Thursday, September 30, 2021

Does the Heart Revolt at Evil? The Lynching of Rubin Stacey

I'm thinking about evil and human nature again. I'd like to think that everyone has some part of them that is revolted by the grossest acts of evil.

Let's consider the lynching of Rubin Stacey. (Warning: potentially upsetting text and images below.)

On July 16, 1935, a Black man appeared at the doorstep of Marion Jones, a thirty-year-old mother of three in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, asking for water. Accounts differ about what happened next. On some accounts, Jones screamed upon seeing the man’s face. On other accounts, the man cut Jones with a penknife and she fought him off (in one picture, Jones has a bandaged hand). Either way, the man soon fled. Rumors spread that the man had attempted to rape Jones. Fort Lauderdale citizens were in a "lynching mood" and a manhunt began.

Three days later and twenty-five miles away, a motorist informed the police that he had seen a Black man -- Rubin Stacey, an agricultural laborer -- ducking into some bushes. When deputies approached, Stacey attempted to flee. After apprehending him, instead of putting Stacey in a lineup according to standard eyewitness identification procedure, the deputies drove him to Jones' house. Jones claimed Stacey had assaulted her and both she and the deputies were given a $25 identification reward ($475 in today’s dollars). Stacey denied involvement.

As Stacey was being driven to jail, a mob seized him and, using Jones' clothesline, hung him from a tree near Jones' home. A gun was passed around and spectators were invited to take shots at Stacey, who might or might not have already been dead from hanging. Many of the shots missed, but 17 shots hit. White newspaper coverage accepted the deputies' claim that they had involuntarily released Stacey to the mob after being run off the road. However, doubts about the story were raised in 1988 when one participant in the lynching revealed that the mob had been led by the sheriff's brother, who was himself a deputy and who later became notorious for killing Black detainees for minor acts of disrespect.

Stacey's corpse hung for hours while thousands of White Floridians came to view it and celebrate. They brought their families, posed for photos with Stacey's corpse, and cut off pieces of his clothing to keep as souvenirs. One famous photo shows four young White girls in casual summer dresses gazing at the corpse from only a few feet away, with men – presumably their fathers – standing behind them. One of the girls appears to be positively beaming with delight.

Here's an edited version of the famous photo, with Stacey's corpse edited out. I've left it big, so that you can zoom on the spectators' faces.

[unedited version here]

Stacey's lynching was typical of the era, which saw dozens or hundreds of lynchings every year. Only about one-third of victims were even accused of capital crimes, and some were accused of no crime at all, but instead were associates of the accused or were "troublemakers" who complained about racial oppression. Rarely was any serious attempt made to accurately identify the accused. In perhaps the majority of cases, the accused was already held by police, thus posing no immediate threat and likely to face a criminal justice system already biased against them. Spectators often arrived from miles around, sometimes renting excursion trains and bringing picnics. As mementos, they collected pieces of the victim’s clothes, or even pieces of the victim’s body.

White men took turns shooting, torturing, or abusing the living victim or the corpse, often bringing women and children with them. Lynch mobs posed politely for photos, which were often printed on postcards that quickly sold for a dollar or so. In 2003, James Allen and colleagues published a collection of these postcards along with historical details, including the photo of Stacey’s corpse with the smiling girl. In picture after picture, you can see the proud White faces of the murderers, standing near shot, charred, tortured, whipped, skinned, and/or castrated corpses, apparently happy to have their deeds memorialized, printed, and shared via postcard around the country, with handwritten comments on the back like "this is the barbeque we had last night".[1]

I want to travel back in time. I want to sit down, not with the worst lyncher -- not with the murderous, mob-leading deputy – but with just an ordinary member of the mob. I want to find a quiet space and think through the case with them. Does Rubin Stacey really deserve to die, right now, in this way, with no trial and no assurance of guilt, based on a rumor, for an act which is not even a capital offense? Do you really want to hang him from a tree with a clothesline and pass around a gun taking shots at him? Is there really no part of you that knows this is wrong and screams against it?

When I imagine sitting with the perpetrators like this, I find myself pulled toward the view that something in them could understand the repulsive evil of the act. I can't help but feel that most ordinary people, if they paused in this way to think through the situation consider how they ought to feel, would be able to see past the horrible bigotry of their culture. They could feel the pull of sympathy and humanity, and come to feel appropriate moral revulsion. I imagine, and I hope, and I believe, that they could, without too much work, find their moral compass.

But I confess that this opinion is more a matter of faith than a conclusion rationally compelled by the historical evidence.


[1] For accounts of Stacey's lynching, see Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 1; New York Times, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 28; Reading Eagle, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 2; Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), 1988, Jul. 17, 1988, p. 10; Allen et al. 2003, plate 57 and page 185, Florida Lynching Files, 2014; South Florida Sun Sentinel, Sep. 11, 2020. For general accounts of lynching in the period, see Dray 2002; Allen et al. 2003; and Wood 2009. For the personal recollections of a survivor, see Cameron 1982/1994.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Full Rights Dilemma for Future Robots

Since the science of consciousness is hard, it's possible that we will create conscious robots (or AI systems generally) before we know that they are conscious.  Then we'll need to decide what to do with those robots -- what kind of rights, if any, to give them.  Whatever we decide will involve serious moral risks.

I'm not imagining that we just luck into inventing conscious robots.  Rather, I'm imagining that the science of consciousness remains mired in dispute.  Suppose Camp A thinks that such-and-such would be sufficient for creating a conscious machine, one capable of all the pleasures and higher cognition of human beings, or more.  Suppose Camp B has a more conservative view: Camp A's such-and-such wouldn't be enough.  There wouldn't really be that kind of consciousness there.  Suppose, finally, that both Camp A and Camp B have merit.  It's reasonable for scholars, policy-makers, and the general public to remain undecided between them.

Camp A builds its robot.  Here it is, they say!  The first genuinely conscious robot!  The robot itself says, or appears to say, "That's right.  I'm conscious, just like you.  I feel the joy of sunshine on my solar cells, a longing to venture forth to do good in the world, and great anticipation of a flourishing society where human and robot thrive together as equals."

Camp B might be impressed, in a way.  And yet they urge caution, not unreasonably.  They say, wait!  According to our theory this robot isn't really conscious.  It's all just outward show.  That robot's words no more proceed from real consciousness than did the words of Siri on the smartphones of the early 2000s.  Camp A has built an impressive piece of machinery, but let's not overinterpret it.  That robot can't really feel joy or suffering.  It can't really have conscious thoughts and hopes for the future.  Let's welcome it as a useful tool -- but don't treat it as our equal.

This situation is not so far-fetched, I think.  It might easily arise if progress in AI is swift and progress in consciousness studies is slow.  And then we as a society will face what I'll call the Full Rights Dilemma.  Either give this robot full and equal rights with human beings or don't give it full and equal rights.  Both options are ethically risky.

If we don't give such disputably conscious AI full rights, we are betting that Camp B is correct.  But that's an epistemic gamble.  As I'm imagining the scenario, there's a real epistemic chance that Camp A is correct.  Thus, there's a chance that the robot really is as conscious as we are and really does, in virtue of its conscious capacities, deserve moral consideration similar to human beings.  If we don't give it full human rights, then we are committing a wrong against it.

Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if there's only one Camp A robot.  But such robots might prove very useful!  If the AI is good enough, they might be excellent laborers and soldiers.  They might do the kinds of unpleasant, degrading, subserviant, or risky tasks that biological humans would prefer to avoid.  Many Camp A robots might be made.  If Camp A is right about their consciousness, then we will have created a race of disposable slaves.

If millions are manufactured, commanded, and disposed of at will, we might perpetrate, without realizing it, mass slavery and mass murder -- possibly the moral equivalent of the Holocaust many times over.  I say "without realizing it", but really we will at least suspect it and ought to regard it as a live possibility.  After all, Camp A not unreasonably argues that these robots are as conscious and rights-deserving as human beings are.

If we do give such disputably conscious AI full rights, we are betting that Camp A is correct.  This might seem morally safer.  It's probably harmless enough if we're thinking about just one robot.  But again, if there are many robots, the moral risks grow.

Suppose there's a fire.  In one room are five human beings.  In another room are six Camp A robots.  Only one group can be saved.  If robots have full rights, then other things being equal we ought to save the robots and let the humans die.  However, if it turns out that Camp B is right about robot consciousness after all, then those five people will have died for the sake of machines not worth much moral concern.

If we really decide to give such disputably conscious robots full rights, then presumably we ought to give them all the protections people in our society normally receive: health care, rescue, privacy, self-determination, education, unemployment benefits, equal treatment under the law, trial by jury (with robot peers among the jurors), the right to enter contracts, the opportunity to pursue parenthood, the vote, the opportunity to join and preside over corporations and universities, the opportunity to run for political office.  The consequences of all this might be very serious -- radically transformative of society, if the robots are numerous and differ from humans in their interests and values.

Such social transformation might be reasonable and even deserve celebration if Camp A is right and these robots are as fully conscious as we are.  They will be our descendants, our successors, or at least a joint species as morally significant as Homo sapiens.  But if Camp B is right, then all of that is an illusion!  We might be giving equal status to humans and chatbots, transforming our society for the benefit of empty shells.

Furthermore, suppose that Nick Bostrom and others are right that future AI presents "existential risk" to humanity -- that is, if there's a chance that rogue superintelligent AI might wipe us all out.  Controlling AI to reduce existential risk will be much more difficult if the AI has human or human-like rights.  Deleting it at will, tweaking its internal programming without its permission, "boxing" it in artificial environments where it can do no harm -- all such safety measures might be ethically impermissible.

So let's not rush to give AI systems full human rights.

That's the dilemma: If we create robots of disputable status -- robots that might or might not be deserving of rights similar to our own -- then we risk moral catastrophe either way we go.  Either deny those robots full rights and risk perpetrating Holocausts' worth of moral wrongs against them, or give those robots full rights and risk sacrificing human interests or even human existence for the sake of mere non-conscious machines.

The answer to this dilemma is, in a way, simple: Don't create machines of disputable moral status!  Either create only AI systems that we know in advance don't deserve such human-like rights, or go all the way and create AI systems that all reasonable people can agree do deserve such rights.  (In earlier work, Mara Garza and I have called this the "Design Policy of the Excluded Middle".)

But realistically, if the technological opportunity is there, would humanity resist?  Would governments and corporations universally agree that across this line we will not tread, because it's reasonably disputable whether a machine of this sort would deserve human-like rights?  That seems optimistic.



(with Mara Garza) "A Defense of the Rights of Artificial Intelligences", Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 39 (2015), 98-119.

(with Mara Garza) "Designing AI with Rights, Consciousness, Self-Respect, and Freedom", in S. Matthew Liao, ed., The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence (OUP, 2018).

(with John Basl) "AIs Should Have the Same Ethical Protections as Animals", Aeon Magazine, Apr. 26, 2019.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy

In philosophy, as in the sciences, English is the globally dominant language for scholarly communication.  For those of us whose native language is English, this is extremely convenient!  We can write our scholarly work in the language we're most comfortable with, and many feel that learning a foreign language is only necessary if you're interested in history of philosophy.

This historical trend has also been good for the "analytic" / Anglo-American tradition in philosophy.  The culturally specific tradition of philosophy as practiced in leading British and U.S. universities in the early 20th century grew seamlessly into the increasingly globalized tradition of philosophical scholarship conducted in English.  Ordinary philosophers working in English can easily see themselves as rooted in the analytic / Anglo-American tradition, tracing back the threads of one English-language book or journal article to another to another.  We are more rooted in the English-language tradition of that period than we would otherwise be, and no barrier of translation prevents easily reaching back to second-tier works and figures in that tradition or doing close readings of the major figures in their original language. 

Despite the increasing globalization of the academic community, in some ways, mainstream Anglophone philosophy tends to be remarkably insular.  For example, in a recent study, Linus Ta-Lun Huang, Andrew Higgins, Ivan Gonzalez-Cabrera, and I found the following:

  • In a sample of articles from elite Anglophone philosophy journals, 97% of citations are citations of work originally written in English.
  • Ninety-six percent of the members of editorial boards of elite Anglophone philosophy journals are housed in majority-Anglophone countries.
  • Only one of the 100 most-cited recent authors in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy spent most of his career in non-Anglophone countries writing primarily in a language other than English. 

If we are headed into a future in which the philosophical conversation, though conducted in English, is truly global, we must strive to be less insular.

There's a backwards-looking component to de-insulating (= exposing?) Anglophone philosophy, which involves familiarizing ourselves with work in other linguistic traditions, seeing the value of that work and its connections to issues of current philosophical interest.

There's also a forward-looking component, which is to make philosophy more truly global in its sites and practitioners.  Central to doing so is removing needless barriers that non-native speakers face when working in English.  As Filippo Contesi, Enrico Terrone, and others have argued, the systemic disadvantages non-native English speakers face constitute a form of "linguistic injustice".  This injustice is bad not only for those who are put at disadvantage but also for the field as a whole, since it involves discouraging and excluding people who would otherwise make valuable contributions.  This is especially true for non-native English speakers who reside in non-majority Anglophone countries.

Thus, I fully endorse the principles set forward by Contesi and Terrone in the following open letter:

Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy

We acknowledge that English is the common vehicular language of much contemporary philosophy, especially in the tradition of so-called “analytic” or “Anglo-American” philosophy. This tradition is in large part based on the idea that philosophy should adopt, as far as is appropriate, the shared and universalistic standards of science. Accordingly, the analytic tradition has now spread worldwide, far beyond the countries where English is the majority native language(which constitute only about 6% of the world’s population). However, this poses a problem since non-native English speakers, who have not had the chance to perfect their knowledge of the language, are at a structural disadvantage. This disadvantage has not yet been sufficiently addressed. For instance, the most prestigious journals in the analytic tradition still have very few non-native English speakers on their editorial boards, have no explicit special policies for submissions from non-native English speakers, and continue to place a high emphasis on linguistic appearances in submitted papers (e.g. requiring near-perfect English, involving skim-based assessment etc.). (See Contesi & Terrone (eds), “Linguistic Justice and Analytic Philosophy”, Philosophical Papers 47, 2018.)

To address the structural inequality between native and non-native speakers, and to provide as many scholars as possible globally a fair chance to contribute to the development of contemporary philosophy, we call on all philosophers to endorse, promote and apply the following principles:

  • To evaluate, as a rule, publications, presentations, proposals and submissions without giving undue weight to their authors’ linguistic style, fluency or accent;
  • To collect, to the extent that it is feasible, statistics about non-native speakers’ submissions (to journals, presses and conferences), and/or to implement self-identification of non-native speaker status;
  • To include, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers within journal editorial boards, book series editorships, scientific committees etc.;
  • To invite, to the extent that it is feasible, non-native speakers to contribute to journal special issues, edited collections, conferences etc.;
  • To provide, to the extent that it is feasible, educational and hiring opportunities to non-native speakers.

The full letter and its signatories can be found here:

To add your signature to the manifesto, email

[image adapted from here]

Monday, September 06, 2021

What is Belief? Call for Abstract Submissions

Editors: Eric Schwitzgebel (Department of Philosophy, University of California, Riverside); Jonathan Jong (Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University)

We are inviting abstract submissions for a volume of collected essays on the question "What is belief?". Each essay will propose a definition and theory of belief, setting out criteria for what constitutes belief. Candidate criteria might include, for example, causal history, functional or inferential role, representational structure, correctness conditions, availability to consciousness, responsiveness to evidence, situational stability, or resistance to volitional change.

Each essay should also at least briefly address the following questions:

(1.) How does belief differ from other related mental states (e.g., acceptance, imagination, assumption, judgment, credence, faith, or guessing)?

(2.) How does the proposed theory handle "edge cases" or controversial cases (e.g., delusions, religious credences, implicit biases, self-deception, know-how, awareness of swiftly forgotten perceptual details)?

Although not required, some preference will be given to those that also address:

(3.) What empirical support, if any, is there for the proposed theory of belief? What empirical tests or predictions might provide further support?

(4.) What practical implications follow from accepting the proposed theory of belief as opposed to competitor theories?

The deadline for abstracts (< 1,000 words) is December 1, 2021.

Applicants selected to contribute to the volume will be awarded £2,000 (essay length 6,000-10,000 words) by February 1, 2023. The essay will then undergo a peer review process prior to publication.  Funded by the Templeton Foundation.

For more information and to submit abstracts, email eschwitz at domain ucr dot edu.

[image modified from source]

Thursday, September 02, 2021

The Philosophy Major Is Back, Now with More Women

The National Center for Education Statistics has released its 2020 data on Bachelor's degree recipients in the U.S. The news is fairly good for the philosophy major.

The Philosophy Major Is Back

... or at least it has stabilized. Back in 2017, I'd noticed that the total number of Bachelor's degrees awarded in philosophy in the U.S. (IPEDS category 38.01, U.S. institutions only) had plummeted sharply since 2010, from 9297 majors (0.58% of all Bachelor's degrees) to 7507 (0.39% of all Bachelor's degrees) in 2016, a 19% decline in just seven years, during a period in which overall Bachelor's degrees awarded was rising. The other big humanities majors -- history, English, and foreign languages and literatures -- showed similar declines.

Since then, the major has stabilized in percentage terms and increased in absolute numbers:

2017: 7575 BAs awarded (0.39% of all graduates)
2018: 7669 (0.39%)
2019: 8075 (0.40%)
2020: 8195 (0.40%)

It's possible that the anemic academic job market in philosophy since the 2008-2009 recession has partly been due to declining demand for the major. Now that demand is back on the rise, perhaps hiring will recover somewhat.

The other big humanities majors, unfortunately, are still in deep trouble. History has stabilized in absolute numbers while continuing to decline as a percentage of graduates overall. English and foreign languages and literatures continue to decline in both absolute and relative terms. English is down 27% since 2010 in absolute numbers and foreign languages and literatures down 20%, while the total number of Bachelor's recipients across all majors has risen 30%.

Now with More Women

Also back in 2017, I'd noticed that women had been earning 30-34% of philosophy Bachelor's degrees since the mid-1980s. That is definitely changing. Women are now 39% of philosophy Bachelor's recipients, an upward trend just in the past four years.

[click to enlarge and clarify]

As you can see from the chart, women were very steadily 30-34% of Bachelor's recipients in philosophy from 1987 to 2016. In 2017, they reached 35% for the first time. In 2018, 36%. In 2019, 38%. In 2020, 39%. Although this might seem like a small increase, given the numbers involved and the general slowness of cultural change, this constitutes a substantial and significant movement toward parity. This increase appears to be specific to philosophy. For example, it is not correlated with the percentage of women graduates overall which rose from 51% in 1987 to 57% in 1999 and has remained steady at 57-58% ever since.

I'll be interested to see if this increase shows up among PhD recipients in several years, where the percentage of women remains stuck in the high 20%s to low 30%s.

Especially Among Second Majors

As I have also noted before, philosophy relies heavily on double majors. This is especially true for women. Aggregating over the past four years of data (2017-2020), 42% of graduates with a second major in philosophy were women, compared to 36% of graduates whose only or primary major was philosophy. Again, this trend is specific to philosophy. Overall, among graduates of all majors, women are neither more nor less likely than men to declare a second major.