Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Sport, Motivational Enhancement and Authenticity


Heather Dyke writing in the conversation examines why doping in sport is wrong. In a previous posting I have argued that doping in sport is wrong for three main reasons, see sport performance and enhancing drugs . Firstly, I believe there should be a difference between sport and simple spectacle and that the use performance enhancing drugs by sportspersons erodes this difference. Secondly I argued that permitting performance enhancing drugs simply moves the goalposts. If we don’t permit the use of all drugs, including dangerous ones, we will still have to test whether any drugs used are permitted ones. Lastly I argued what we admire about sport is linked to the determination and effort required by sportspersons and that the use of performance enhancing drugs weakens this link. Determination and effort are linked to motivation, to character. I have previously argued that it would not be wrong to enhance our motivation, see effectiveness enhancement . It would appear that I hold two conflicting positions with regard to doping in sport. In this posting I want to examine this conflict.

Let me start my examination by making it clear the sort of doping I am opposed to. I believe any drug which enhances an athlete’s body damages sport for the three reasons outlined above. If some mediocre athlete could transform himself into an Olympic champion in a matter of weeks by taking some drug which vastly physically enhanced him would we really admire him? I would suggest we would not because we feel sporting excellence should require some effort. Now let us consider a second mediocre athlete who transforms himself into an Olympic champion over by taking some drug which enhances his motivation over a number of years. By transforming his motivation, he trains more determinedly and makes greater effort when training. This second athlete raises three interesting questions. Firstly, is there any real difference in a sporting context between an athlete taking a drug to enhance himself physically and enhance himself mentally? Secondly would we admire such an athlete? Lastly is the enhancement of someone’s motivation compatible with the ethos of sport?

I will now attempt to answer each of the above a questions in turn. Is there any real difference in a sporting context between an athlete taking a drug to enhance himself physically and enhance himself mentally? Clearly there is a difference in this case because an athlete who enhances himself physically with the use of drugs need make no effort to achieve his enhancement whilst a second athlete who physically enhances herself by mentally enhancing her motivation must still train hard. Does this difference matter? The answer this additional question is connected to our second original question. What do we admire about sportspeople? I would suggest we admire their dedication to the effort required for their sport, we admire their motivation for sport, we admire part of their character. Of course it follows we need not admire all of a sportsperson’s character. Let us accept that we admire a sportsperson’s motivation, effort and dedication. The question now would admire his motivation, effort and dedication if these were artificially enhanced?

It might be argued that if we obtain certain goods easily without any real determination that in so doing we devalue determination in general. Let us assume it is possible to artificially enhance our motivation by making us more determined. Let us accept that if an athlete enhances himself physically by the use of drugs, gene therapy or blood doping that he devalues the importance of motivation. Does the same apply if he enhances his motivation artificially? I would suggest it does not. There is an important difference between the enhancement of effectiveness and the enhancement of motivation. Enhancing our effectiveness devalues our motivation whilst it is hard to see how enhancing our motivation could possibly devalue motivation. Accepting the above means it might be possible to admire an athlete who artificially enhances his motivation whilst at the same time failing to admire an athlete who simply enhances himself physically.

At this point someone might object that whilst accepting someone who enhances his motivation does not devalue his motivation that nonetheless he devalues himself as a person. He does so by making himself less authentic. My objector might then argue someone shouldn’t enhance his motivation because being authentic is something we value. In response I would point out the things which make us authentic aren’t fixed from birth, babies aren’t authentic. People seek to change themselves by enhancing themselves by training or learning. I can see of no reason why people changing themselves by these means will render themselves inauthentic. I would suggest someone’s authenticity depends on him seeking goals he identifies with rather than the means he chooses to seek these goals. Someone’s authenticity is determined by what he loves or cares about. I would further suggest that a truly authentic person must always choose those means which are most effective in promoting the goals he identifies herself with. It follows if these means include enhancing his motivation that this enhancement isn’t inauthentic. Indeed, it appears that if someone doesn’t use the most effective means to promote those goals he identifies with that his authenticity is weakened. Sometimes those most effective means might include motivational enhancement and it follows someone does not use motivational enhancement that his authenticity is weakened.

What conclusions can be drawn from the above. Firstly, physical enhancement by artificial means devalues sport.  Secondly motivational enhancement by artificial means does not seem to conflict with the ethos of sport provided it is accepted this ethos is connected to the sportsperson’s character. I accept some people might be reluctant to accept this second conclusion and might believe I am wrong to separate so completely the goals someone identifies with and the means he uses to achieves his goals.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Outsourcing Ethical Decision Making and Authenticity


In a previous posting I questioned whether algorithmic assisted moral decision making is possible. Let us assume for the sake of argument that AAMD is possible. Using such a system might be considered as an example of algorithmic outsourcing of our moral decision making. Such outsourcing according to John Danaher means taking away the cognitive and emotional burden associated with certain activities, see Danaher . Intuitively outsourced moral decisions are inauthentic decisions. In this posting I will argue that under certain conditions outsourced ethical decisions using AAMD could be authentic ones.

Before proceeding I must make it clear what I mean by algorithmic assisted moral decision making, outsourcing and authenticity. Any moral decision simply made by an algorithm is not an authentic decision. In my previous posting I suggested when initialising an AAMD system we should first use a top down approach and install simple human values such as avoiding harm. However once initialised such a system should be fine-tuned by the user from the bottom up by adding his personal weights to the installed values. This primitive system might then be further modified from the bottom up using of two feedback loops. Firstly, the user of a system must inform the system whether she accepts any proposed decision. If the user accepts the proposed decision, then this decision can form a basis for similar future decisions in much the same way as in the legal judgements set precedents for further judgements. If the user doesn’t accept a particular decision, then the system must make it clear to the user the weights which are attached to the values it used in making this decision and any previous decisions employed. The user might then further refine the system either by altering these weights or highlighting differences between the current decision and any previous decisions the system employed. According to Danaher outsourcing can take two forms. Cognitive outsourcing means someone using a device to perform cognitive tasks that she would otherwise have to perform himself. Affective outsourcing means someone using a device to perform an affective task that she would otherwise have to perform himself. I will assume here that an authentic decision is a decision that the decision maker identifies herself with or cares about.

According to Danaher taking responsibility for certain outcomes is an important social and personal virtue. Further, someone only takes responsibility for certain decisions if he voluntary wills his chosen outcomes of these decisions. Authenticity is an important social and personal virtue. Getting an app to automatically send flowers to someone’s partner on her birthday doesn’t seem to be an authentic action because the sender doesn’t cause the action. However, here I am only interested in outsourcing our ethical decisions, does outsourcing such decisions damage their authenticity?

I will now argue the answer to the above question depends not on outsourcing, per se, but on the manner of the outsourcing. Let us assume that in the future there exists a computer which makes decisions based on a set of values built into it by a committee of philosophers. Let us consider someone who outsources his moral decisions to this computer. I would suggest that if she implements a moral decision made in this way that his decision is an inauthentic one. It is hard to see how someone in this situation could either identify with the decision or consider herself to be responsible for the outcome. Let us now consider someone who outsources her moral decision making to a AAMD system as outlined above, are her decisions also inauthentic? I would suggest someone who makes a moral decision in this way is acting authentically because she can identify with his decision. She is able to identify with the systems decisions because, once initialised, the system is built from the bottom up. Her weights are attached to the incorporated values and her past decisions are built into its database.

I suggested that some who uses such a system must accept or reject its decisions. Someone might object that someone who simply accepts the systems decisions without reflection is not acting authentically. In response I would point in virtue ethics someone can simply act and still be regarded as acting authentically. My objector might respond by pointing out Christine Korsgaard pictures the simply virtuous human as a sort of Good Dog (1). Perhaps someone who simply accepts the results of an AADM system might also be pictured as behaving as a good dog with the system replacing the dog’s owner. Surely such a person cannot be regarded as acting authentically. In response I would suggest what matters is that the agent identified himself with the system’s decision. To identify with a decision someone has to be satisfied with that decision. What does it mean to be satisfied with a decision? According to Frankfurt satisfaction entails,

“an absence of restlessness or resistance. A satisfied person may be willing to accept a change in his condition, but he has no active interest in bringing about a change.” (2)

I’m not sure that an absence of restlessness or resistance with a decision is sufficient to guarantee its authenticity. I would suggest authentic decisions are ones that flow from our true self. I have argued our true self is defined by what we are proud or ashamed of, see  true selves do they exist . Let consider someone who accepts the recommendation of an AAMD system without feeling any shame, is her acceptance an authentic one or simply not an inauthentic one? I have argued that there are two types of shame . Type one shame is anxiety about social disqualification. Type two shame is someone’s anxiety about harming the things she cares about, loves and identifies with. Let us accept someone must feel type two shame when she acts in a way which harms the things she cares about, loves and identifies with. In the above situation if someone simply accepts the recommendation of an AAMD system without feeling any type two shame then he is acting in accordance with what he loves and identifies with and is acting authentically.

What conclusions can be drawn from the above. If someone outsources some of his moral decision making to a computer, she may not be acting authentically. However, if she outsources such decision making to an AAMD system designed using a bottom up approach as outlined above it is at least conceivable that she is acting authentically.

  1. Christine Korsgaard, 2009, Self-Constitution, Oxford University Press, page 3. 
  2. Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press, page 103.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Why I'm not a Stoic

This posting is a revised replacement of a previous posting. If anyone who wants to see the original version, I can supply a copy if requested. Currently stoic ideas seem to be undergoing some sort renaissance. In this posting I will argue that whilst stoicism is in some ways an attractive doctrine care is needed and that in most contexts it would be unwise to be a full blown stoic.

I admire fortitude, detachment and many other stoic virtues. Let us accept that for someone living in an extremely deprived environment with limited options that these virtues can help her to survive. An account of how stoicism can help people survive in such circumstance is given by James Stockdale who was shot down in the Vietnam war and detained in Hanoi, see Stockdale . Someone who suffers from a life limiting disease might also find herself in an extremely deprived environment once again with few options. In these deprived circumstances adopting a stoical perspective seems to be a sensible option.

Fortunately, most us don’t live in such circumstances. In these less deprived circumstance I believe we must treat stoicism with caution. Some stoics believe that the only thing that always makes us happy is virtue.

“The only thing that always contributes to happiness, as it is necessary and sufficient for the condition, is virtue. Conversely the only thing that necessitates misery and is “bad” or “evil” is the corruption of reason, namely vice.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Perhaps virtue is the only thing that always makes us happy but I will argue there are some things which even if they don’t always make us happy are nonetheless essential for a happy life. Certain things such as fame and material goods might in some circumstances make us happy. However, we cannot always attain these goods and once attained these goods might not always make us happy. Let us accept that the excessive pursuit of these goods can damage our happiness in three ways. Firstly, we might be disappointed if we fail to obtain these goods, secondly even if we obtain these goods they might fail to make us happy once again leading to disappointment, lastly the pursuit of these goods might divert us from the one thing that always makes us happy namely virtue. Let us consider the harm done by disappointment first. A stoic would argue that in order to avoid such disappointment that whilst we might prefer such goods we should nonetheless remain indifferent to them. I would suggest that with regard to disappointment stoicism is a philosophy of pessimism. Let us assume that the excessive pursuit of fame or material goods hinders us from pursuing the only thing that always makes us happy, virtue. A stoic would argue we should always pursue virtue and as a result we not pursue those things which damage our pursuit. Let us agree with our stoic that we should first of all pursue virtue. Let us also agree that the excessive pursuit of fame or material goods damages this pursuit. However, it is by no means clear that using a detached Aristotelian moderation in pursuit of these goods will damage our pursuit of virtue. Accepting the above means that in normal circumstances even if we have no reason to accept stoicism we also have no reason to reject it.

At this point someone might object I am misunderstanding the stoic idea of happiness. I am confusing stoic ideas with epicurean ones. An epicurean is concerned with hedonistic happiness whilst to a stoic happiness is concerned with flourishing or eudaimonia, very roughly a good purpose or telos for human beings. For the sake of argument, I am prepared to accept my objector’s point. Let us accept that stoics believe that the end human beings should seek is flourishing in accordance with their nature rather than simply the pursuit of hedonistic happiness. Let us also accept that stoics hold the belief that the only thing which is necessary and sufficient for someone to flourish is for her to be virtuous.

At this point I want to examine what is meant by flourishing. Flourishing is a slippery concept. For instance, could it really be said that a creature, which leaves behind plenty of descendants, flourishes? On a Darwinian idea of flourishing it certainly does. Moreover, it might be argued evolution means leaving behind plenty of descendants is selected for and hence is part of the nature of all living things. However, a Darwinian idea of flourishing, at best, plays only a small part in most people’s idea of flourishing. A stoic idea of flourishing seems to depend, at least in the main, on those parts of a creature’s nature which differentiate it from other living creatures. Thus for instance it is part of the nature of bees to collect nectar to make honey and a bee flourishes if it makes lots of honey. It is part of bee eater’s nature to eat bees and it flourishes if it eats lots of bees. The stoics emphasise it is an essential part of human nature to act rationally. According to the stoics a human being who acts completely rationally should flourish. Let us now consider a rational person who is virtuous, successful, rich and healthy but lacks any positive affection for any of these things. Intuitively we would not say such a person was flourishing. Indeed, we might feel there is something defective about her. She lacks something that is necessary for flourishing. Perhaps one of the things she lacks is happiness and we should re-associate stoicism and happiness. I will not pursue this point any further here. However, I would suggest one of the things she lacks is a caring attitude to things in general.

Let us accept that stoics belief it is our nature to be rational. I have suggested above that such a belief is too simplistic and other things that are also part of our nature. I will now present two arguments to show that caring about things is also part of our nature. First, let us accept that someone’s ideals are defined by what he cares about. Now according to Harry Frankfurt,
“a person without ideals, there are no volitional laws he has bound himself to respect and to which he unconditionally submits. He has no inviolable boundaries. Thus he is amorphous with no fixed shape or identity.” (1)
Someone without fixed shape or identity is still of course a human being but she isn’t really a person. Almost all human beings develop into persons. Being a person is part of our nature. It follows caring about something must also be part of our nature. Secondly let us assume that caring about things is not part of our nature. If this is so being rational becomes pointless. It is impossible to apply rationality unless we care about something; it is impossible for rationality to get any purchase if we don’t care about anything. All our decisions are equally as good and we have no basis on which to judge the decisions we make. It follows if caring about something is not an essential part of our nature then neither is being rational for to act rationally we have first to care about some outcome. It further follows if we accept being rational is part of our nature then so must be caring about something. In the rest of this posting I will assume that caring about something is an essential part of our nature.

Even if we accept that caring about things is an essential part of our nature prima facie there appears no reason why we should reject stoic ideals. It might be pointed out stoics care about virtue. I will now argue this appearance is unsound due to the primacy stoics attach to reason. In order to make my argument I must make it clear what I mean by ‘care about’. David Hume famously argued reason is the slave of the passions. However, I want to argue what we care about doesn’t simply means that we feel passionate or emotional about something. Indeed ,I would agree with the stoic idea that reason can control our emotions, at least to some degree. Reason can sort out our conflicting emotions and add stability to our sense of ever changing emotions. However, let us accept that reason alone cannot cause us to act. Our actions are based on what we will which is based on what we care about. According to Frankfurt “the formation of a person’s will is most fundamentally a matter of his coming to care about certain things, and of his coming to care about some of them more than others” (2) Also according to Frankfurt someone who ‘cares about’ something “identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced”. (3) A similar but slightly different approach concerning identification is taken by Bennett Helm who argues we are identified by what we love (4). If we accept the above definition of ‘caring about’ it can be regarded as a form of loving. In the rest of this posting I will use the word love to mean ‘caring about’ as defined above. It is important to note the use of the word love in this way does not mean erotic love. Let us accept that loving is an essential part of our nature, let us now also accept that to love something means to identify oneself with that thing and that to identify with something makes one vulnerable.

In order to make my argument that stoic’s over emphasis on the importance of reason is dangerous I must introduce the stoic idea of an indifferent. Sometimes being indifferent to something may be the only sensible attitude. I for instance am indifferent to my grandson’s aspergers, see Aspergers, Autism and Love . Sometimes being indifferent is admirable as when a patient bears her illness with great stoicism. However, I will argue someone cannot remain indifferent to some things without causing serious damage herself as a person. What then is an indifferent? The stoics argued that the only thing that was necessary and sufficient for flourishing was being virtuous. Stoics don’t deny other things such as health and even wealth might contribute to our flourishing. However even though these other things usually contributed to someone’s flourishing they might not do so in all circumstances. For instance, in the former Soviet Union the Kulaks who were the richer peasants were victimised in Stalin’s purges. Some things are classed by stoics as indifferents. Things such as health and wealth, which usually contributed to flourishing, are called preferred indifferents. Dispreferred indifferents are things that usually damage our flourishing such as disease or poverty. My argument will focus on preferred indifferents.

The idea of a preferred indifferent appears at first sight to be nonsensical. How can someone prefer something but be indifferent to it at the same time? The answer is of course she can’t. Nonetheless it is possible to prefer something in some circumstances and be indifferent to it others. For instance, someone may prefer cream cakes normally but not if she is on a diet. I will now argue that whilst the idea of preferred indifferents may make sense when applied to cream cakes that it makes no sense when applied to the things we love.

Let us consider a mother fleeing across the Sahara desert from persecution together with her children. Let us assume on the way one of these children dies from lack of water. A stoic would argue that this mother should be indifferent to her child’s fate. He might point out that in these circumstances the mother cannot change the fate of her child so reason dictates she should indifferent towards it. Of course in different circumstances she would have preferred her child to live. However, I would argue such a mother cannot suddenly become indifferent to her child’s fate because she loved, perhaps still loves, her child. Because she loves her child she identifies herself with her child and someone cannot change her identity suddenly. Moreover, because she loves her child she makes herself vulnerable to what benefits and harms her child. It follows if we love something we cannot suddenly become indifferent towards it even if its circumstances change and we cannot affect these circumstances.

One possible reply by a stoic to the above is that we whilst we may prefer indifferents, we shouldn’t love them. We should only love virtue and retreat from loving other things. I have argued loving is essential to being a person and I have to accept that someone who only loves virtue could be a person. But I would suggest she would be a deficient or incomplete sort of person. She would lack true friends because to have friends you must love your friends see Helm (4). She may of course have friends of utility, people she uses, or friends of pleasure, people who please her, but I would not class these as true friends. We may of course love other things besides people such as places. For instance, someone may love her home in which she was happy and raised her children.

It seems to me in trying to make themselves less vulnerable to fate stoics damage that which makes us persons; the ability to love. Persons are by their very nature vulnerable and if we try to remove this vulnerability we damage our personhood. We become soulless people somewhat akin to virtuous robots. Accepting the above would explain why a stoic who loves only virtue is a deficient or incomplete sort of person. The stoic belief that the only thing which is necessary and sufficient for someone to flourish is for her to be virtuous is wrong, for someone to flourish she must be able to love. It would appear that sometimes stoic ideas are dangerous.  A stoic might respond to the above by pointing out that our turbulent emotions are equally damaging to our personhood. She might then suggest that because stoicism dampens down our turbulent emotions without the need for drugs such as anti-depressants that far from damaging our personhood it actually enhances it. I have two responses to my objector. First, I would question if our emotions are damped down whether we are able to pursue our own happiness. Secondly and more importantly I would suggest by concentrating on what we love we can also dampen down our turbulent emotions without damaging ourselves as persons.


  1. Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition and Love, Cambridge University Press, page 114
  2. Harry Frankfurt, 1988, The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge University Press, page 91.
  3. Frankfurt, 1988, page 83.
  4. Bennett Helm, 2010, Love Friendship & the Self, Oxford University Press, page 122.
  5. Bennett Helm, chapter 8.



Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Cosmetic Surgery, Enhancement and the Aims of Medicine

   
Jessica Laimann wonders whether we should prohibit breast implants (1). She proceeds to argue that we shouldn’t prohibit breast implant surgery but then suggests we might compensate individuals who decide not to have such surgery. She seems to be uneasy with the idea that breast implant surgery could be a legitimate aim of medicine, I agree with Laimann that we shouldn’t prohibit breast surgery and would and suggest that the skills of medical practitioners might be better employed elsewhere. However, there is a difference between what could be a legitimate aim of medicine and what we should prohibit. Let us assume that in the future medical practitioners can satisfy all the now commonly accepted aims of medicine, in these circumstances could breast implant surgery become a legitimate aim of medicine? In these circumstances could human enhancement become a legitimate aim of medicine? In this posting I want to examine these questions.

In order to examine these questions, I must first examine what the aims of medicine should be. The aims I am concerned with are not any immediate aims, such as repairing a heart valve, but aims common to all medical procedures. William Mayo expressed the traditionally held view that “the aim of medicine is to prevent disease and prolong life, the ideal of medicine is to eliminate the need of a physician.” Mayo’s definition might be extended to include the treatment of injury and disability. Let us define the traditional aim of medicine to be the treatment of disease, injury, disability and the prolongation of life. If we accept this definition then cosmetic surgery, assisted reproduction and any enhancement, with the possible exception of life extension, would not concur with these aim. A slightly different definition of the aims of medicine is given by Silver.

“The proper ends of medicine are to use medical skills and training to maintain or improve the position of the person involved, subject to her autonomous consent.” (2)

If we accept Silver’s definition then cosmetic surgery and some forms of enhancement might concur with the aims of medicine. How can we decide which of the above definitions to accept? Let us accept that medicine is a caring profession. Let us also accept that medical practitioners should exercise their skills to serve those interests of patients which can only be served by medical means.

Unfortunately accepting the above doesn’t automatically help us in deciding which of these different aims of medicine to accept. Firstly, a patient’s interests might simply be defined as her medical interests as defined by her doctors. Secondly, her interests might be partly defined as what she sees to be her interests, her subjective interests. Let us accept that doctors should respect a patient’s autonomy. I have previously argued that a purely Millian account of autonomy is an incomplete account, see autonomy and beneficence revisited . I argued that a more complete account means that respecting someone’s autonomy requires that one must sometimes act beneficently towards her by attempting to satisfy her desires provided so doing does not harm her on balance and does not cause me significant inconvenience. Autonomy and some forms of beneficence are linked. If the above argument is accepted, then it seems to me that we should accept that a patient’s interests must include her subjective interests provided her general health interests can be easily satisfied. Such satisfaction is difficult now but might be more easily achieved in the future. If we accept the above it might be concluded that we should accept Silver’s definition, such a conclusion would be premature.

Let us assume that breast implants might be in the subjective interests of some individuals. However, it does not automatically follow that breast implantation surgery should be a legitimate aim of medicine. Breast implantation might damage society by sending a damaging picture of what it means to be a woman to both to some men and vulnerable young women. In this situation should we give greater weight to the interests of individual women or to the interests of society? I now want to argue that the above is a false dichotomy and that by respecting individual rights we benefit rather than damage society. Let us accept that breast implantation does some damage to society by projecting a damaged picture of what it means to be a woman. I now want to argue that a ban on breast implantation surgery would cause even greater damage to society. If we fail to respect the right of individuals to make their own decisions, then we fail to see them as the kind of people who can make their own decisions. This failure has two bad consequences, first we fail to truly respect those individuals and secondly we might be accused of moral arrogance. Even more importantly in this failure is the implicit belief that society should shape its members’ decisions. I believe such a belief is dangerous because it is too simplistic. Let us accept that when individual members of a society make decisions that those decisions are partly shaped by the society they live in. However, society both shapes and is shaped by the decisions of its individual members. A flourishing society resembles a living entity that evolves and changes over time. This change is in part shaped by the decisions of its individual members. In order for this shaping to take place such a society must be prepared to accept these decisions. Mill makes much the same point when he suggests that the human race is damaged by silencing the expression of an opinion.

What conclusions can be drawn from the above? Firstly, that Silver is right and that the aim of medicine should be to use medical skills are both to maintain or improve the position of the person involved, subject to her autonomous consent. Let us also accept that in achieving this aim precedence should be maintaining rather than improving the position of the person involved if resources are scarce. Secondly provided resources aren’t scarce then cosmetic surgery and assisted reproduction can and should be a legitimate aim of medical practice. Lastly the above suggests that we have some reason to accept that other forms of enhancement, of those who autonomously desire enhancement, should be a legitimate aim of medical practice unless compelling reasons can be advanced as to why such enhancement causes greater damage to society than satisfying the autonomous desires of some members of that society.


  1. Jessica Laimann, 2015, Should we Prohibit Breast Implants? Journal of Practical Ethics 3(2)
  2. Silver M, 2003, Lethal injection, autonomy and the proper ends of medicine, Bioethics 17(2).

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Diversity and Editing Our Children’s Genes


I have recently been reading ‘Should you edit your children’s gene?’ by Erika Check Hayden in nature . Hayden is not concerned with editing genes, which might enhance a child’s cognitive abilities or physical prowess, but rather with editing genes for specific diseases or conditions. Such editing might be achieved by using CRISPR to edit embryos. In this posting I want to consider two related arguments, both based on diversity, which Hayden outlines against adopting such a policy. In my discussion I will assume without any argument that these diseases and conditions harm those who experience them to some degree, even if this degree is small. Some might object to this assumption, for instance some deaf people do not see their deafness as a disability and some deaf parents would even prefer to have deaf children.

Until recently disabled people were often treated badly but changing attitudes, at least in the Western World, has improved their lives. It might be argued that these changing attitudes has not only benefitted disabled people but have also benefitted all of us by creating a more caring society. At some time in life disability is likely to directly affect most people because we are prone to experience sickness, accidents and age-related decline. Let us accept without argument that a more caring society which cares for the disabled benefits us all. It might then be argued if we try to eliminate various disabilities we might inadvertently damage all by creating a less caring society.

The above argument seems to depend on the premise that a more diverse society is a more caring society. I want to challenge this premise. Let us imagine we now start using CRISPR to edit embryos. The motive to do so is a caring one, we want to reduce disability, which I have assumed above harms those disabled to some degree. Let us now imagine that by 2050 we have eliminated many current disabilities and that by doing so have created a less diverse society. At this point someone suggests that in order to create a more diverse society that we now use CRISPR, or some future technology, to create some disabled embryos. The purpose of doing so would be to create more diversity and hence caring by deliberately creating disabled children. Let us assume that these disabled children would of course still have meaningful lives they wanted to live. A similar society is satirised by Kurt Vonnegut in his short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’. It seems to me that any future society would find such a course of action totally abhorrent. It would seem that such a society’s policy of rejecting using CRISPR to produce disabled children is in total opposition to the policy of a society which rejects using CRISPR to reduce disability. Why should some future society find such a policy abhorrent? I would suggest it would do so because it cares about harming its members. It follows any future society which rejects such a policy would a caring one even if it was slightly less diverse.


At this point an objector might accept that whilst such a society would remain a caring one it might also be a less caring one than one which contained greater diversity. He then might suggest we should care about increasing caring. A consequentialist account of caring, more caring is better. Unfortunately for my objector the above seems to commit him to the abhorrent conclusion that in some circumstances it would be right to use CRISPR, or some future technology, to create some disabled embryos subject to the proviso that any resultant children would be able to live meaningful lives they wanted to live, in order to increase diversity and hence increase caring. My objector is using the term ‘’caring in two different ways. Firstly, ‘caring’ means something is important it matters to him, secondly the ‘caring’ that is important to him means sympathy or empathy. I will now argue it makes no sense to attempt to ‘care about’, in the first sense, maximising ‘caring about, in the second sense. Let us examine what ‘caring’ in the second sense involves. It must involve some empathic concern for others. If someone ‘cares about’, in the first sense, increasing caring, in the second sense, then he is not exhibiting this empathic concern if he is prepared to alter some perfectly healthy embryos to produce disabled children. By ‘caring about’ in the first sense, ‘caring about’, in the second sense, he is failing to ‘care about’, in the second sense. He believes something is important but doesn’t act as if it is important. Such a course of action is nonsensical.

Let us accept if we edit our children’s genes that we might create a less diverse society but that doing so doesn’t harm society in general by making it an uncaring one. I now want to address a second but related argument again based on diversity against editing our children’s genes. It might be argued even if a less diverse society doesn’t harm all of us it nonetheless might care less those who remain disabled. A society with less disabled people in it might care less for disabled people because it is less able to cope with their needs. Such a society might fail to cope adequately with their needs for two reasons. Firstly, such a society might allocate less resources to the needs of the disabled and secondly it might fail to understand these needs as well a more diverse one. Let us examine the first of these reasons. Prima facie a society with a lower proportion of disabled people in it should have more resources to devote to the disabled people than a similar one with a greater proportion. It might be accepted that such a society has greater resources but argued it might still be less responsive to the disabled’s needs. It might be less responsive because the lower number of disabled people means their voice carries less weight. I find this argument unconvincing. Let us accept in such a society the disabled can still express their needs. Let us also accept that such a society remains a caring one. I can see no reason why such a society should be unresponsive to the expressed needs of the disabled. Now let us examine whether a society with less disabled people in it would be less able to understand their needs. I accept that it is possible that such a society might understand the lives of the disabled less well than a society which contains a greater proportion of disabled people with a stronger voice. However, understanding the lives of the disabled is not the same as responding their needs. In any advanced society if the needs of the disabled can be expressed they can be acted on. If such a society remains a caring one then the expressed needs of the disabled should be acted on. It is also possible that in the future automation might mean members of such a society have more time to try to understand those who are disabled even if the number of those disabled forms a lower proportion of that society. It follows even if members of such a society don’t fully understand the lives of the disabled as members of a more diverse society that there is time for dialogue to better understand these needs.


I have argued any argument against editing our genes based on disability benefitting our society due to increased diversity is unsound. Accepting my argument of course does not mean we should edit our children’s genes as there may be other stronger arguments against so doing.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Factitious Virtue


In this posting I want to consider Mark Alfano’s idea of factitous virtue, I will only consider factitious moral virtue (1). In recent years the whole idea that human beings can possess virtues has come under sustained attack from moral psychologists and many would now question whether virtue ethics has any real future. Moral psychologists argue that all that really matters when we make moral decisions are the situations we find ourselves in and not any supposed virtues we might possess. However, if all that matters are the situations people find themselves in when making such decisions then everyone should act in a similar fashion in a similar situation. Clearly this isn’t true. People’s character varies. It is conceivable that someone’s character is partly shaped by her moral behaviour, being a trusty person is part of that person’s character. Perhaps virtue is hard and limited to a few people or perhaps most people only have limited virtue. In this posting I will argue that if virtue matters that it does so in two specific domains. I will then consider whether Alfano’s factitious virtue can be considered a virtue in the traditional sense. Lastly I will consider whether factitious virtue matters.

Let us consider the way we make moral decisions. When making important moral decisions with wide scale implications virtue ethics is not really useful. Some might disagree with the above. When making important moral decisions we don’t simply do what a virtuous person would do, we think. We think of the consequences or perhaps we question whether any decision we make could be made into a universal law. When making important decisions, such as those concerning the consequences of global warming or whether terminally ill patients should have the right to assisted suicide, then thinking about consequences or universal laws seem to be better way forward than simply asking what a virtuous person would do. I will not consider whether we should employ consequentialist or deontological methods here. It might be thought in the light of the above that I believe virtue should play no part in moral decision making. Such a thought would be premature. Not all moral decisions are of wide scale importance, for instance a daughter might have to decide whether to help her aged mother to go shopping or spend an enjoyable afternoon by herself in her garden on a beautiful summer’s day. Such decisions are not made after careful consideration but rather by simply deciding, deciding in accordance with our virtues, provided of course this is possible. It follows there is a possible place for the virtues in making some moral decisions, Bernard Williams would have classed such decisions as ethical decisions, see Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy . Virtue would be useful in the domain of making every-day moral or ethical decisions provided virtue is possible. I now want to argue that virtue might also matter in a second domain. Alfano suggests that,

“People enjoy acting in accordance with their own self-concepts, even those aspects of self-concept that are evaluatively neutral; they’re averse to acting contrary to their self-concepts, especially the evaluatively positive aspects of their self-concepts.” (2)

I’m not sure Alfano is totally correct when he suggests people enjoy acting in accordance with their self-concepts. I would suggest people are satisfied with acting in accordance with their self-concept and hence have no reason to act otherwise. I would however agree with Alfano that people do act in accordance with their self-concepts. The daughter in in example I used above makes her decision based on her self-concept. She might consider herself to be a caring person and as a result takes her mother shopping. It follows that if we partly define ourselves by the virtues we possess that virtue matters in the domain of self-definition.

Let us accept that there is a possible domain for virtue in moral decision making. I would suggest that this is not a trivial domain because most of the moral decisions we make are everyday ones and our concept of self matters. I would further suggest that we have evolved a capacity to make every day moral decisions and find it hard to transcend this capacity. However, even if there is a possible domain for the virtues in making moral decision this possibility by itself doesn’t mean the virtues exist. A lot of psychological research seems to point to the situation someone finds herself in when making moral decisions being much more important than any supposed virtue she might possess. In 1972 Alice Isen and Paula Levin conducted a famous experiment which showed participants who found a dime in a payphone were much more likely to aid someone needing help (3). Many other studies have replicated Isen and Levin’s finding that what really matters when making a moral decision is the context the decision is made in rather than any supposed virtue the decision maker possesses. Let us accept for the sake of argument that virtue is weak or rare in most people and hence not a useful concept as far as most people are concerned.

In the light of the situationist challenge Alfano argues that the idea of factitious virtue is useful. What exactly is factitious virtue? Alfano suggests that factitious virtue is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. He gives us an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Were United States Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to announce …. On a Sunday evening that the stock market would collapse the next day, people would react by selling their portfilios, leading indeed to a stock market crash. (4)

A factitious virtue is analogous to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alfano argues if you label someone as having a virtue that she comes to act as if she possesses the virtue, she has factitious virtue.

“Virtue labelling causes factitious virtue, in which people behave in accordance with virtue not because they possess the trait in question but because that trait has been attributed to them.” (5)

For labelling to be effective it should be made in public and believable to the person labelled. Let us return to my previous example. Telling the daughter in my example that she is a caring person when she has just parked in a disabled bay would not be a case of virtue labelling. Telling the daughter in public that she is a caring person when she has just helped someone to cross the road would be a case of virtue labelling and would mean that she would be more likely to help her mother with her shopping.

Let us examine the status of a factitious virtue. The question then naturally arises is factitious virtue a real virtue? Alfano uses an analogy between a placebo and factious virtue to explain how factitious virtue works. If someone believes that a placebo will help her then her belief is a self-fulfilling one. In the same way someone believes she has a virtue due to labelling then she has factitious virtue. But a placebo isn’t a drug and it might be argued by analogy that factitious virtue is a not real virtue. What do we mean by a virtue? According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary virtue is “a good moral quality in a person or the general quality of being morally good.” If we accept the above definition then factitious virtue is a real virtue in a narrow sense because it induces a good quality in a person and the argument by analogy fails, however labelling does not seem to induce the more global quality of someone being morally good.

I now want to examine whether factitious virtue is a real virtue in the broader sense of being connected to being a morally good person. Factitious virtue differs from the more traditional virtues in the way it is acquired, does this difference in acquisition mean factitious virtue is not a real virtue? Julia Annas argues we acquire the virtues by learning (6). Learning requires some skill. If someone acquires a factitious virtue of caring by means of labelling then her acquisition need not involve any skill. It follows, provided Annas is correct, that factitious virtue is not a real virtue. Annas further argues we cannot acquire a moral virtue in isolation, for instance someone cannot learn to be caring without also learning to be just. Perhaps we can acquire non-moral virtues such as courage in isolation. It follows if someone acquires one moral virtue that in doing so she must acquire others because there is some unity of the moral virtues and this leads her to being a morally good person. Beneficence is a moral virtue and someone might become more beneficent by being labelled as caring. Acquiring the factitious virtue of caring by labelling doesn’t require that someone acquires any other moral virtues. It again follows provided Annas is correct that factitious virtue is not a real virtue in the broader sense. However factitious virtue remains a real virtue in the narrow sense because it induces a good quality in a person.

I now want to consider two objections to regarding factitious virtue as a real virtue in even the narrow sense. Firstly, it might be argued that any real virtue must be stable over time and that once labelling ceases a factitious virtue slowly decays over time. Michael Bishop argues that positive causal networks PCN are self-sustaining (7). A PCN is a cluster of mental states which sustain each other in a cyclical way. For instance, confidence and optimism might aid some to be more successful and her success in turn boosts her confidence and optimism. Bishop argues that successful relationships, positive affect and healthy relationships skills/patterns form such a network (8). Healthy relationship skills include trusting, being responsive to someone’s needs and offering support. Healthy relationship skills involve caring and so it is possible that caring is part of a self-sustaining network. It follows it is possible that if the factitious virtue of caring is induced in someone that once induced this factious virtue has some stability. Whether such a possibility exists for other factitious virtues is not a question for philosophy but for empirical research. It would appear that at least one important factitious virtue, the one of caring, might be stable over time and that this might be true of others.

Secondly it might be argued that a virtue is not something we simply accept, not something induced in us in the same way a virus might induce a disease. It might be argued that unless we autonomously accept some virtue, it isn’t a real virtue. I accept this argument. It might then be further argued that because we don’t autonomously accept a factitious virtue that factitious virtues aren’t really virtues. I would reject this further argument. There is a difference between autonomously accepting something and making an autonomous decision. What does it mean to autonomously accept something? I would suggest it means identifying oneself with the thing one accepts. It means caring about something. This caring about means someone “makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced” according to Frankfurt (9). It might be suggested if a factitious virtue is induced in us that there is no need for us to identify with that virtue. I now want to argue that the above suggestion is unsound. According to Frankfurt what someone loves, ‘cares about’ or identifies with is defined by her motivational structures.

“That a person cares about something or that he loves something has less to do with how things make him feel, or his opinions about them, than the more or less stable motivational structures that shape his preferences and guide his conduct (10).
Frankfurt also believes our motivational structures are defined by what we are satisfied with, passively accept (11). To autonomously accept something means we are satisfied with our acceptance and experience no resistance to or restlessness with that acceptance. Let us return to factitious virtue. Labelling if it is to be effective must be done in the right circumstances. Labelling must be public and believable to the person labelled. In my previous example telling the daughter in question that she is a caring person when she has just parked in a disabled bay would not be a case of virtue labelling. Telling the daughter in public that she is a caring person when she has just helped someone to cross the road would be a case of virtue labelling and she would be unlikely to resist such labelling. If we accept the above analysis of autonomous acceptance then the daughter autonomously accepts the factitious virtue. I would also suggest that a lack resistance or restlessness to accepting what children are being taught is the way in which traditional virtue ethicists see them as coming to autonomously accept the virtues they are being taught. It follows that we autonomously accept factitious virtues in much the same way we accept real virtues.

Does factitious virtue matter? Let us accept without argument that the world would be a better place if people acted virtuously. Let us also accept that factitious virtues act in much the same way as real virtues at least for a period. It follows factitious virtues can make the world a better place for a period even if these virtues are relatively short lived. It would also appear that because the factitious virtue of caring has some stability it can have improve the world in a more lasting way. Intuitively a more caring world is a better world. However, it might be argued that our intuitions are unsound. Factitious virtue might indeed make people more caring but only by caring more for those already close to them to the detriment of others. In response to the above argument firstly I would point out not all ethical decisions are best made by considering what a virtuous person would do. Some ethical decisions are best made using consequentialist or deontological considerations. Secondly it might be feasible to extend the domain of factitious caring by well-considered labelling. Labelling someone as caring for strangers in the right circumstances might extend this domain. Accepting the above means accepting that the factitious virtue of caring might well improve the world in a more lasting way and that the factitious virtue of caring matters.

  1. Mark Alfano, 2013, Character as Moral Fiction, Cambridge University Press.
  2. Alfano, 4.1
  3. Alice Isen & Paula Levin, 1972, The effect of feeling good on helping; cookies and kindness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 385-83.
  4. Alfano, 4.2.2
  5. Alfano, 4.3.1
  6. Julia Annas, 2011, Intelligent Virtue, Oxford University Press, page 84.
  7. Michael Bishop. 2015, The Good Life, Oxford University Press, Chp 3.
  8. Bishop, page 75.
  9. Harry Frankfurt, 1988, The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge University Press, page 83.
  10. Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. Page 129
  11. Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love, page 103.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Algorithmic Assisted Moral Decision Making


Albert Barque-Duran wonders whether humanity wants computers making moral decisions? What is a moral decision? It isn’t simply a decision which has ethical implications, computers can already make these, it is a decision based on ethical considerations. It is feasible that in the future computers might make moral decisions completely by themselves or computers might aid people to make such decisions in much the same way as computers now aid people to design things. In this posting I want to consider whether humanity might want computers to make moral decisions. I will consider three reasons why it shouldn’t. Firstly, it might be argued only human beings can make moral decisions. Secondly, it might be argued that even if computers can make moral decisions that some of these decisions would not in the interests of human beings. Lastly it might be argued that computers might make decisions which human beings don’t understand.

First let us assume that some computers could make moral decisions independently of human beings. A driverless car would not possess such a computer as it makes decisions based on parameters given to it by human beings and in doing so acts instrumentally to serve purely human ends. Personally I am extremely doubtful, whether a computer which can acquire the capacity to make moral decisions independently of human beings is feasible in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless such a computer remains a feasibility because human beings have evolved such a capacity. If we accept that such a computer is at least a feasibility do any of the three above reasons justify our fears about it making moral decisions? Firstly should only human beings make moral decisions? If some sentient creature has the same cognitive capacities as ourselves then it should have the same capacity as we do to make moral decisions. Prima facie such a computer should be allowed to make moral decisions unless compelling reasons can be given why this shouldn’t take place. In fiction at least we seem to be quite happy about aliens or robots making moral decisions. Secondly might such a computer make decisions which are not in the interests of human beings? It might, but I would suggest what really matters is that it takes into account human interests. Let us accept that the domain of creatures we could possibly feel empathy for defines the domain of creatures that merits our moral concern. If a computer tries to make moral decisions without some form of empathy then it might mistakenly believe it is making moral decisions about rocks, shoes and even clouds. Once again I would reiterate that at present a computer which feels empathy is an extremely fanciful proposition nonetheless a computer that cannot feel empathy cannot make moral decisions independently of human beings. Let us assume any computer capable of feeling empathy will also have the cognitive powers to understand the world at least as well as we do. It follows such a computer might not make some decisions which are in human interests but that it should always consider human interests, surely this is all we can ask for. Thirdly might we not be able to understand some of the moral decisions made by any computer capable of making moral decisions independently of human beings? John Danaher divides this opacity into three forms, intentional, illiterate and intrinsic  algorithmic opacity . I have argued above that any computer which can make moral decisions must be capable of feeling a form of empathy, because of this I will assume intentional opacity should not be a problem. Illiterate opacity means some of us might not understand how a computer reaches its decision, but does this matter as long as we understand the decision is a genuine moral decision which take human interests into account? Lastly intrinsic opacity means there may be a mismatch between how humans and computers capable making moral decisions understand the world. Understanding whether such a mismatch is possible is fundamental to our understanding of morality itself. Can any system of morality be detached from affect and can any system of morality be completely alien to us? I have tried to cast some doubt on this possibility above by considering the domain of moral concern. My doubts suggest that any mismatch in moral understanding cannot be very large.

Let us accept that even if computers can make moral decisions independently of human beings are possible that this possibility will only come into existence in the future, probably the far distant future. Currently there is interest in driverless cars having an ethical control system and we have computer aided design it is then at least conceivable that we might develop computer aided moral decision-making. In practice it would be the software in the computer which would aid in making any decisions so the rest of this posting will be concerned with algorithmic aided moral decision making, AAMD. Before I consider whether we should trust an AAMD system I want to consider whether we need such a system. Imgmar Persson and Julian Savulescu argue we are unfit to make complicated moral decisions in the future and that there is a need for moral enhancement (1). Perhaps such enhancement might be achieved by pharmacological means but it is also possible our moral unfitness might be addressed by an AAMD system provided we are prepared to trust such a system. Indeed AAMD might be a preferable option to enhancing some emotions because of the possibility that enhancing emotions might damage our cognitive abilities (2)
.
Let us accept there is a need for AAMD provided that this is feasible. Before questioning whether we should trust an AAMD system I need to sketch some possible features of AAMD. Firstly, when initialising such a system a top down process would seem to be preferable because if we do so we can at least be confident the rules it tries to interpret are moral rules. At present any AAMD system using virtue ethics would seem to be unfeasible. Secondly, we must consider whether the rules we build into such a system should be deontological or consequentialist. An AAMD system using deontological rules might be feasible but because computers are good at handling such large quantities of data it might be preferable if initially we installed a consequentialist system ethics, In the remainder of this posting I will only consider AAMD based on a consequentialist system of ethics. As this is only a sketch I will not consider the exact form of consequentialist ethics employed. Thirdly, any AAMD system operating on a consequentialist system must have a set of values. Once again when initialising the system we should use a top down approach and install human values. Initially these values would be fairly primitive values such as avoiding harm. At this juncture we have an extremely primitive system of AAMD. This system could be regarded as a universal system and in the same circumstances would always make the same decision. A private morality is of course nonsense but nonetheless we must identify with our moral decisions and a universal morality might be hard to identify with. At this point the user of such a system might modify it by adding weights to the built in values. For instance, someone might give a greater weight to avoiding harm, acting beneficently, and a lesser weight to respecting autonomy in situations in which these two values clash. At this point we have a primitive system the user might identify with. This primitive system might now be further modified by use in a more bottom up way by the use of two feedback loops. Firstly, the user of a system must inform the system whether she accepts any proposed decision. If the user accepts the proposed decision then this decision can be made a basis for similar decisions in much the same way as in the legal judgements set precedents for further judgements. If the user doesn’t accept a particular decision then the system must make it clear to the user the weights which are attached to the values it used in making this decision and any previous decisions used. The user might then refine the system either by altering the weights attached to the values involved and/or feeding into the system how the circumstances the current decision is based on differ from the circumstances of past decisions used. Lastly in this joined up age the system’s user might permit the system to use the weights attached to values and decisions made by other systems belonging to people she trusts or respects.

I now want to return to my original question, should we trust the decisions such an AAMD system makes? I want to consider the three reasons outlined above as to why we shouldn’t trust such a system. I will conclude each of these reasons appears to be unsound in this context. Firstly an objector might suggest if someone relies on such a system she isn’t really making moral decisions. I suggested a moral decision is a decision based on ethical considerations. The inbuilt values of the system are moral values so it would appear any decision made by the system is based on ethical considerations. However my objector might now suggest if someone makes a moral decision she must identify herself with that decision. It would appear even if the accept my objector’s suggestion that because the system relies on moral values built into it by the user that any decision it makes must be based on values she identifies herself with. Secondly my objector might suggest that such a system does not serve human interests. The system sketched above is a consequentialist system and it might make decisions which is not in the user’s self-interest, however because the values built into it are human values the system should always acts in human’s interests. It might of course make bad decisions when trying to serve those interests but then so do humans themselves. Lastly my objector might return to Danaher’s opacity question and suggest that the user of such a system might fail to understand why the system made a particular decision. I would suggest that because the system has feedback loops built into it that this shouldn’t occur. I would further point out that because it is always the user who implements the decision and not the system that the user retains a veto over the system.


My examination of computers which can make moral decisions is extremely speculative. It seems to me that whether we would want such computers to make moral decisions depends on how we view morality. Is some moral system which is completely alien to us and also ignores our interests possible? At present such a possibility exists but there are reasons to reject it. AAMD seems to pose less of a threat because it bases its decisions on a system of morality chosen for it by us. It might of course sometimes function badly but occasionally car function badly and we continue to drive.


  1. Imgmar Persson & Julian Savulescu, 2012, UNFIT FOR THE FUTURE, Oxford University Press.
  2. Christoph Bublitz, 2016, Moral Enhancement and Mental Freedom, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 33(1), page 91.