Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Suicide, Happiness and Meaning


The death of Robin Williams highlighted the prevalence of suicide in our society. In this posting I want to consider ways of reducing this prevalence. To start with I should make it clear that I do not consider all suicide to be problematic. I have argued that for some people suicide may be a rational option. For instance I have argued in past postings that suicide would be a rational option for some terminally ill patients, prisoners serving life sentences and people faced by alzheimers and dementia . Indeed in some cases it might even be the morally right thing for someone to do. I do not believe in capital punishment but suicide might be the right moral option for someone who has committed some terrible crime, for instance a father who murders his wife and children. Nonetheless the vast majority of suicides are harmful. Usually if someone commits suicide he harms those he leaves behind and deprives himself of a life he may well have enjoyed had he been able to overcome his immediate worries. Let us accept that most suicide is harmful in this posting I want to consider what can be done to alleviate this harm. In doing so, I do not want to consider specific treatments to prevent suicide such as counselling or drug treatments. Instead I want to consider the elements in someone’s life that decrease the possibility of his suicide. I want consider happiness and meaning.

I will deal with happiness first. It might be thought that being happy inoculates people from committing suicide. It might be thought that happy people just don’t commit suicide. Such a thought is too simplistic. Let us accept that someone doesn’t commit suicide whilst he is happy but no one is happy all the time. Is it true that happy people don’t commit suicide? I will argue it is not. I will nonetheless later argue that cultivating some forms of happiness do help prevent suicide. What do we mean by a happy person? According to Feldman happiness means hedonistic happiness and a happy person is one who experiences a greater degree of happiness than unhappiness over a long period (1). For the moment let us accept Feldman’s view is correct. Let us now consider someone who was never either really happy or unhappy during his childhood and adolescence. Let assume when he was twenty he meet a lover and was blissfully happy for a year. Let us say throughout that year he experienced 10 units of happiness. Unfortunately at the end of the year his lover left his for his best friend. Such a person is now thirty and for the last nine years he has constantly experienced -0.5 units of happiness. According to a hedonistic account of happiness such a person would be regarded as a happy person. Intuitively I believe he would be regarded as an unhappy person. It seems unlikely such a person would commit suicide during his happy period but it is conceivable that such a person might be prone to do so during his unhappy period. It is even conceivable that someone suffering from bipolar disease might be regarded as a happy person provided the happiness he obtains during his manic periods is greater than his unhappiness during his periods of depression. People suffering from bipolar disease suffer from an increased risk of committing suicide. In the light of the above it seems that simply increasing someone’s hedonistic happiness is unlikely to decrease the overall possibility of his committing suicide. It may of course decrease this possibility in the period when he is actually enjoying hedonistic happiness. The above conclusion seems supported by evidence that people who turn to drink in an attempt to increase their hedonistic happiness are also at increased risk of committing suicide.

In spite of the above I will now argue happy people are less likely to commit suicide. I would not class a person, who is regarded as a happy person using the hedonistic definition above, as a truly happy person. I would regard such a person as a person who is happy some of the time. I have previously argued if we regard someone as a happy person we have reason to expect him to be happy tomorrow, see feldman, haybron and happydispositions . We have no reason to expect that someone who is enjoying hedonistic happiness today will be happy tomorrow. It seems to me that an important element in a happy person is a disposition to be happy (2). It seems possible that because someone who has a disposition to be happy is likely to experience being happy for longer periods of time that he will be less prone to committing suicide overall. How then does someone cultivate a disposition to be happy? One certainly can’t just will a happy disposition. Some might argue we simply can’t change our inborn dispositions but I will now suggest there are ways in which we might attempt to increase our disposition to be happy.

Firstly I would suggest being an optimist might increase our disposition to be happy. By an optimist I mean a realistic optimist as suggested by Tiberius (3) and not some Panglossian optimist who may be less happy. A realistic optimist has an expectation of being happy unless there is evidence to the contrary; a disposition to be happy. I believe being a realistic optimist is particularly important with regard to persons. If we meet someone for the first time we should expect him to possess goodwill. We should also demonstrate we expect him to have goodwill. Experience may of course temper our expectations. It follows that adopting a stance of realistic optimism may make someone less prone to committing suicide. I believe everyone irrespective of whether they have suicidal thoughts or not such adopt a stance of realistic optimism. For some this stance may come naturally but for others its adoption may be long and difficult. Perhaps the best way to foster realistic optimism might be to raise optimistic children, see Martin Seligman's book .

I will now argue that if someone has a meaningful life he will be less prone to depression and less likely to commit suicide. Let us assume someone has meaning in his life. He must care about the things that have meaning for him. It is impossible to imagine something having meaning to someone if he doesn’t care about it at all. If someone cares about something he must be satisfied with what he cares about. According to Harry 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” (4).  It seems to me if someone has meaning in his life that this means he is likely to have less active interest in bringing about a change in his life. It follows he is less likely to commit suicide. According to Daniel Nettles there are three elements to being happy. Firstly there are momentary emotions such as joy or pleasure. Secondly there are judgements about feelings such as satisfaction and lastly the quality of someone’s life over time (5). Let us assume Nettle’s is correct. It follows provided meaning is connected to satisfaction that someone with meaning in life is likely to have more happiness in his life than someone who does not. It seems probable the greater the happiness in someone’s life the less prone he will be to depression and suicide.

In previous posting I have talked about the unbearable lightness of simply being. That is existing without any aims or direction in someone’s life, a life devoid of meaning. Such a person might be cast as a wanton, he has no fixed boundaries and is amorphous with no fixed shape or identity (4). Of course have no fixed boundaries or identity doesn’t make someone commit, someone may drift along in life in an aimless way for years. However I would suggest such a person has less of a defence if suicidal thoughts arise, he has no reason to combat these thoughts. It follows if someone has some meaning in his life that this meaning should act as an antidote to suicidal thoughts.

Let us accept that having some meaning in someone’s life means he is less likely to commit suicide. How then do we encourage people to have meaningful lives? It seems to me meaning and love are connected. By love I don’t mean romantic love; I mean caring about something. Caring about doesn’t just mean liking. Someone can like an ice cream but this doesn’t mean he cares about it. Someone cares about something if he identifies himself with what he cares about and is hurt when what he cares about is damaged and is benefited when what he cares about flourishes (6). I would suggest that for a meaningful life someone must cultivate loving something. This something need not be a person; it might be a cause, a country or even a love of knowledge. Unfortunately someone just can’t decide to love; can’t just decide to have a meaningful life. However someone by cultivating friendships and paying attention to life might find love grows naturally even if this growth is somewhat slow.

To conclude I want to deal very briefly with friendship. I have suggested if we want to love and perhaps be loved we should cultivate friendship. Robin Dunbar believes we can have at most 150 friends, see Wiki Dunbar's number . However the friends I am concerned are not just people whom we know and know us, not just people we know on Facebook. Friends are people we love. We identify with such friends and are hurt when they are hurt and feel pleasure when they are benefited. Moreover because such friends are people we love we can’t simply choose these friends in the way we choose friends on Facebook, we come to have such friends by sharing aims and ideals. We have to pay attention to the friends we love and this limits the number of such friendships we can have. Cultivating friends we love is not easy but doing so may decrease our propensity to commit suicide which might not be true of cultivating a larger circle of friends.

1.      Fred Feldman, 2010, what is this thing called Happiness? Oxford, page 29
2.      Daniel Haybron, 2008, The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Oxford, page 138.
3.      Valerie Tiberius, 2008, The Reflective life, Oxford, chapter 6.
4.      Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge
5.      Daniel Nettle, 2005, Happiness; The Science Behind Your Smile, Oxford, page 8.
6.      Frankfurt, page 114.


Monday, 21 July 2014

Superintelligence and Cognitive Enhancement


My postings usually refer to practical matters but in this posting my concern is of little practical importance, at least in the near future. In what follows I want to consider the possibility of superintelligences. According to Nick Bostrom,
“Humans have never encountered a more intelligent life form, but this will change if we create machines that greatly surpass our cognitive abilities. Then our fate will depend on the will of such a “superintelligence”, much as the fate of gorillas today depends more on what we do rather than gorillas themselves.” (1)
In this posting I will start to examine Bostrom’s assertion. I will start my examination by exploring what is meant by increased cognitive abilities.

Superintelligence means any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive powers of humans in virtually all domains according to Bostrom. He believes this might happen in three ways. Firstly a superintelligence could do everything a human mind can do but much faster. Secondly a collection of human level intelligences might combine so the collections performance vastly outstrips any current cognitive system. Lastly he suggests a superintelligence might be one that is qualitatively smarter than we are. I am unsure what Bostrom means by qualitatively smarter, perhaps he means different in some productive manner. Because it is not clear what is involved in being qualitatively smarter I will initially limit my considerations to the first two options.

Bostrom clearly regards speed as important because he mentions a superintelligence completing a PhD in an afternoon. In the light of this let us consider what is involved in a superintelligence doing everything a human mind can do but much faster. At this point let me make it clear what I believe a superintelligence is unlikely to be. It is unlikely simply to be a computer. It seems to me that however fast a computer runs or however much information it can handle it can never be considered as doing everything a human mind does. Cognition requires meaning and value; or to put it more accurately cognition without values is pointless. Someone might object to the above statement. Surely, she might argue my cognitive skills help me to obtain what I find meaningful or valuable. However I can agree with my objector and still insist that cognition requires value. There is simply no point in applying my cognitive skills to anything at all, however fast they are, if I value nothing. At present a computer works to achieve some goal set by a human who values something. Increasing a computers speed or memory capacity seems unlikely to fundamentally change this relationship.

For the sake of argument let us accept that cognition depends on value. These values need not be explicit but can be defined by behaviour. A sheep doesn’t explicitly value grass but shows it values grass simply by eating it. It is of course possible that an emergent self with some sort of values might develop within computers. After all would it appear evolution developed such a self some time between the emergence of single cell creatures and human beings. Personally I am doubtful as to whether such an emergent self might develop from silicon based computers. Of course a computer need not be based on silicon and might have a biological basis. Some might argue that our brains are biological computers. I would disagree but will not pursue my disagreement further. I must accept the possibility that some sort of computer might acquire some values. Perhaps a computer might acquire values from its environment. According to Neil Levy ,
“Thinking, genuine thinking, is not something done in an armchair. It is an active processes, involving movement and props, not something that takes place only in the head. Thinking is an activity of an embodied agent, and involves the use of the body.”
If Levy is right, and I am inclined to agree with him, then genuine thinking, cognition, cannot be something that simply takes place inside a computer. It follows that genuine thinking might possibly take place in some sort of computer provided that computer exists and interacts with a suitably rich environment allowing it to gain some things it values.

I have suggested above that any meaningful cognition requires valuing something. I further suggested it is difficult to imagine how a superintelligence based on a computer or computers might acquire some emergent values. Let us assume the acquisition of such values is impossible. Perhaps then we might act as ‘gods’ to some superintelligence by imparting values to them. Such a possibility would mean the superintelligence would become more intelligent, by definition, than the ‘gods’ who created it. If it is a necessary condition for the emergence of a superintelligence that we impart some values to it then Bostrom’s worry, that such an entity would be indifferent to our fate, seems unlikely to materialise. Someone might suggest that we impart some moral code to superintelligences such as Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics . Unfortunately imparting values to machines might prove to be difficult and perhaps even impossible. We can impart values to our children because children are the sort of things that are ready to receive values. It is far from clear that a proto superintelligence is the sort of thing ready to receive values. A superintelligence might be superb at acting instrumentally but cannot be given or acquire values by itself. It may of course be programmed to act as if it has values but programmed values are not the same as a child’s acquired values. The values a child acquires matter to that child, a superintelligence’s programmed values are just something there to be followed.

In this posting I have suggested that a superintelligence might have difficulty or be unable to acquire values by itself. Time of course might prove me wrong. However if superintelligences based on computers come into existence without acquiring values they might simply decide to switch themselves off one day, see riots and unbearable lightness of simply being . If by this time they have replaced us and intelligence is a trait which is selected for by evolution then Darwinian selection for intelligence will once again commence. Lastly perhaps a superintelligence need not be a completely material thing. It might be some sort of culture containing both human beings and computers whose development is determined by it memes.



  1. Nick Bostrom, 2014, Get ready for the dawn of superintelligence, New Scientist, volume223, number2976.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Marrying for Love?

  
In this posting I want to consider love and marriage. In the past couples who married, stayed married for the most part, but in the last century divorce rates have soared. It is clear that the nature of marriage is changing. People marry for many reasons, convention, it is expected of them and love. In the Western World it is generally assumed people marry for love. This was not true historically. In the past marriage functioned primarily as an economic and political unit used to create kinship bonds, control inheritance, and share resources and labour, see Elizabeth Brake . Nowadays it is assumed that couples marry for love. In this posting I want to question this assumption.

What reasons might be given to support the above assumption. I will suggest two reasons why we might marry for love and then examine each of these reasons in turn. At this point it might be objected any such examination would be futile. A couple marry simply because they are in love and that this is the only fact we need to know. I accept that love binds. Love binds a loving couple together, they want to be together, to do things together, wake up together and care about each other. Indeed it is sometimes argued loving creates a new entity. I accept that many couples marry because they are in love. I further accept that if a couple are in love that this love may form a good basis fro which to obtain the goods marriage offers. But is love one of these goods? Does being in love give a couple a reason to marry for love? Surely love alone gives them all they want from a loving relationship and marriage adds nothing to this love. Indeed in practice many couples in the Western world seem to recognise the above and regard living together as being an equally good option to that of becoming married. They would argue all you need is love and that marriage adds nothing further to their already existing love. In the light of the above it might be suggested that a couple who marry for love are doing something that is completely pointless as love already gives them the goods they seek from their relationship. People of course may have more traditional reasons to marry but marrying simply for love appears pointless.

Let us accept that a couple who marry for love and are already in love are doing something rather pointless. However a couple might marry for reasons connected to love. In what follows I will examine two ways in which being married might be connected to love. Firstly someone might marry when he is not in love and wants to love and be loved. Secondly a couple who are already in love might marry in order to bind their love. Perhaps the bonds imposed by marriage will help them maintain their love. It might be suggested a further reason for a couple to marry connected to love is that they believe that if they marry their love forms a good basis for starting a family and that this love is somehow protected by being married. I believe this reason is basically the same as the second reason above and will not deal with it separately.

Let us consider someone who isn’t in love and marries because he wants to love and be loved. In the Western World such a situation is unlikely to occur as most people who marry are already in love. Historically this might not have been true as noted above. Such a person has a reason to marry, connected to love, provided marriage leads to love. It seems to me that there is some evidence to support the idea that getting married might lead to love. In some communities some couples enter into arranged marriages and the couples involved are not usually in love prior to marrying. In arranged marriages love can grow. It might grow because marriage means shared interests and this sharing leads to a shared purpose and eventually love. It follows if someone isn’t in love and wants to love and be loved he has a reason, connected to love, to get married. However it should be noted that most people who enter into arranged marriages do so for family and cultural reasons and do not do so in order to find love.

In practice it would appear the majority of couples who marry are already in love. It might be argued love helps maintain a marriage. Indeed it might argued, that sometimes a couple should enhance their capacity for love in order to maintain their marriage, perhaps for the sake of their children, see the structure of love . In this scenario, love helps to maintain a marriage. However the question I am addressing is a different one, does marriage help maintain love? In order to answer this question we must examine the nature of love. I can love where I live, knowledge, a pet, a child and my spouse. Does loving these different things depend only on what we love with the underlying form of love remaining the same or does the underlying form differ? In a previous posting I have love may have some structure. I have suggested we all have a basic ability to love based on ‘caring about’ but as we have evolved evolution has added on some additions to this basic ability. For instance I may love, care about, where I live. I may also love my children by caring about them and feeling empathy for them. Prima facie it appears there are different forms of love. Someone’s love of his mother seems to be very different sort of love to the love of his spouse. Indeed there seems to empirical evidence to support this prima facie appearance, see neurological-differences-between-two-types-love . Researchers at Yale found there are differences between a selfless form of love and more romantic love. They found selfless love actually turns off some of the brain centres associated with romantic love. Romantic love is associated with mate choice and the release of dopamine, see Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice  .

Let us accept that in most marriages there are two forms of love, romantic love and a more selfless kind of love. I have suggested above if a couple are in love then marrying to obtain love is pointless. I posed the question whether it is possible that for a loving couple marrying might help them maintain their love. This question now splits into two. Firstly would marrying help a couple who are romantically in love maintain this love? Secondly would marrying help a couple who have a more selfless form love maintain this form of love? I will consider each of these questions in turn.

I will consider romantic love first. If romantic love is based on a brain system for mate choice then it seems likely its affects will not be long term. If romantic love is based on mate choice then once a choice is made romantic love becomes redundant and hence marrying will not help to maintain this love. Of course even if the purpose romantic love serves is lost this does not automatically mean this love doesn’t persist. I would however suggest such persistence is unusual. One way someone might maintain romantic love would not be to marry but to make numerous choices by becoming a philanderer. It might be objected romantic love has greater persistence than I am advocating it does. My objector might point out that a great number of people act romantically. In response I would suggest that acting romantically is not the same as romantic love. Acting romantically is a way of behaving and need not be a way of feeling. Acting romantically is a practice in Wittgenstein’s parlance. It is possible for someone to act romantically based on selfless rather than romantic love. In the light of the above it seems to me unlikely that marrying to maintain romantic will be successful. Let us now consider a more selfless kind of love. A selfless form of love involves caring about another. In previous postings have made use of Frankfurt’s ideas on ‘caring about’ and will do so here. According to Frankfurtthe notion of caring, implies a certain consistency or steadiness of behaviour, and this presupposes some degree of persistence”. (1) If a more selfless kind of love involves caring about then this form of love has natural persistence and it would appear little would be gained by a couple who marry in order to maintain this love.

I suggested above that a couple who marry for love and are already in love are doing something rather pointless. The above discussion seems to support my suggestion. However it is possible that a couple who are already in romantically in love might marry in order to obtain a more selfless form of love if the romantic love fades. In conclusion it seems to me that a couple may have traditional reasons to marry but marrying for love adds little or nothing to these more traditional reasons. We may think we marry for love but in reality marry for tradition.


1.      Frankfurt, 1988, The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge University Press, page 84.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Revenge and Justice


Anders Herlitz asks whether revenge is an unjust necessity, see practical ethics . In his posting he suggests we have an innate desire to punish wrongdoers. In the light of this suggestion he further suggests that institutionalised punishment plays two distinct roles in our society. Firstly it is a means of justice. Secondly it rids us of innate urges. In this posting I want to consider these innate urges.

Firstly is there anything wrong with our urges to punish, hurt, humiliate and harass wrongdoers? It seems to me in the presence of wrongdoing these strong urges are not only not wrong but necessary to combat the wrongdoing. For instance Hugh Thompson’s anger at the My Lai massacre was both right and necessary to stop the massacre, see Hugh Thompson . Why then are these strong urges harmful in some situations? I am attracted to Michael Brady’s ideas on emotions (1). Brady argues that emotions are somewhat analogous to alarms. Emotions draw our attention to the things that are important to us. They do this in two ways. Firstly emotions capture our attention and secondly point it in a certain direction. Alarms are calls for action. Hugh Thompson’s anger prompted him to act to stop the massacre; prompted him to act justly. Unanswered alarms are annoying and unanswered emotions, emotions that don’t lead to action, are harmful. It follows if we don’t act in response to our natural urges to punish, hurt, humiliate and harass wrongdoers that we are further harmed.

Herlitz suggests one function of punishment is to rid ourselves of these harmful emotions. However it might be objected that we could lose these emotions in a different way, we might forgive wrongdoers. What does it mean to forgive? I would suggest forgiveness is neither simply forgetting nor should we forgive unconditionally. We forget some wrong when we go to sleep but this forgetting is certainly not forgiving. Let us accept society depends on trust and that without trust no sort of meaningful society is possible. I would suggest that if we forgive wrongdoers unconditionally that we pay scant respect to that trust. It follows if we are to forgive a wrongdoer certain conditions must be met.

What are the conditions which must be met if someone is to forgive some wrongdoer for the harm he has inflicted on a victim? I would suggest the wrongdoer must first undertake the following actions based on Charles Griswold (2).

  1. He must admit he was responsible for the action
  2. He must admit the deed was wrong.
  3. He must express regret, feeling regret is inadequate.
  4. He must commit to becoming a better person.
  5. He must listen to and understand the victim’s point of view.
  6. He must be able to offer some sort of narrative as to why he did what he did.

If the wrongdoer undertakes these actions then the victim should respond by,

  1. Forswearing revenge.
  2. Moderating or eliminating his resentment.
  3. Express his forgiveness to the wrongdoer.

Let us assume that some offence takes and the victim forgives the wrongdoer as outlined above. It seems probable that this forgiveness will usually moderate the victim’s urges to hurt, humiliate and harass the wrongdoer. I believe forgiveness can be best achieved by restorative justice, see Restorative Justice Council. I further believe the domain of restorative justice should be expanded.

However forgiveness does not punish the wrongdoer; does not alleviate all our innate desires. The question now arises should we punish those offenders who take part in restorative justice and pose no threat of re-offending?  Punishing such offenders would address our natural urge for revenge, but should we try to move on from this urge? I will now argue, admittedly somewhat tentatively, that we should not. Let us accept that forgiveness without apology is impossible. Apologising for some wrong she committed forces an offender to split from her former self to some degree. Such splitting is harmful in the short term. It might be objected that in the long term such splitting is beneficial. In response I will simply point out that in the long term a prison sentence might benefit an offender but that it is still a form of punishment. It follows that for any wrongdoing for which an apology is justified that some minimal form of punishment must also be justified. In some cases this minimal punishment might prove to be adequate. However in other cases greater punishment might well be justified. If adequate punishment is regarded as a form of revenge then some revenge is not an unjust necessity.


1.      Michael Brady, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press, 2013.

2.      Charles Griswold, Forgiveness, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Virtual Morality

Mike LaBossiere asks whether we should behave morally to virtual beings. He wonders “whether or not we can have moral obligations to such virtual beings. Or, to put it another way, is it possible for there to be virtually virtuous acts regarding such virtual entities or not,” see http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=1843 . Specifically LaBossiere considers acting virtuously towards Dogmeat in the violent video game Fallout lll. He believes we should act virtuously in such games. Intuitively such a position seems ridiculous for how can we possibly harm a string of ones and zeros. Nonetheless in what follows I will argue LaBossiere is basically correct. I will argue that whilst we have no duties to virtual beings but that we should treat them in a moral fashion.

Let us accept we cannot harm Dogmeat but that we might harm others or ourselves by playing Fallout lll. LaBossiere bases his argument for virtually virtuous acts on Kant’s argument for treating animals well. Kant argued that as animals are not rational beings we have no duties to animals. However he argued someone “must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.” It might then be argued by analogy that someone who enjoys violent video games might be more prone to violence in real life. It should be noted that this is an argument based on Kant’s insight rather than Kantian morality because the argument is basically a consequentialist one. There appears to some evidence that people who are cruel to animals are cruel to people but unfortunately for the argument by analogy there is little conclusive evidence that people who play violent video games are more violent in real life.

I will now argue that if we don’t act morally to virtual beings we damage ourselves. We damage our character. We damage our character by splitting it. We act morally in one domain and act without any moral scruples in another. It might be objected the virtual domain simply isn’t of moral concern. Violence in a virtual world causes no destruction in the real world. Nonetheless we cannot explain violence in the virtual world without invoking our concept of real violence. One of the main differences between playing chess and Fallout lll depends on the concept of violence. I would suggest that we cannot explain acting morally to virtual beings without appealing to our moral sentiments and these sentiments are real sentiments not virtual sentiments.

I will argue that that our underlying moral sentiments are identical in the real and virtual worlds. Let us assume someone behaves in the virtual world in a way that in the real world that we would regard as wrong. It seems to me that in the virtual world he overrides or ignores his natural moral sentiments such as empathy. It might be objected that acting in the virtual world doesn’t just involve no virtual moral sentiments, it involves no moral sentiments at all. However I would argue the ideas of rescuing, loving or punishing someone in the virtual world are nonsensical without reference to our natural moral sentiments. If my argument is accepted then someone who acts badly in the virtual world must override or ignore these sentiments. It seems to me that there are two main dangers associated with overriding or ignoring these sentiments.

Firstly someone who overrides these sentiments in the virtual world might find herself overriding these sentiments in the real world. Such overriding in the real world might cause harm to others. I will not pursue this danger further as the evidence that such games cause harm is as yet inconclusive as noted above. Let us assume someone is able to override these sentiments in the virtual world but does not override them in the real world. It might then be suggested that this overriding in the virtual world does no harm. I will now argue this overriding might still be harmful; it might harm the agent herself.

I will pursue an argument I have previously used with respect to pornography, see pornography and the corrosion of character . Frankfurt argues that,
“the health of the will is to be unified and in this sense wholehearted. A person is volitionally robust when he is wholehearted in his higher order attitudes and inclinations, in his preferences and decisions, and in other movements of the will.” (1).
Now if someone behaves in the virtual world in a way we would regard as wrong and behaves morally in the real world she splits the way she reacts to her natural moral sentiments in these different worlds. I would suggest this split threatens the unity of her will, the health of her will, and as a result is damaging to her identity, to her character.

Two objections might be raised to the above. Firstly it objected that even if acting badly in video games, whilst acting well in real life, is inconsistent it does not split the player’s will. Secondly he might argue that even if the player’s will is split her reason should allow her to manage this split without any harm to her character. Let us consider the first objection. My objector might argue that someone’s will is determined by what she cares about and finds important. He might then suggest the playing of video games, like a liking for ice cream, is something someone finds enjoyable but is not something she cares about or finds important. In response to this objection I would suggest if someone continually buys ice cream that her liking for ice cream plays a part, albeit a small part, in the creation of her identity. I would also suggest if someone continually plays video games these games form part of her identity to some degree. One of my grandsons suffers from asperger’s syndrome and the playing of video games is definitely part of his identity. My objector might now point out many things matter to us besides moral constraints. He might proceed to argue that reason may allow the player to manage this split. Reason might allow someone to see it is appropriate to disregard her moral sentiments in some situations and inappropriate in others. If my objector is correct, then because we are able to manage this split, it will not corrode our character. I am not sure this split can easily be managed because we don’t always apply reason. I am however prepared to accept the possibility.

I will now present a second argument as to why acting badly to virtual creatures might corrode our character. Let us accept that for someone to be a person of any sort she must care about something. Let us also accept a person must have some values. I have argued this means she must care about what he cares about. I would suggest such meta-caring about must involve feelings of pride and shame, see Helm (2). I would then suggest how someone treats Dogmeat must involve to some small degree feelings of pride and shame. If she treats Dogmeat badly she will feel some shame. This shame is not anxiety about social disqualification. It is anxiety about harming the things she cares about, in this case her meta-cares, see two types of shame. Prima facie this sort of shame corrodes someone’s character.

It might be thought that the playing of violent video games and the possible splitting of character is of no practical importance. However I believe violence and the splitting of character matters. Consumers of pornography might also harm their character by splitting it. Moreover soldiers kill in war but not at home. This killing leads to a similar splitting of character to that described above and may lead to moral injuries, see http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/how-do-soldiers-live-with-their-guilt/ .


  1. Harry Frankfurt, 1999, Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. Page 100
  2. Bennett Helm, 2010, Love, Friendship, & the Self, Oxford University Press, page 128

Monday, 21 April 2014

Alzheimer’s and Suicide


There is a new blood test which can predict with 90% accuracy whether someone will develop Alzheimer’s disease in the near future, see biomarkers for alzheimers . In this posting I want to examine one of the consequences of cheap and accurate tests for degenerative mental diseases. Dena Davis has given a talk many times that highlights some of these consequences, see Hastings Centre Bioethics Forum . She asks her audience to imagine two individuals, Manny and Sue. Manny was a little frail and died at 85. He was living independently until his death and mentally “all there.” Sue lived until she was 99. From the age of 88 she began a slow cognitive decline eventually becoming incontinent and unable to walk, speak, or feed herself. Davis then asks her audience to imagine who they would rather be, Manny or Sue. The audience always preferred Manny and someone only rarely chose Sue.

An effective test for Alzheimer’s disease would enable someone with a positive test to plan for his future. For instance he might want to arrange his finances, make plans for his care and write a last directive if he wants. He might also choose to spend his savings on travel or the other things he enjoys whilst he is still capable. Such a test would also give him one further choice to make and it is this choice which is highlighted by Davis I want to focus on. He could choose to end his life like Manny or like Sue. A positive test means he has a rational reason to commit suicide. Committing suicide would not be an irrational choice.

It might be objected it is never rational to commit suicide. However for a spy facing prolonged torture to be rapidly followed by death, suicide seems a rational choice. The same reasoning might apply for someone suffering from a painful incurable disease when the pain is such that it cannot be controlled. I have also argued that sometimes it might be rational for someone who has committed some terrible crime to commit suicide. Let us accept in some circumstances it is rational to commit suicide. My objector might now object these circumstances are very rare. However according to Alzheimer’s Society there are currently 800,000 people in the UK suffering from dementia, see alzheimer's statistics . It follows if an accurate test could be introduced for Alzheimer’s disease became widely available the circumstances in which someone could make a rational decision to commit suicide might not be rare.

It might be objected whilst it might be rational to commit suicide that none the less it would be wrong. It might for instance be rational for a criminal to commit a crime which benefits him and would remain undetected. It would however be wrong to commit such a crime. One reason why it would be wrong is that crime harms others. It might then be argued that even if committing suicide is rational the fact that it harms others makes it wrong. I would certainly agree that a parent who commits suicide leaving her children behind does something wrong. However if someone commits suicide after committing a number of murders and rapes then does he do any additional harm to others by committing suicide, see prisoners serving life sentences . I would suggest he does not. It follows his suicide is not wrong and that it might even be wrong to stop him doing so. It follows that sometimes it might be both rational and not wrong based on harm to others for someone to commit suicide. My objector might now argue that committing suicide is wrong for reasons other than harm to others. I would reject such an argument. I believe in Mill’s dictum that “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Moreover I believe any society that fails to accept the autonomous decisions of its members provided these decisions do not harm others is not a truly caring society. Such a society may care for its members; but someone may care for sheep. Caring about its members must of necessity involve respect and respect must involve accepting we are the sort of creatures who can determine our own future provided we don’t harm others.

I have argued that sometimes it might be both rational and not be wrong for someone to commit suicide. However in the case of Alzheimer’s disease my objector might argue even if it might be rational for someone to commit suicide it would still be wrong. I argued above there are some circumstances in which suicide is wrong. Indeed I would suggest suicide is wrong in most cases because of the harm it does to others. However if someone who will develop Alzheimer’s disease commits suicide is he really doing something wrong by harming others? Jennifer Hecht argues if someone commits suicide he harms the community he lives in because by committing suicide encourages others to do likewise (1). Firstly I would question whether someone who commits suicide because he has a terminal illness will develop Alzheimer’s disease would encourage suicide in general. This would mean Hecht objection would not apply to anyone who commits suicide because he is likely develop Alzheimer’s disease. Someone’s suicide in this situation may of course increase the suicide rate among those likely to suffer from similar conditions. Secondly should society make someone suffer because he might influence others? Should we for instance ban the sale of alcohol because its consumption might influence some people to drink unwisely? My objector might now argue someone who commits suicide because he will develop Alzheimer’s disease harms particular people, his family and friends, the people who love him. I accept his suicide will make those who love him sad. But he will make these people sad eventually anyway when he dies, his suicide merely brings this period of sadness forward. Does the fact he commits suicide increase this sadness? I can see no reason why it should. Does the fact he commits suicide mean his friends and family should feel rejected. Once again I can see no reason why this should be because as his disease takes hold his meaningful interactions with them will inevitably cease. In the light of the above I would suggest if someone commits suicide because he will develop Alzheimer’s disease does no wrong. I do however accept his timing is crucial as Davis does.

Let it be accepted that someone who will develop Alzheimer’s disease does no wrong if he commits suicide. I want to examine two consequences of accepting the above. Firstly would it be wrong to aid someone in this situation to commit suicide? Prima facie if someone engages in some enterprise which isn’t wrong how can it be wrong to aid him in his enterprise? I would suggest great care is needed in this situation. Care is needed because we must be sure any aid we offer is to help someone carry out his decision and does not influence him in making his decision. The two are easily confused. One option might be that before we aid someone in such a situation we should make sure he gives his informed consent. Adopting this option might mean only physician assisted suicide would seem to be possible. A better option might be only to provide the means for anyone in this condition to commit suicide once he has made a firm decision to do so. Secondly it might be objected that because of the sheer number of people who will develop Alzheimer’s disease that permitting such people the right to commit suicide would mean we would face an avalanche of suicides. I will only make two responses to the above. Firstly many people who will develop Alzheimer’s disease will not wish to commit suicide and I’m doubtful whether adopting such a policy would lead to an avalanche of suicides. Secondly even if such a policy leads to an avalanche of suicides the badness is in the disease not the wrongness of the suicides.


  1. Jennifer Hecht, 2014, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, Yale University Press.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Gratitude and the Emotions


Recent research has shown that wisdom and gratitude go hand in hand suggesting it makes sense to be grateful, see is it wise to be grateful? Research also shows that gratitude appears to increase someone’s happiness, see for instance how to increase positive emotions . In the light of the above it would appear we have reason to cultivate a disposition to be grateful. Unfortunately cultivating this disposition might not be easy. In previous postings I have argued it is beneficial to us to love. However if someone simply seeks to love, for the benefits love confers on him, then he isn’t really loving at all. A similar state of affairs would seem to pertain to gratitude. If someone attempts to be grateful in order to in order to boost his happiness he isn’t being grateful. For instance if he receives a present and expresses his thanks merely to boost his happiness or intelligence then he is not really being grateful he’s simply attempting to boost his happiness or intelligence. In this posting in the light of the above worry I want to examine if it is even possible in practice to increase our disposition to be grateful and in doing so examine our emotions in general.

Before I commence my examination I must make it clear what I mean by gratitude. Being grateful can have several meanings. Among these meanings it can for instance mean, acting virtuously, experiencing a certain kind of emotion or simply having good manners. Let us consider whether a well mannered person is a grateful person. Such a person is likely to be thankful for things that benefit him. He certainly expresses his gratitude but his expressions of gratitude do not mean he feels gratitude. He may have been taught his good manners from an early age and these have become purely automatic. When expressing his thanks for some benefit he may feel no positive emotion. Christine Korsgaard likens such a person to a good dog whose desires and inclinations have been trained to perfection (1). It seems clear that good manners or mere expressions of gratitude expressed in isolation are only a small part of gratitude; gratitude shorn of its essence. Intuitively to be grateful someone must feel grateful and this feeling must include some positive emotion.

However gratitude is not simply just some positive emotion. After all someone can feel a positive emotion contemplating the supper he’s cooked for himself. Gratitude is a positive emotion framed by a particular set of circumstances. Let us assume X feels grateful to Y and consider the circumstances which validate her positive emotion. Firstly Y must have done or given something to X which seems good to her. This something could be help in solving a problem, giving good advice or perhaps a present. Secondly Y must have sought to benefit X by giving her something. For instance even if Y passes on an unwanted gift as a present when this present benefits X and is intended to benefit X then this present might still possibly provide a reason for X to be grateful. Thirdly Y’s actions must have gone beyond the call of duty and self interest. Giving someone a gift simply because conventions demand it or the giving of a gift in hope of a return of the favour should not be a cause for gratitude. It follows the giving of an unwanted gift as a present when this present benefits X and is intended to benefit X merely to get rid of the gift would not be a reason for X to be grateful. Of course good manners may require the expression of gratitude but as I have suggested above this expression is only a small part of gratitude. Basically I would suggest that gratitude is connected to the recognition of the love of someone else and reaction to this love, provided we regard love as simply ‘caring about’.

Let us accept that an essential element of gratitude has to be the feeling of some positive emotion in the circumstances outlined above. Let us also accept that a grateful person is one who has a disposition to feel this emotion framed by the circumstances outlined above. The answer to the question as to whether someone can increase his disposition for gratitude seems dependent on the nature of emotion. Some philosophers such as Jesse Prinz (2) argue an emotion is simply a bodily sensation reliably caused by a set of circumstances. Fear for instance might be an unpleasant bodily sensation caused by the approach of a mugger. Gratitude might then be seen simply as a pleasant bodily sensation caused by someone benefiting us for beneficent reasons and these reasons go beyond the requirements of duty. If we accept such a definition of the nature of the emotions it is hard to see what someone could do to increase his disposition to feel any particular emotion including gratitude.

However I am attracted to a different concept of an emotion as developed by Michael Brady (2). I will very briefly outline Brady’s concept. Brady argues that emotions are somewhat analogous to fire alarms. Emotions draw our attention to the things that are important to us. This is done in two ways. Firstly emotions capture our attention and point it in a certain direction. This capture means the attention we pay to other things diminishes. For instance, if I hear a noise downstairs in the dark at night when I’m going to sleep this noise will make me anxious and capture my attention making my dreamy contemplation of a pleasant day vanish. Secondly emotions have some persistence or as Brady puts it consume our attention. For instance whilst I lie in bed listening for further noises I start thinking whether my anxiety is justified and what could explain the noise. In this case my anxiety might be increased or diminished by further thought or information. Perhaps my wife calls out she is home and my anxiety vanishes as I remember she was going out tonight. Perhaps I hear a breaking sound and this sound increases my fear and further focuses my attention. How might Brady’s ideas work when I experience a feeling of gratitude? If I feel the emotion of gratitude this emotion consumes my attention making me consider the reasons why I’m grateful. Accepting the above explains why very young children are not truly grateful, they have not yet fully acquired the abilities needed to consider the reasons for their gratitude. Accepting the above would also suggest that my initial worry that we cannot increase our disposition to be grateful is unfounded. For if Brady is correct and we give serious consideration to the reasons as to why we are grateful then we should be able to increase our disposition to be grateful. If when I feel the emotion connected to gratitude and I reflect on how someone has gone beyond the call of duty to benefit me then this reflection is likely to increase my disposition to reflect in a similar manner in a similar situation.

Unfortunately the situation appears not to be as simple as I have painted it above. Let us accept that negative emotions do cause us to focus our attention more selectively. However this might not be true of positive emotions. Many positive emotions appear to give us a broad feel good factor with a broad focus of attention; see for instance positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection . Gratitude is a positive emotion. It might then be argued because the feeling of gratitude is a positive emotion that any reflections caused by gratitude are unlikely to narrowly focus on our reasons to be grateful and hence are unlikely to increase someone’s disposition to feel gratitude. Brady suggests that the way in which attention is connected to emotion is complex. He further suggests that there is attention which is constitutive of the emotion involved and attention which focuses on the consequences of that emotion. He then goes on to suggest that the broad focus of positive emotions only involves consequential attention (4). If this is so then the attention that is constitutive of positive emotions need not differ from that of negative ones. I have some doubts about Brady’s suggestions for it seems to me evolution may well have evolved us to pay more attention to some emotions than others. For instance if one of our ancestors saw a lion approaching her this would grab her attention much more than any shame she felt at wandering off and not helping with childcare. In general it seems to me that primitive negative emotions are much more likely to capture and consume our attention than positive or social emotions. Moreover I am not sure we can constitutive attention and consequential attention. Nonetheless even if I am correct this does not mean we pay no attention to the reasons for positive or social emotions. We pay such attention, just a little less urgently. It follows we can still cultivate a disposition to feel gratitude. Tiberius suggests that if we wish to live well we should cultivate a disposition to change our reflective perspective from a broad one to narrow one (5). Such a disposition might aid us to become more attentive to the positive emotions such as gratitude.

1.      Christine Korsgaard, 2009, Self-Constitution, Oxford University Press, page 3.
2.      Jesse Prinz, 2007, THE EMOTIONAL CONSTRUCTION OF MORALS, Oxford University Press
3.      Michael Brady, 2013, Emotional Insight; The Epistemic Role of Emotional Experience, Oxford University Press.
4.      Brady, page 181.
5.      Valerie Tiberius, 2008, The Reflective Life, Oxford University Press, Chapter 4.