Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Duty to permit Assisted Suicide?

In previous postings I have argued that we should accept that certain people such as those suffering from terminal illnesses, see assisted suicide and the nationalisation of morality and prisoners serving life sentences, have a right to die and that we should respect that right by accepting assisted suicide. My arguments were based on respecting autonomy. In this posting I will revisit this topic from a different viewpoint. I will argue that we have a duty not to cause such people to continue to exist. My argument will be based on the premise that we have a duty not to bring into existence any being which would find its life not worth living.

Let us accept the above premise without argument. I now want to suggest that the duty not to bring into existence any being we think would not find its life worth living is analogous to a proposed duty not to cause any being to continue to exist against its will if its life is not living. Accepting this analogy would have implications for using animals in medical research but in the following discussion I will limit my argument to assisted suicide. It might be objected that my suggested analogy fails for two reasons. First, it might we objected that by refusing to grant the right to assisted suicide to these people we do not cause them to lead lives which are not worth living. Secondly it might be objected even if some people do experience lives which are not worth living this would be better rectified by changing the conditions of these lives rather than by making assisted suicide available to such people. I will deal with each of these objections in turn.

Let us accept that that we have a duty not to bring into existence any being we think would find its life not worth living. We have a duty not to cause the existence of such lives. My objector might accept this premise. We shouldn’t enslave or torture people for instance. But he might argue that we don’t cause terminally ill patients or prisoners serving life sentences to lead lives not worth living and as a result my analogy fails. The cause of their misfortune is due to disease or past crimes. He might then proceed further by suggesting even if we are a partial cause of the type of lives some people live that a partial cause doesn’t give rise to a duty. Let accept that my objector does accept that he has duty not cause a child to come into existence who wouldn’t have a life worth living. Let us assume this child wouldn’t have a life worth living due to some genetic defect. It follows anyone who permits such a child come into existence is only a partial cause of the child not having a life worth living. It would appear my objector must accept either that our partial causation of some event can incur duties or that there is nothing wrong with causing a child to exist when he will not have a life worth living due to genetic defects. In the light of the above example my initial premise might be amended as follows. We have a duty not to be the partial cause of the existence of any being which wouldn’t have a life worth living. If someone accepts my amended premise, then it might be argued by analogy that we also have a duty not to be the partial cause of someone continuing to live a life he doesn’t find worth living.

At this point my objector might raise a second objection to my analogy. He might point out that in my amended premise we only have a binary option of causing or not causing existence. He might proceed to further point out that for both those suffering from terminal illnesses and prisoners serving life sentences other options are available. For terminally ill patients we could improve palliative care and for prisoners serving life sentences we might improve penal conditions. I accept my objectors point and accept that provided other options are available which would allow both of these categories of people to live lives they would find worth living my analogy fails. I also accept that improvements in palliative care and prison conditions are desirable and should be carried out. However, I do not accept that such improvements always means we are not the cause of making someone live a live he finds not worth living. Simply removing pain from a terminally patient’s life doesn’t mean he has a life worth living. We can remove all pain from someone by putting him in an induced coma for the rest of his life. Would such a patient really be alive? I would argue if someone is unconscious and will never regain consciousness he is in a state equivalent to being dead, he is certainly not living any sort of live at all. Whether it is possible to remove almost all the pain from all conscious terminally ill patients so that pain by itself doesn’t mean they don’t have lives worth living is an empirical question. Personally I doubt whether this will be possible in all cases but I will not pursue the point here. However, even if we could reduce pain to acceptable levels for all terminally ill patients it does not follow that they have lives which they believe are worth living. A life worth living is not just a question of having a relatively pain free conscious existence. Is simply existing really living? A very limited lifespan together with vastly impaired capabilities might well mean some such people find their lives lacking all meaning, find their lives not worth living. I would suggest anyone who suggests otherwise might be accused of epistemic arrogance. It follows even if palliative care was much improved there would still be some terminally ill patients living lives which they would find to be not worth living. It might also be argued much improved prison conditions don’t automatically mean prisoners serving life sentences always find their lives worth living. Some such prisoners might suffer from remorse which makes their lives not worth living. Indeed, better penal conditions might increase such prisoners’ propensity to suffer remorse. Other such prisoners might find the impossibility of freedom makes their lives meaningless, not worth living. It again follows that improved penal conditions would not mean all prisoners serving life sentences would have lives they considered to be worth living.

In the light of the above it appears, if we accept the premise that we have a duty not to bring into existence any being which would find its life not worth living that we also have a duty not to cause people to continue to exist if they have lives not worth living. It follows we should permit assisted suicide to those suffering from terminal illness and prisoners serving life sentences.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Happiness and Consumerism

It is commonly asserted that people aren’t as happy as they used to be years ago due to the consumerist culture we live in. Usually very little evidence is produced to support this assertion. In this posting I will attempt to remedy this situation by providing an argument to support the above assertion. I will argue that our culture limits our ideas about what makes us happy and that this limitation limits the amount of happiness we experience. Previously I have argued that the way in which we are happy changes as we age and mature and I will use this argument as a starting point to support the current argument. My argument rests on two important premises both of which I will support by argument. Firstly, I will argue that our actual level of happiness depends on, at least to some degree, our ideas about what will make us happy. Secondly, I will argue that our culture helps define those ideas. I will conclude that we should try to broaden the focus of our culture particularly with regard to the way we work and the way we are educated.

Before proceeding with my argument I want to introduce two differing ideas, concepts, of happiness. Firstly, there are hedonistic concepts of happiness such as that outlined by Fred Feldman. Feldman believes someone is happy now “if when we consider all the propositions with which she is currently intrinsically attitudinally (dis)pleased with and we then consider the degree to which she is (dis)pleased with these propositions and find the sum to be positive” (1). This is a definition of momentary happiness but in this posting my concern will be with happy persons rather than momentary happiness. Feldman believes a happy person is simply one who over time is pleased to a greater degree than she is displeased. A different concept is that of Daniel Haybron. According to Haybron,

“To be happy then, is for one’s emotional condition to be broadly positive – involving stances of attunement, engagement and endorsement – with negative central affective states and mood propensities only to a minor extent.” (2)

 There is some overlap between these concepts but Haybron argues that happiness,

“has two components: a person’s central affective states and second, her mood propensity …. What brings these states together, I would suggest is their dispositionality.” (3)

I have previously argued that a disposition to be happy is an essential element of being a happy person and will briefly repeat my argument here, see Feldman, Haybron and happy-dispositions . There is a difference between a happy person and a person who is happy. It seems to me that Feldman and hedonists are interested in people who are happy rather than happy persons. A person who is happy is simply a person who is currently happy. The fact that a person is currently happy by itself gives me little reason to assume she will be happy tomorrow. I may of course believe she will be happy tomorrow because I know that tomorrow will be her birthday, but the fact she is happy currently, by itself, gives me little reason to predict her future happiness. However, if I believe someone to possess a happy disposition then I normally expect her to be happy tomorrow. For this reason, I believe Haybron better defines what it is to be a happy person and will use his definition unless stated otherwise.

If we accept Haybron’s definition, then it seems to me that the relative importance of the various elements within his definition change as we age, see does our concept of happiness change as we age . I will briefly outline my argument. Let us recall that that someone is happy if her emotional condition is broadly positive and that this involves her in general being attuned to, engaged with and endorsing her emotional condition. Haybron ranks the importance of attunement, engagement and endorsement in that order in relation to happiness. Haybron connects endorsement to feelings of joy or sadness (4). I suggested endorsement involves being satisfied with rather than any large scale feelings of joy or sadness. I did however suggest being satisfied with does involve some minimal positive emotion, slight joy? If the above is accepted, then being satisfied is an essential element of being happy. A further argument can be advanced as to why being satisfied is an essential element of happiness. Martin Seligman believes achievement is an essential element of happiness (5). It seems to me that achievement usually linked to being satisfied. If we accept that Seligman is correct and achievement is an important element of being happy then it follows so is being satisfied. Lastly I argued if we accept that satisfaction is an essential element of being happy then the way we are happy changes as we age because younger people give greater weight to hedonistic pleasures whilst older people give greater because to being satisfied. It would appear the way in which we are happy changes as we age.

Let us accept that the way in which we are happy changes as we age. I now want to argue that our ideas about what will make us happy affects the level of happiness we actually experience. Some might question if an idea about what will make us happy is needed if we are to be happy. They might suggest people are just happy or unhappy and don’t need any ideas about what will make them happy. To support this suggestion, they might point out animals and infants can be happy without any idea of what will make them happy. They might proceed to argue that apart from philosophers most people are simply happy or unhappy. However unlike animals or infants we aren’t simply happy, we actively pursue happiness. A pursuit is impossible without some goal. The pursuit of happiness implies that we must have some ideas about what will make us happy. Let us accept that people must have some ideas about the things which will make them happy however vague. However even if we accept the above it doesn’t automatically mean our ideas about the things will make us happy are related to the level of happiness we experience. We might be mistaken about what will make us happy. It might be suggested that such mistakes are of little importance because we naturally pursue the things that make us happy. I would reject such a suggestion. Let us accept that there can be a mismatch between the things we think will make us happy and the things that actually make us happy. Having mistaken ideas of what will make us happy can damage our actual happiness. We can pursue things that don’t really make us happy at the expense of not pursuing thigs that actually make us happy. Examples are easy to find. For instance, someone who desires meaning in his life but pursues hedonistic lifestyle because he believes living such a life will make him happy. Or perhaps someone who pursues a stoic way of life and rejects the demands of love. It follows that our ideas of what will make us happy can affect the actual level of happiness we experience.

I now want to argue that the culture someone lives in affects her idea of what will make her happy. Clearly someone’s culture affects the things that make her happy. For instance, some cultures value wealth whilst others value honour more than wealth. It might be argued that this difference is only a difference in what makes us happy but not in the way we are actually happy. For instance, someone might be a gourmet and value good food whilst someone else might be a libertine who values having sexual intercourse as often as possible. Two different sort of things make these people happy but both of these people have the same underlying idea about the way they will be happy. It might be concluded that our basic idea about the way we will be happy doesn’t change even if its focus does. I now want to argue such a conclusion would be mistaken because in certain cases the things we value helps determine the way we enjoy them. Let us consider someone who values honour. Haybron hints that if someone is happy there is a link between her happiness and the self. (7) I believe Haybron is correct and that there is indeed a connection between some forms of happiness and the self. Clearly this is not the case with hedonistic happiness. To enjoy a good meal or sexual intercourse no one needs a sense of self. This is not true of someone who values honour ‘cares about’ or loves her honour. Valuing honour is connected to her identity, her sense of self, see some of my previous postings. I would suggest such a person will be happy when she acts honourably and that her happiness depends on her satisfaction with acting as she believed she should. I would further suggest her satisfaction is linked to her sense of self by her cognition. The way she is happy is very different to the way someone is happy when enjoying a good meal or having sexual intercourse. Let us accept that people can be happy in different ways and that the pursuit of different ways of being happy requires different ideas about happiness. Let us also accept what we value determines the way we enjoy it, the way in which we are happy. Different cultures value different things. Some of the things we value are determined by the culture we live in. It follows culture helps to determine the way in which we are happy.

No culture is completely homogenous and our culture certainly isn’t. However, I now want to argue that a certain dominant idea within our current culture fosters ideas about what will make us happy which damage our actual happiness. In the western world our culture is dominated by the idea of the consumer. Advertising suggests we will be happier if we have the latest car, have a large modern house, have shinier hair, have brighter teeth, etc. Advertising suggests we will we happier if we have certain things, if we are consumers. Western culture sees us as consumers just as much as it sees us as citizens. The idea of a consumerism is widespread even extending into education. In school pupils are encouraged to learn in order to get good jobs rather than enjoy learning. In education more generally courses are becoming increasingly designed with employment in mind rather broadening students’ horizons. Education is in Yeats words becoming a matter of filling pails rather than lighting fires. I argued above culture helps determine the way we are happy. A culture with a dominant consumerist ethos supports a hedonistic ideas of happiness such as that of Feldman. I further argued that an account such as that of Feldman offers an incomplete concept of happiness because it offers an inadequate account of what it means to be a happy person. Lastly I argued that our ideas about what will make us happy affect the actual happiness we experience. It follows that someone holding an incomplete idea of what will make her happy might experience less actual happiness than if she had a more complete idea.

I now want to discuss four ways in which our overly consumerist culture damages our happiness by fostering an incomplete idea of happiness. First, I have argued above our consumerist culture fosters a hedonistic ideas of happiness. I argued above that such an account of happiness is an incomplete account. Let us recall that that according to Haybron someone is happy if his emotional state is positive and he is attuned, engaged and endorses that state to some degree. I have suggested endorsement is linked to satisfaction. Someone might be satisfied if she is eating a chocolate cake, with some state of affairs or past achievements. Being satisfied with eating a chocolate cake does not involve any cognitive abilities. However, if someone is satisfied with some state of affairs or past achievements she engages some of her cognitive abilities. A hedonistic account of happiness does not directly involve our cognitive abilities. It follows if culture fosters a hedonistic idea of happiness that this fostering might limit some peoples’ ideas about happiness by diminishing their desire to pursue some of the things which might add to their happiness, by limiting their desire to pursue things that satisfy them. Secondly I have argued that as people age the weights attached to the various elements which contribute to their happiness change. A culture which fosters a mostly hedonistic idea of happiness damages that change and as a result damages the happiness they experience. I have outlined this argument above and will not repeat it here. Again it follows that an overly consumerist society might limit our overall happiness especially for older people. Thirdly would argue that our consumerist culture encourages an attitude to work which limits the happiness we experience. Let us accept that some work can give our life meaning and that this meaning increases our happiness. There are two different definitions of work. Firstly, we might define work simply as labour undertaken for some economic reward or hope of such a reward, let us define this as working for something. Such work is instrumental and has no intrinsic value. Secondly someone might work at something. For instance, she might work at playing some musical instrument simply because she enjoys it. Someone playing a musical instrument might become fully immersed with her music losing any feeling of reflective self-consciousness.  According to Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi when someone is in such a flow state she experiences positive emotions. These emotions contribute to his happiness. Our consumerist culture encourages working for something at the expense of working at something and by so doing limits our ability to experience our ability to experience the positive emotions generated by flow. It again follows that an overly consumerist society damages our overall happiness. Lastly our consumerist culture emphasizes consuming things makes us happy. I don’t deny consumption might make us happy for a while. A consumerist culture places emphasis on momentary happiness. It seeks to make people happy, which in itself is laudable, but it is much less concerned with happy people and this lack of concern also limits our happiness. At this point I must it clear that when I speak about happy people I am concerned with people who have a disposition to be happy rather than people who are simply experiencing positive emotions. Our consumerist culture limits happiness because momentary happiness is fragile happiness whilst the happiness experienced by happy people is more robust than momentary happiness. It again follows that an overly consumerist society damages our overall happiness.

What conclusions can be drawn from the above? First our consumerist society damages our happiness and we should seek to broaden the focus of society. Our attempts to broaden the focus of society should concentrate on work and education. This broadened focus might be particularly important if automation leads to people working less. If work provides some meaning in life then it is important to change society’s focus from ‘working for’ to ‘working at’, see work, automation and happiness . An overly consumerist society might find such a change difficult. Secondly if it is hard to broaden society’s focus it becomes especially important to have an accurate idea of what makes us happy, our concept of happiness matters.

  1. Fred Feldman, 2010, What is this thing called Happiness? Oxford, page 29.
  2. Daniel Haybron, 2008, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Oxford, page 147.
  3. Haybron, page 138.
  4. Haybron, page 113
  5. Martin Seligman, 2011, Flourish, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Chapter 1.
  6. Haybron, page 130.

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.