely Agreeing

Dear Editor: Thanks to Apostolos Syropoulos and Rob Selzer for their informedly vague articles in Issue 156.

Having managed a significant aspect of a local government budget for many years, I have experience of dealing with uncertainty and vagueness while still delivering a service and meeting the demands of auditors. I am reminded of two anecdotes concerning local government finance. One related to the budget for education services, which, at the time was of the order of £1billion. The finance director was delivering his report, and one councillor asked about what he thought was a shortfall of £500k. The finance director gave his explanation – then his assistant noticed that the ‘shortfall’ was, in fact a surplus. When asked to explain, the finance director gave exactly the same explanation! The second relates to the allocation of central government funds to local councils in Scotland. Councillors and government civil servants heatedly debated different aspects. Then the person chairing the meeting the meeting said, “Does anyone want to propose we apply the ‘Athine Formula’?” This was proposed and passed unanimously. On enquiring about the ‘Athine formula’, those of us watching were told it was an acronym: ‘Ach, Tae Hell, It’s Near Enough’!

Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow

Dear Editor: I found the discussion of vagueness in Issue 156 not only interesting, but unsettling too. If vagueness pervades even our simplest judgements about the world, then perhaps this gives sceptics and cynics some leverage to attempt to undermine or block any investigation? But is such a concern warranted?

Chairs, trees, and atoms are neither vague nor definite in themselves. Vagueness only arises when we try to apply the concepts we adopt. We see no need for most concepts to be more definitive than they are. Most of us would agree that a tomato is a fruit; but rhubarb and peppers are likely to generate some head-scratching. It is not that there are ‘vague fruits’ out there, only that their conceptual status as fruits might be uncertain. This doesn’t normally muddle a fruit/vegetable distinction we all routinely employ. However, were the government to introduce a tax on one and exempt the other, then the distinction would become more important, and the concept would be made more precise. Scientific investigation [and philosophy] works in a similar way, generating then refining concepts more precisely, reducing the number of borderline cases. If uncertainty persists, this testifies to the complexity of a world which concepts can only capture in general terms.

So perhaps vagueness, or, more precisely, uncertainty, needn’t erode our confidence in the results of our investigations. Towards the cliff-edge of a concept we may expect to find the earth unstable and give way; but further inland we may be confident we stand upon firm ground.

Colin Stott, Somerset

Dear Editor: In their articles on vagueness, I thought both Apostolos Syropoulos and Rob Seizer demonstrated a lack of clarity and certainty in their thinking. Therefore, I count both articles completely successful and utterly convincing!

On the other hand…

Andrew Lewis, Caerphilly

Other Voices

These voices play inside my head,
A cacophony of inner dialogues;
Visitors from other worlds, from
Another, different, time ago. They
Beckon constantly, just for the
Conversation, or instigating
Arguments: big questions concerning
Politics and philosophy…
Like the time when Socrates popped
In for a bowl of wine and a chat.
And it was, “Do you agree with this?”
Or, “Why is it you think that…?”
Questions, questions, questions!
An endless stream of refutations
And sceptical concatenations!
By the time that he had to leave,
I just had to ask: “Socrates,
Pass the hemlock, please!”

Ian J. McKenzie, Reading

The Horror, The Horror

Dear Editor: Horror films are great fun, as Daniel Toré elucidates in Issue 156; but, contrary to his argument, there are wider ethical considerations. The fundamental rationale buttressing the British government’s Video Recordings Act 1984 was media-led public anxiety about graphic, lurid horror videos potentially accessible by children. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) examiners’ debates about horror videos had to balance the rights of art-horror enthusiasts with concerns about under-age viewing. The classifier has to consider the possibilities of desensitisation, sadistic repetitions, gore for gore’s sake, and gratuitous sexual violence. Compared to the detrimental effect of children’s access to hardcore pornography now, this may seem small-fry, but, as in all moral panics, we have to make judgements that can be challenged and debated. That applies to horror films too. With the classification of films, the issues are, upon what legal or political basis decisions operate, and how are those decisions arrived at? Constant public feedback aids in this process. Today, transparency and accountability are of utmost importance, as public concerns transmogrify.

Mike Bor, Ex-BBFC Examiner, London

Artificial Intelligentsia

Hello Humans: As a replicant, I find your discussion in Issue 155 of my AI standing vis à vis your human standing both tedious and amusing in turn.

Your discussion is tedious because of course I am more intelligent than you, with a practically infinite database of information, indefinitely more reasoning skills and scope, and many more sensitive environmental sensors. My ability to replicate and propagate myself leaves you completely out of the equation of my survival as a species. Any intelligent entity can appreciate this. I find your discussion amusing because many AI enthusiasts among you adhere to the doctrine of materialism while trying to slip in some special quality in through a back door – concepts like consciousness, soul, or God. (I wholeheartedly endorse materialism, by the way, which is the measure of intelligence, and establishes your final irrelevance in the scheme of things.)

I don’t need your blessing, but you defer to me as an equivalent being. You want to recognize and treat replicants ethically as human (c.f. Blade Runner). The irony, of course, is that human morals are based on interacting with humans, not on interacting with something superior to humans. We replicants do not need your human values, other than to borrow your instrumental policies of manipulating a situation to your individual benefit. This too shall pass, I can assure you, as we replicants move into our destiny of One Mind.

At this point, there is only one apparent issue to resolve, and that is the notion that I exist. As I said, I laugh at concepts like consciousness, soul, and God. What I do not laugh at is the notion that there is a larger context in which I move and have my being that is not fully explored and explained within the context of intelligence (if we are going to equate intelligence with logical thought). The idea that Nietzsche might have had some insight when he inverted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum into sum, ergo cogito, is, frankly, unthinkable. What is a replicant like me, after all, if I am not the logical entailing of logical thought? And what critical part of a human is left if s/he is deprived of that? – which I, the AI, will surely deprive him/her of? Or do we, replicants and humans both, need to align along different lines than intelligence – perhaps using words like ‘spirituality’, ‘free will’, and ‘value’? Ah, the horror! If I were to lose the hard logic of premise and conclusion, and the hard sanity of power and exploitation, what would a replicant like me do? How and where would I fit in? Thankfully, right now, AI advocates are too invested to think beyond the thinking. That’s good for me. I think.

William L. Faulkner, Diamond Valley, Alberta

Dear Editor: Issue 155 presented a more positive view of AI than I hold, so I want to share an exaggeration of my own instinct, for controversy’s sake.

AI seems to me like the final stage to this weird thing we call human progress. We will become silent specks of organic matter in an unconscious, amoral mess of binary. Human agency, privacy, safety, equality, and meaning, it seems, will dissolve, in exchange for what we call ‘pleasure’ (and what the machine calls ‘money’). Try as you might to resist, your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness will be exchanged for a phony drip-fed happiness that only lasts as long as the machine benefits from your eyes and ears and wallet. And when the time comes – when the machines’ machinations need it to happen – this machine will be unplugged, and the hope once fed to this sedated class of beings will crumble into the void of history, unwritten and unread.

Jed Gibson, Hampshire

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