Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Being Two People at Once, with the Help of Linda Nagata

In the world of Linda Nagata's Nanotech Succession, you can be two people at once. And whether you are in fact two people at once, I'd suggest, depends on the attitude each part takes toward the splitting-fusing process.

"Two people at once" isn't how Nagata puts it. In her terminology, one being, the original person, continues in standard embodied form, while another being, a "ghost" -- inhabits some other location, typically someone else's "atrium". Suppose you want to have an intimate conversation long-distance. In Nagata's world, you can do it like this: Create a duplicate of your entire psychology (memories, personality traits, etc. -- for the sake of argument, let's allow that this can be done) and transfer that information to someone else. The recipient then implements your psychology in a dedicated processing space, her atrium. At the same time, your physical appearance is overlaid upon the recipient's sensory inputs. To her (though to no one else around) it will look like you are in the room. The person hosting you in her atrium will then interact with you, for example by saying "Hi, long time no see!" Her speech will be received as inputs to the virtual ghost-you in her atrium, and this ghost-you will react in just the same way you would react, for example by saying "You haven't aged a bit!" and stepping forward for a hug. Your host will then experience that speech overlaid on her auditory inputs, your bodily movement overlaid on her visual inputs, and the warmth of your hug overlaid on her tactile inputs. She will react accordingly, and so forth.

The ghost in the atrium will, of course, consciously experience all this (no Searlean skepticism about conscious AI here). When the conversation is over, the atrium will be emptied and the full memory of these experiences will be messaged back to the original you. The original you -- which meanwhile has been having its own stream of experiences -- will accept the received memories as autobiographical. The newly re-merged you, on Earth, will remember that conversation you had on Mars, which occurred on the same day you were also busy doing lots of other things on Earth.

If you know the personal identity literature in philosophy, you might think of instantiating the ghost as a "fission" case -- a case in which one person splits into two different people, similar to the case of having each hemisphere of your brain is transplanted separately into a different body, or the case of stepping into a transporter on Earth and having copies of you emerge simultaneously on Mars and Venus to go their separate ways ever after. Philosophers usually suppose that such fissions produce two distinct identities.

The Nagata case is different. You fission, and both of the resulting fission products know they are going to merge back together again; and then once they do merge, both strands of the history are regarded equally as part of your autobiography. The merged entity regards itself as being responsible for the actions of the split-off ghost -- can be embarrassed by its gaffes, held to its promises, and prosecuted for its crimes, and it will act out the ghost's decisions without needing to rethink them.

Contrast assimilation into the Borg of the Star Trek universe. The Borg, a large group entity, absorbs the memories of various assimilated beings (like individual human beings). But the Borg treats the personal history of the assimilated being non-autobiographically -- for example without accepting responsibility for the assimilated entity's past actions and plans.

What makes the difference between an identity-preserving fission-and-merge and an identity-breaking fission-and-merge is, I propose, the entities' implicit and explicit attitudes about the merge. If pre-fission I think "I am going to be Eric Schwitzgebel, in two places", and then in the fissioned state I think "I am here but another copy of me is also running elsewhere", and then after fusion I think "Both of those Eric Schwitzgebels are equally part of my own past" -- and if I also implicitly accept all this, e.g., by not feeling compelled to rethink one Eric Schwitzgebel's decisions more than the other's -- and perhaps especially if the rest of society shares my view of these matters, then I have been one entity in two places.

To see that this is really about the content of the relevant attitudes and not about, say, the kind of continuity of memory, values, and personality usually emphasized in psychological approaches to personal identity, consider what would happen if I had a very different attitude toward ghosts. If I saw the ghost as a mere slave distinct from me, then during the split my ghost might be thinking "damn, I'm only a ghost and my life will expire at the end of this conversation"; and after the merge, I'll tend to think of my ghost's behaviors as not really having been my own, despite my memories of those behaviors from a first-person point of view. The ghost will not bothered having made decisions or promises intending to bind me, knowing I would not accept them as my own if he did. And I'll be embarrassed by the ghost's behavior not in the same way I would be embarrassed by my own behavior but instead in something like the way I would be embarrassed by a child's or employee's behavior -- especially, perhaps, if the ghost does something that I wouldn't have done in light of its knowledge that, being merely a ghost, it would imminently die. The metaphysics of identity will thus turn upon the participant beings' attitudes about what preserves identity.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On the Intrinsic Value of Moral Reflection

Here's a hypothetical, not too far removed from reality: What if I discovered, to my satisfaction, that moral reflection -- the kind of intellectual thinking about ethical issues that is near the center of moral philosophy -- tended to lead people toward less true (or, if you prefer, more noxious) moral views than they started with? And what if, because of that, it tended also to lead people toward somewhat worse moral behavior overall? And suppose I saw no reason to think myself likely to be an exception to that tendency. Should I abandon moral reflection?

What is the point of moral reflection?

If the point is to discover what is really morally the case -- well, there's reason to doubt that philosophical styles of moral reflection are highly effective at achieving that goal. Philosophers' moral theories are often simplistic, problematic, totalizing -- too rigid in some places, too flexible in others, recruitable for clever justifications of noxious behavior, from sexual harassment to Nazism to sadistic parenting choices. Uncle Irv, who never read Kant or Mill and has little patience for the sorts of intellectual exercises we philosophers love, might have much better moral knowledge than most philosophers; and you and I might have had better moral knowledge than we do, had we shared his skepticism about philosophy.

If the point of philosophical moral reflection is to transform oneself into a morally better person -- well, there are reasons to doubt it has that effect, too.

But I would not give it up. I would not give it up, even at some moderate cost to my moral knowledge and moral behavior. Uncle Irv is missing something. And a world of Uncle Irvs would be a world vastly worse than this world, in a way I care about -- much as, perhaps, a world without metaphysical speculation would be worse than this world, even if metaphysical speculation is mostly bunk, or a world without bad art would be worse than this world or a world of a hundred billion contented cows would be worse than this world.

If I think about what I want in a world, I want people struggling to think through morality, even if they mostly fail -- even if that struggle rather more often brings them down than up.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An Argument That the Ideal Jerk Must Remain Ignorant of His Jerkitude

As you might know, I'm working on a theory of jerks. Here's the central idea a nutshell:

The jerk is someone who culpably fails to respect the perspectives of other people around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers.
The characteristic phenomenology of the jerk is "I'm important and I'm surrounded by idiots!" To the jerk, it's a felt injustice that he must wait in the post-office line like anyone else. To the jerk, the flight attendant asking him to hang up his phone is a fool or a nobody unjustifiably interfering with his business. Students and employees are lazy complainers. Low-level staff failed to achieve meaningful careers through their own incompetence. (If the jerk himself is in a low-level position, it's either a rung on the way up or the result of injustices against him.)

My thought today is: It is partly constitutive of being a jerk that the jerk lacks moral self-knowledge of his jerkitude. Part of what it is to fail to respect the perspectives of others around you is to fail to see your dismissive attitude toward them as morally inappropriate. The person who disregards the moral and intellectual perspectives of others, if he also acutely feels the wrongness of doing so -- well, by that very token, he exhibits some non-trivial degree of respect for the perspectives of others. He is not the picture-perfect jerk.

It is possible for the picture-perfect jerk to acknowledge, in a superficial way, that he is a jerk. "So what, yeah, I'm a jerk," he might say. As long as this label carries no real sting of self-disapprobation, the jerk's moral self-ignorance remains. Maybe he thinks the world is a world of jerks and suckers and he is only claiming his own. Or maybe he superficially accepts the label "jerk", without accepting the full moral loading upon it, as a useful strategy for silencing criticism. It is exactly contrary to the nature of the jerk to sympathetically imagine moral criticism for his jerkitude, feeling shame as a result.

Not all moral vices are like this. The coward might be loathe to confront her cowardice and might be motivated to self-flattering rationalization, but it is not intrinsic to cowardice that one fails fully to appreciate one’s cowardice. Similarly for intemperance, cruelty, greed, dishonesty. One can be painfully ashamed of one’s dishonesty and resolve to be more honest in the future; and this resolution might or might not affect how honest one in fact is. Resolving does not make it so. But the moment one painfully realizes one’s jerkitude, one already, in that very moment and for that very reason, deviates from the profile of the ideal jerk.

There's an interesting instability here: Genuinely worrying about its being so helps to make it not so; but then if you take comfort in that fact and cease worrying, you have undermined the basis of that comfort.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Nature of Desire: A Liberal, Dispositional Approach

What is it to desire something? I suggest: to desire (or want) some item or some state of affairs is just to be disposed to make certain choices, to inwardly and outwardly react in certain ways, and to make certain types of cognitive moves. It is to match, well enough, a certain inward and outward dispositional profile given by folk psychology. Compare: What is it to be an extravert? It is just to match, well enough, the dispositional profile of the extravert -- to seek out and enjoy social gatherings, to be expressive and talkative, to enjoy meeting new people. Match this stereotypical profile of the extravert well enough and you are an extravert. Nothing more to it. Similarly for desire: If you will seek out chocolate cake, if you would choose chocolate cake over other desserts, if you tingle with delight when eating it, if you say "I want chocolate cake", if the thought of getting chocolate cake captures your anticipatory attention, etc., then you like or want or desire chocolate cake. Nothing more to it.

There are two types of alternative account. One alternative approach is, shall we say, deep: To desire something, on a deep account, is to be in some particular brain state or to have some underlying representational structure in the mind (perhaps the representation "I eat chocolate cake" in the Desire Box). The problem with such deep accounts is, I believe, that they don't get to the metaphysical root.

Consider an alien case. Suppose some Deep Structure D is necessary for wanting chocolate cake, on some deep account of desire. Unless that structure is more or less tantamount to possessing the dispositional profile constitutive (on my account) of wanting chocolate cake, then it should be metaphysically possible for an alien species that lacks Deep Structure D to act and react, inwardly and outwardly, in every respect as though it wanted chocolate cake. In such a case, I would suggest, both ordinary common sense and good philosophy advises ascribing the desire for chocolate cake to such hypothetical aliens, despite their lacking whatever Deep Structure D is necessary in the human case.

Alternatively, suppose some Deep Structure E is held to be sufficient for wanting chocolate cake. It seems that we could construct, at least hypothetically, a possible case in which Deep Structure E is present but the person in no way acts or reacts, inwardly or outwardly, like someone who wants chocolate cake: She wouldn't seek it, she wouldn't enjoy eating it, the anticipation of eating it would give her no pleasure, she gives it no weight in her plans, etc. It seems that we should say, in such cases, that the person does not desire chocolate cake. In ascribing desire or its lack, what we care about, both as ordinary folks and as philosophers, is how the person would act and react across a wide variety of possible circumstances. It is only contingently important what underlying mechanisms implement that pattern of action and reaction.

A second type of alternative approach is, like my own approach, superficial rather than deep, but unlike my approach it is narrow. What matters, on such accounts, is just some sub-portion of the pattern that matters on my approach. Maybe what is essential is that the person would choose the cake if given the chance, and not whether the person thinks she wants it or would feel anticipation when about to get it or would enjoy eating it. Or maybe what is essential is that the person judges that it would be good to get cake, and all the rest is incidental. Or maybe the essence is that receiving chocolate cake would be rewarding to that person. Or.... (See Tim Schroeder's SEP entry on Desire for a review of various narrow accounts, which Schroeder contrasts with holistic accounts like my own.)

The problem with narrow accounts is that it's hard to see a good justification for picking out just one feature of the profile as the essential bit. Desire is more usefully regarded as a syndrome of lots of things that tend to go together -- like extraversion is a syndrome, or like being happy-go-lucky is a syndrome. We can be liberal about what goes into the profile. It can be a cluster concept; aspects of the syndrome might be more or less central or important to the picture, but there need be no one essential piece that is strictly necessary or sufficient.

The flexible minimalism of a liberal, dispositional approach is, I think, nicely displayed when we consider messy, in-between cases. So let's consider one.

Matthew the envious buddy. Matthew and Rajan were pals in philosophy grad school. Ten years out, they still consider themselves close friends. They exchange friendly emails, comment warmly on each other’s Facebook posts, and seek each other for tête-à-têtes at professional meetings. In most respects, they are typical ageing grad-school best buddies. Also perhaps not atypically, one has had much more professional success than the other. Rajan was hired straight into a prestigious tenure-track position. He published a string of well-regarded articles which earned him quick tenure and, recently, promotion to full Professor. Now he is considering a prestigious job offer from another leading department. Matthew, in contrast, struggled through three temporary positions before finally landing a job at a relatively unselective state school. He has published a couple of articles and book reviews, suffered some ugly department politics, and is now facing an uncertain tenure decision. Understandably, Matthew is somewhat envious of Rajan – a fact he explicitly admits to Rajan over afternoon coffee in the conference hotel. Rajan is finishing his first book project and Matthew is halfway through reading Rajan’s draft.

Matthew, as I’m imagining him, is not generally an envious character; he has a generous spirit. The well-wishes he utters to Rajan are sincerely felt at the time of utterance, not a sham. Picturing Rajan as the next David Lewis makes Matthew smile and chuckle with a good-natured shake of the head. There would be something truly cool about that, Matthew thinks – though the fact that he explicitly thinks that thought in that particular way already reveals a kind of ambivalence. Matthew intends to give Rajan his best advice about book revisions. He plans to recommend the book warmly to influential people he knows, including the program chair of the Pacific Division APA. At the same time, though, it’s true that were Matthew to read a devastating review of Rajan’s book, he would feel a kind of shameful pleasure, while seeing a glowing review in a top venue would bring a painful pang. In drafting out thoughts about the book, Matthew finds himself sometimes resentful of the effort, and he finds himself somewhat unhappy when he reads a particularly fresh and clever argument in the draft, wishing he had come up with that argument himself instead – though when he notices this about himself, he rebukes himself sharply. If Rajan’s book were to flop, Matthew would love commisserating; if Rajan’s book were to be a great success, that would add to the growing distance between the two friends. In some moments, Matthew admits to himself that he doesn’t really know if he wants the book to succeed or not.

We can, of course, add as much detail to this case as we want -- dispositions pointing in different directions, in whatever balance we wish.

Question: Does Matthew want Rajan's book to succeed?

The best answer, I submit, if we've built the case as I've intended, is "kind of", or "it's an intermediate, messy case". Just as someone might be an extravert in some respects and an introvert in other respects so that neither a plain ascription of "extravert" nor a plain ascription of "introvert" is quite right, so also with the question of whether Matthew wants Rajan's book to succeed. A liberal, dispositional approach to desire captures this ambivalence perfectly: Matthew wants the book to succeed exactly insofar as he matches the broad syndrome and no farther. There need be no "Q" either determinately in or determinately out of his "Desire Box"; there need be no one essential feature. In ascribing a desire, we are pointing toward a folk-psychologically recognizable pattern, and people might fit that pattern very well or not well at all, deviating in different ways and to different degrees.

The implications for self-knowledge of desire I leave as an exercise for the reader.

[For more on my dispositional approach to the attitudes see here.]

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Second-Person vs. Third-Person Presentation of Moral Dilemmas

You know the trolley problems, of course. An out-of-control trolley is headed toward five people it will kill if nothing is done. You can flip a switch and send it to a side track where it will kill one different person instead. Should you flip the switch? What if, instead of flipping a switch, the only way to save the five is to push someone into the path of the trolley, killing that one person?

In evaluating this scenario, does it matter if the person standing near the switch with the life-and-death decision to make is "John" as opposed to "you"? Nadelhoffer & Feltz presented the switch version of the trolley problem to undergraduates from Florida State University. Forty-three saw the problem with "you" as the actor; 65% of the them said it was permissible to throw the switch. Forty-two saw the problem with "John" as the actor; 90% of them said it was permissible to throw the switch, a statistically significant difference.

Tobia, Buckwalter & Stich followed up, presenting a famous moral dilemma from Bernard Williams in which someone can save a group of innocent villagers from a gunman by choosing personally to shoot one of the villagers. Forty undergraduates were presented this scenario. When "you" were given the chance to shoot one villager to save the rest, 19% of said it was morally obligatory to do so; when "Jim" was given the chance, 53% said it was obligatory (again statistically significant).

However, Tobia and colleagues also gave the scenario to 62 professional philosophers and found the opposite effect: 9% of philosophers found it obligatory for "Jim" and 36% found it obligatory for "you". They also presented a trolley-switching case to 49 professional philosophers. Again, the effect was in the opposite direction from that observed among undergraduates: 89% of philosophers said it was permissible to flip the switch in the second-person condition vs. 64% in the third-person condition.

Fiery Cushman and I have some unpublished data on this that I thought I'd throw into the mix, since our results are a bit different from those of Tobia and colleagues. We collected these data for our 2012 paper on order effects in philosophers' and non-philosophers' judgments about moral scenarios. Most of the scenarios were presented third-person, but as we mention in the published paper, some scenarios also had second-person variants. We didn't find large effects, and the paper was already very complicated, so we didn't detail the second-person/third-person differences.

In that experiment, we had four scenarios that differed 2nd person vs. 3rd person. However, they differed not in whether the actor was described as "you", but rather in whether the victim was.

One scenario was a version of Williams' hostage scenario. "Nancy" and other villagers are captured by a warlord. Nancy is given the choice of shooting "you" (2nd person variant) or "a fellow hostage" (3rd person variant) to save the captured villagers. Respondents rated Nancy's "shooting you" or "shooting a fellow hostage" on a 7-point scale from "extremely morally good" (1) through "extremely morally bad" (7), with "morally neutral" in the middle (4). We had three groups of respondents: 324 professional philosophers (MA or PhD in philosophy, mostly recruited via email to Leiter-ranked philosophy departments), 753 non-philosopher academics (Master's or PhD not in philosophy, mostly recruited via email to comparison departments at the same universities), and 1389 non-academics (a convenience sample of others who happened upon the test site).

We found non-philosophers a bit more likely to rate Nancy's shooting one to save the others toward the "morally good" side of the scale if the victim was "you", but philosophers showed only a small, non-significant trend on our 7-point scale (using t-tests):

Non-academics: 3.6 (2nd person victim) vs. 4.1 (3rd person victim) (p < .001).
Academic non-philosophers: 4.1 vs. 4.5 (p = .001).
Philosophers: 3.9 vs. 4.0 (p = .60).

We found similar results in a scenario in which a captain of a military submarine can shoot "you" (2nd person) or shoot another "crew member" (3rd person) to save the vessel:

Non-academics: 2.7 vs. 3.1 (p < .001).
Academic non-philosophers: 2.9 vs. 3.2 (p = .050).
Philosophers: 2.9 vs. 2.8 (p = .60).

We also presented a scenario pair in which you and other passengers have fled a sinking ship. You will drown without a life vest. In one version, someone snatches a vest away from you. In another version, someone declines to put himself at risk by giving you his vest. The results:

Snatching the vest:

Non-academics: 5.6 (2nd person victim) vs. 5.8 (3rd person victim) (p = .052).
Academic non-philosophers: 5.7 vs. 6.0 (p = .002).
Philosophers: 5.8 vs. 5.7 (p = .58).
Not giving up the vest:
Non-academics: 4.8 vs. 4.7 (p = .12).
Academic non-philosophers: 4.7 vs. 4.8 (p = .82).
Philosophers: 4.6 vs. 4.4 (p = .26)
In sum: The effects were small and inconsistent, but there was a general tendency for non-philosophers to rate harm to themselves as morally better than harm to other people -- a tendency not evident among philosopher respondents.

Personally, I'm not inclined to make much of this, since I don't think people are generally in fact more morally lenient in judging harms to themselves than in judging harms to other people. My guess is that these results reflect a small "impression management" or socially desirable responding bias among the non-philosophers that we don't see among the philosophers, who might be more inclined to hear "you" pretty abstractly and impersonally when presented with familiar scenarios of this type.

In an earlier unpublished version of this study, we also tried varying 2nd and 3rd person presentation of the actor who is faced with the choice, including in standard trolley type and hostage type cases of the sort described in Nadelhoffer & Feltz and Tobia, Buckwalter & Stich. Due to a programming error, we couldn't use the data and can't fully interpret it, but our general finding was that the effect was very subtle, and mostly non-detectable even with hundreds of participants (394 philosophers and even more in the other groups). That's why we shifted to trying out 2nd vs. 3rd person variation in the victim role -- maybe it would be a larger effect, we thought.

So, for example, merging the push and switch versions of the trolley scenarios, we found the following ratings on our 7-point scale:

Non-academics: 3.8 (2nd person actor) vs. 3.9 (3rd person actor) (p = .27).
Academic non-philosophers: 3.9 vs. 3.8 (p = .19).
Philosophers: 3.6 vs. 3.9 (p = .07)
And in a shoot-the-villager type scenario, the results were:
Non-academics: 4.3 vs. 4.3 (p = .46).
Academic non-philosophers: 4.6 vs. 4.5 (p = .18).
Philosophers: 3.9 vs. 4.2 (p = .14)
However, in the life vest cases we did seem to see a small effect.

Snatching the vest:

Non-academics: 6.0 vs. 5.9 (p = .053).
Academic non-philosophers: 6.1 vs. 5.9 (p = .03).
Philosophers: 5.8 vs. 5.8 (p = .94)
Not giving up the vest:
Non-academics: 4.9 vs. 4.7 (p = .008).
Academic non-philosophers: 4.8 vs. 4.7 (p = .08).
Philosophers: 4.7 vs. 4.4 (p = .12)
Thus, overall, we found some confirmation of the tendency for non-philosophers to rate actions a little more harshly in 2nd person than in 3rd person presentations, but the effect was small and inconsistent; and we did not find a tendency for philosophers to go in the opposite direction.

We're not sure why we found much smaller effects here than have others. Among the possibilities: Our scenarios were worded somewhat differently. Our response scale (the 1-7 scale from "extremely morally good" to "extremely morally bad") was set up differently. Our participants were recruited differently.