Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Journal Club ♯1 - Kodaj's Problem of Religious Evil

Welcome to the very first edition of the Philosophical Disquisitions Journal Club. This month the club is looking at a paper from Daniel Kodaj called “The Problem of Religious Evil”. This paper was the co-winner of the 2014 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize.

I chose this paper because it seemed like a good fit for this blog, given its long-standing focus on issues in the philosophy of religion, particularly issues relating to the problem of evil. As I noted last year, there has recently been a small, but nevertheless noticeable, trend among philosophers to refine the scope of the problem of evil.

Traditionally, that problem has been concerned with two categories of evil: (i) moral evil, i.e. evil caused by the (allegedly) freely-willed acts of human beings (and maybe some other moral agents); and (ii) natural evil, i.e. evil that is not caused by such acts. My feeling is that the debate between theists and non-theists about these two categories of evil has become increasingly stagnant and arcane.

The recent trend has reinvigorated things by identifying newer and more precise categories of evil, some of which create bigger problems for theism (or so at least the proponents of these arguments claim). Kodaj’s paper fits squarely within this trend as it identifies and develops an argument about a new category of evil, namely: religious evil.

The purpose of the journal club is to generate some discussion and debate about the contents of this particular article. So rather than write up a comprehensive analysis of Kodaj’s argument, I’m going to use this post to provide a very simple overview of the argument (corresponding, roughly, to the first 9 pages of the published article). I’ll then throw things open to the floor. Any and all comments on the paper and its arguments are welcome. Don’t be shy.

1. What is religious evil?
Kodaj’s argument is about a new category of evil, something he calls “religious evil”. Kodaj never offers a formal definition of this category of evil in his paper, but he comes pretty close on page three. This allows me to suggest the following as a definition:

Religious Evil: Is any evil that is: (a) apparently motivated by beliefs about some supernatural entity; and (b) explicitly justified by reference to the purported dictates of some supernatural entity or principle.

This definition is pretty generic. It doesn’t refer to any specific supernatural entity or principle. In the paper, Kodaj only discusses examples drawn from the Christian religion. This allows me to suggest a more restrictive definition:

Christian Religious Evil: Is any evil that is; (a) apparently motivated by beliefs about the Christian god; and (b) explicitly justified by reference to the purported dictates of the Christian God.

Kodaj gives two historic examples of Christian religious evil in his paper. The first is that of the witch hunts, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent persons throughout the Western world from the 14th to 18th centuries (Kodaj says 15th to 17th centuries in his paper, but I’m pretty sure it was longer than that). The second example is that of the Crusades. Both of these incidents involved “horrendous evil”, i.e. the torture, mutilation and profound existential suffering of innocent people. Furthermore, both were apparently motivated and explicitly justified by Christian theism. Kodaj provides some evidence for this in his paper.

Although Kodaj develops his argument by reference to these two examples, he is keen to point out that the category of religious evil is not restricted to horrendous evils of this sort. It could also include other religious traditions and actions that support “political oppression, spreading homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny” (Kodaj, p. 3).

2. The Argument(s) from Religious Evil
So what is Kodaj’s argument? His claim is that the fact of (Christian) religious evil is both a normative and epistemic defeater to (Christian) theistic belief. That is to say, the fact of (Christian) religious evil gives us a moral reason not to believe in the Christian God (because Christians seem to do horrendous things in the name of their religion), and an epistemic reason not to believe in the Christian God (because the existence of religious evil is evidence against the existence of God). This is unusual insofar as arguments from evil have traditionally only been viewed as epistemic defeaters, not as moral defeaters (at least, so far as I am aware).

Kodaj sets out the normative version of his argument in the following manner:

  • (1) Belief in God causes evil.

  • (2) God condemns evil.

  • (3) Whatever God condemns is objectively wrong.

  • (4) Therefore, by (1) - (3), belief in God causes something objectively wrong.

  • (5) Theists should refrain from doing anything that causes something objectively wrong.

  • (6) Therefore, by (4) and (5), theists should refrain from believing in God.

I find this argument to be cumbersome and awkward. I feel like the underlying logic could be expressed more elegantly. But even if it were, I am not convinced that the argument would be all that strong. It seems like it is essentially saying that we shouldn’t believe in something if it causes us to engage in immoral acts. The problem with this is that I’m not sure that the same principle, applied elsewhere, would be all that persuasive. For example, should I refrain from believing in evolution simply because it seems (in particular cases) to have caused people to engage in immoral acts? Maybe I’m missing something here.

I’m much more interested in the epistemic version of the argument which, unfortunately, Kodaj never sets out formally. To make up for this omission, here’s my rough take on it:

  • (1) Belief in God causes evil.

  • (2*) A being with the properties typically attributed to God (omnibenevolence, omnipotence, etc.), if He existed, would not allow belief in Him to be (causally) responsible for evil.

  • (3*) Therefore, (probably) God does not exist.

As I say, this is “rough”, but I think it captures the basic idea. I don’t know if (2*) is the best way of phrasing the idea underlying the argument, but it chimes with what Kodaj himself says at several junctures throughout the paper. For example, on page 5 he says “a morally perfect being would not create a world where faith in Him causes evil under any circumstance”. I would view this as an evidential version of the problem of evil, as it supplies a prima facie reason to doubt the existence of God. This must be weighed against other reasons in favour of His existence.

The main focus of Kodaj’s argument is the defence of premise (1).

3. Epiphenomenalists and False Believers
Kodaj thinks that there are three ways that a theist might object to premise (1). First, they might argue that the evils in question (such as the witch hunts or the crusades) are not genuine evils. Second, they might argue that the beliefs in question do not cause the evil. Or third, they might argue that the beliefs are not true religious beliefs.

Kodaj says very little in response to the first of these objections. He notes that perpetrators of these acts might argue that, say, the victims of the witch hunts and the Crusades deserved to die, but then implicitly dismisses this as an unreasonable stance to take. I think he’s probably right about this, but I also think there is much more to be said. Religious believers can be quite ingenious in coming up with reasons for thinking that what appears to be evil isn’t really evil after all. This is what theodicies are designed to do. Fortunately, Kodaj does address these later in his article.

The second objection can be called the Epiphenomenalist Defence since it claims that religious beliefs have no causal relationship to the evil acts. Kodaj argues that this is implausible because it generates a new epistemic defeater. Think about it. The proponent of this defence must claim that the perpetrator of the immoral act has a genuine religious belief (i.e. a true belief about God), but that this belief has no causal effects. This then raises the question: why are true religious beliefs so powerless? Wouldn’t we expect God to ensure that belief in Him improves our moral behaviour?

The third objection can be called the False Believer Defence since it claims that the perpetrators of these evil acts do not have true religious beliefs. This is quite unlike the epiphenomenalist defence, but it too generates a new epistemic defeater. Why is it that the perpetrators of these evil acts seem so darned religious? Why do they appeal to generally accepted religious beliefs and doctrines to support their wicked ways? Why would a morally perfect being allow for His doctrines and principles to be distorted and put to evil ends?

If you like, you can think of Kodaj’s response to the last two objections as a kind of dilemma:

Either the perpetrators of religious evil are not truly religious or their religious beliefs have no causal effect on their behaviour:

  • (a) If they are not truly religious, then we have to ask why a morally perfect being would allow His doctrines and principles to be distorted and put to evil ends? 

  • (b) If their beliefs are true but causally inert, then we have to ask why true religious beliefs are powerless to stop immoral behaviour? Why would a morally perfect being allow for this?

4. Summary and Questions
So that’s Kodaj’s basic argument. As you can see, the underlying idea is that the fact that evil is committed in the name of specific religious beliefs (particularly belief in the Christian god) generates defeaters for those beliefs. In the remainder of his paper, Kodaj goes on to show how the standard theodicies and replies to the problem of evil do not work for the problem of religious evil. He also suggests a partial solution to the problem, which is partial in the sense that it argues that religious evil may not be a problem if we assume there is some solution to the more general problem of moral evil.

With that, I’ll hand things over to commenters. I don’t wish to preempt or constrain the discussion in any way, but here are some questions people might like to ponder:

  • Do you think Kodaj succeeds in articulating a new version of the problem of evil?

  • Are you persuaded by his defence of premise (1)?

  • Do you think he deals adequately with the traditional theodicies and replies to the problem of evil?

  • Is his partial solution persuasive?

Comments below please.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Is a Longer Life a Happier Life? Stoicism and Happiness

I think I might be a bit of stoic. It’s not that I agree with stoic metaphysics or logic — I actually know very little about those things — but if asked about my general attitude toward life, I would describe it as being stoic. For me, that means that I try to live in the moment as much as possible, to constantly factor-in the arbitrariness of the world around me, and to regularly practice negative visualisations. I never get too attached to my current state of being; I always imagine that things could get worse. For those closest to me, this is an infuriating habit. As a result I sometimes find myself drawn away from the stoic habit of mind, and into more involved, avaricious modes of thought. Nevertheless, I always wander back to stoicism in the end.

My faltering commitment to stoicism was brought to the forefront of my mind quite recently when I read an article by Eyjolfur Emilsson entitled “On the length of a good life”. The article outlines and advocates the stoic (and Epicurean) view that “a life, once happy, does not become any happier by lasting longer”. That is to say: we don’t need long or indefinite lives in order to be truly happy and content.

Now, I tend to think this view is broadly correct, but I have no idea how to argue for it. Consequently, I was hoping that Emilsson’s article would provide me with some assistance. Unfortunately, the article leaves a lot to be desired in that regard, consisting as it does of a series of opaque, somewhat disjointed, reflections on ancient views about happinness and the length of the good life. Nevertheless, there is some wisdom to be found in its pages, and in reflecting on that wisdom I think I see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the stoic view.

In this post, I want to share some of those strengths and weaknesses. I’ll try to explain why I think the stoics have it right when it comes to what makes life contented and happy (from the perspective of the one who lives it), while at the same time missing certain other dimensions of value that are important when it comes to assessing the overall worth of a life.

1. The Stoics versus the Accumulationists
It will be helpful if we have a clearer sense of what the stoic view about longevity and happiness really is. As I read it, the stoic view can be defined as follows:

Stoic View: Happiness (or contentedness or satisfaction) is a present-indexed thing — it depends on how one feels and approaches life in the here and now. It is not a diachronic thing — one does not become happier or more contended by having more time in which to be happy and content.

In other words, how happy you are depends on your occurrent mental attitude, nothing else. For stoics, this attitude ought to take a particular form. It is linked to the sole intrinsic good, which is virtue. Virtue is a skill in the art of living. This skill is characterised (in part) by resilience and implacability. The skill is its own reward, it does not depend on external goods or rewards. Thus, for the stoic, happiness is something that is cultivated internally, that is: within the psyche of the individual. It is not dependent on external fortunes or misfortunes.

The stoic view is difficult to implement. A common concern is that the true stoic will “give no thought to the ‘morrow”, will be unable to plan for the future, engage in ambitious goal-oriented living, or fully commit to and trust those with whom they live. Stoics usually dismiss this concern. They argue that the stoic can still live an engaged, goal-oriented life. They can have projects and plans and loves. They just won’t be disturbed or devastated if those things are thwarted.

I think the common concern is right, up to a point. Speaking from my own perspective, I’m certainly engaged by projects and goals in my day-to-day life — I wouldn’t have done the things I have done if I wasn’t — but I don’t think I’m quite as engaged as many of my colleagues and friends. My goals tend to be short-term; they tend to be based on things I believe are less vulnerable to external misfortune. I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy the things I work on, but I don’t count on having the resources to be able to do them in, say, one or years years time. I’ve never planned that far ahead. Indeed, I probably never fully commit myself to anything; I always include an implicit “get-out” or exception clause. I believe this is deeply frustrating for the people with whom I live.

The stoic view is to be contrasted with the more common, accumulationist view:

Accumulationist View: Happiness (or contentedness or satisfaction) is a diachronic thing, not a strictly present-indexed thing. One can live a happier and more contented life by having more time in which to be happy and contended. Happiness is thus something that accumulates over time.

I say this is more common because I think it chimes with how most people assess the worth of different lives. Imagine two people - Bob and Kevin. Bob was unhappy for the first 20 years of his life, but has been reasonably happy from then on. Kevin has been reasonably happy all his life. They are both the same age. Surely, we would say that Kevin’s life is the happier one? The amount of happiness he had in the past (and indeed can expect to have in the future) accumulates and makes his life happier, overall, than Bob’s.

Despite the commonsense appeal of the accumulationist view, I still prefer the stoic view. I can’t quite offer a defence of this. Not yet at least. But I think I can explain why the accumulationist view is appealing. As I point out below, there are dimensions along which we can assess the value of life that go beyond mere happiness. When we bring in those dimensions, something like the accumulationist view is probably correct. But when focusing purely on happiness, the stoic view seems more appropriate to me.

2. The Life Plan/Narrative Unity Objection
Let’s consider a couple of objections to the stoic view. The first is something we can call the “Life Plan” or “Narrative Unity” objection. It derives from a popular theory about what it takes to live a valuable life. According to this theory, one of the crucial ingredients in a happy life is either narrative unity or the fulfillment of a life plan. Philosophers such as Steven Luper, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have defended this theory (if you are interested, I looked at Luper’s arguments a few weeks back).

Defenders of the life plan or narrative unity objection think that happiness cannot be reduced to a momentary or fleeting thing. It is, instead, a property of the whole of one’s life, i.e. from beginning to end. One’s life is happy (or happier) if it hangs together in some story-like fashion, or if one commits to and achieves some overarching plan.

Emilsson argues that there are several problems with such “whole life”-views. For starters, the concept of “narrative unity” is rather vague and imprecise. Must life follow the story-arc of a traditional fairytale or myth in order to be happy? Or are more disjointed and unconventional narratives allowed? Must the story end well? Couldn’t a life filled with misery and tragedy have some narrative unity? Furthermore, who is it that must perceive the narrative unity? Must the person living the life perceive the unity or is it enough that others do? Questions like these, rhetorical though they may be, tend to undermine the credibility of the narrative unity view.

What about life plans? Here, Emilsson is perhaps less persuasive in his dismissal. He argues, simply, that very few people actually have life plans. He for example has never had one (nor have I). But he doesn’t think that this means his life or that of anyone else is unhappy. Furthermore, even if one has a life plan, it’s not clear that happiness is contingent upon its success. Indeed, this is perhaps the key clash between the stoic view and that of the accumulationist. For the stoic, the process or moment is what matters, not the effect or outcome.

I would add here that there is a curious relationship between these “whole life”-views and the value of an indefinitely extended life (something I also happen to be interested in). The stoic view is pretty indifferent to the prospect of indefinite life extension: it neither fully embraces nor fully dismisses it. This makes sense since the stoic doesn’t believe that longevity can increase happiness. Contrariwise, the whole life view seems pretty antagonistic to life extension. At least that’s how it looks to me. After all, indefinite life extension threatens to both (a) undermine the narrative unity of life by removing the ending; and (b) undermine the significance of life plans and achievements by reducing the value of achievement (I discussed the latter point, ad nauseum, in an earlier set of posts).

3. The Constitutive Relationship Objection
A more troubling critique of the stoic view is something I call the “constitutive relationship” objection. This objection holds that the stoic view is unsustainable because our present happiness is often constituted by events that occur in the past or the future. For example, as I sit here and type I occasionally reminisce about my youth. As I do this, I may remember my first kiss or the first time I fell in love and feel a joyful sense of nostalgia wash over me. In this case I am happy in the present moment, but my happiness is constituted by events from my past. This can occur by imagining future events too. But if this is what happens, then happiness isn’t a purely present-indexed thing.

Just to be clear, this objection isn’t simply a re-statement of the accumulationist view. In the example I have just given, it is not that my present happiness is a product of the accumulation of past instances of happiness — though this may also be true — it is that my present happiness refers back to past or future events. Given the way in which human life is embedded in time, it seems like this temporal referencing will be difficult to avoid. Indeed, it is the deprivation of hypothetical future experiences that renders death such a terrifying fate for so many people. But if all that’s right, then it’s difficult to see how the stoic, present-indexed view can be sustained.

As I say, I think this is a serious criticism of the stoic view. There are, however, a couple of strategies that the stoic can adopt in response, none of them particularly persuasive, but perhaps cumulatively serving to lessen the blow. The most obvious of these strategies is to try to purge ourselves of past-and-future referenced thoughts as much as possible. I mentioned above how I like my own future ambitions and projects to have a limited time horizon. I find this helps to reduce (though not completely eliminate) the future-referencing of my present happiness. I think something similar can be done for the past too by trying to purge oneself of wistful nostalgia. Indeed, “don’t romanticise your own past” is an imperative I think we could all do with heeding.

Some further philosophical reflection might serve to lessen the impact of past and future referencing too. For starters, future-referenced thoughts are essentially fictitious creations of the present. So any happiness associated with them could be viewed as present-indexed. Similarly, our recall of the past is highly imperfect, and prone to all sort of biases and reconstructions. I have no doubt that my memories of my first kiss or first love are largely mythical creations of my present psyche. Perhaps then even when I do remember these things my happiness is largely constructed from the present.

To be clear, I don’t think either of these strategies is fully successful, but that just underscores how practically difficult the stoic view is.

4. Conclusion and other Dimensions of Value
I will conclude with a couple of related observations. First, I want to reiterate that, despite its practical difficulties, I think the stoic view is, in some sense, the “right one”. I say in “some sense” because I appreciate the diversity of interests that might be at stake. For me, the sense in question has to do with the psychological health of the person whose life it is. In other words, I think the stoic view is the one that is most conducive to the psychological health and wellbeing of the individual. Thus, if it is possible to render one’s happiness a largely “present-indexed” thing, I think one should try to do it.

But this doesn’t mean that the stoic view is the right one in all senses. In any debate about happiness and well-being, there is room for confusion. People often mean very different things when employing terms like “happiness” and “well-being”, and consequently debates can often end with their participants talking past each other. That’s why I want to be clear and I say that I think there are many dimensions of value along which we can assess an individual’s life. Most of those will be missed by the stoic view.
Thus, for example, we might assess an individual’s life using various objective measures of excellence. Did they make any significant scientific discoveries? Did they create a great work of art? Did they do great moral work, e.g. alleviating poverty and suffering? If they did, then their life might be more worthwhile, more significant and more meaningful than a person who did none of these things. But that doesn’t mean that they will have lived happier lives, at least not in the stoic sense.

This is intuitive anyway since we can easily imagine someone doing these things while living lives of misery and suffering. For example, Vincent van Gogh produced great works of art during his lifetime, but that life was, by all accounts, pretty miserable. As I say, that is pretty intuitive. Nevertheless, it is important to see just how far the stoic view goes in this direction. It is not just the van Gogh’s life wasn’t any happier for all the great works of art he produced; it is that even if he had been happy while producing those works of art, he wasn’t any happier just because he produced objectively valuable works of art. For the stoic, happiness is not contingent on external achievements. It is something that is produced by the right habit of mind, irrespective of its external focus and achievements.

So a life can have many dimensions of value, the stoic view is only concerned with one of those dimensions: subjective contentment.

(If you are interested in this topic, you might also be interested in my earlier post: Should we thanatise our desires?)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Ethics of Suicide: A Framework

Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther

In 1774, Goethe published the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The novel consists of a series of letters from a young, sensitive artist by the name of Werther. Over the course of these letters, we learn that Werther has become involved in a tragic love triangle. He believes that in order to resolve the love triangle, some member of it will have to die. Not being inclined to commit murder, Werther resolves to kill himself. This he duly does by shooting himself in the head.

Goethe’s novel famously led to Werther Fever. Young men, perhaps attracted to the melancholic and tragic qualities of Werther’s life, started to dress in the style described in the novel and adopt the mannerisms of the character. Some even went so far as to kill themselves, just as Werther had done. They were the first modern examples of “copycat” suicides.

Suicide is a prevalent and persistent feature of human society. According to the WHO, approximately 800,000 people per year commit suicide. Many view this as a serious social (public health?) problem. Others may be less sure. In this post, I want to give a very brief overview of some of the key questions and ethical frameworks one can apply to this difficult topic. This is not intended to be a defence of any particular view, nor a comprehensive summary of the arguments for and against the permissibility/forbiddenness of suicide. It is merely intended to raise some relevant questions and provide a structure for thinking about the issue.

I base most of what I say on Thomas Hill Jr’s article “Killing Ourselves”, which appeared in the Cambridge Companion to Life and Death. I know there are better works out there on the philosophy of suicide — Michael Cholbi’s book springs to mind — but this was the one I read most recently.

Please note that this post will only barely touch upon the topic of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

1. What is Suicide?
”Suicide” is difficult to define. This is because it is a value-laden term. Whenever we apply the label of “suicide” to an individual’s death, we typically presuppose a number of significant moral issues. To see the problem, let’s posit a definition:

Suicide: Is the intentional and voluntary taking of one’s own life.

At first glance, this is a simple and appealing definition. It seems to capture the core phenomenon of self-killing pretty succinctly. There are, however, all sorts of cases that would test the limits of this definition. Consider the “voluntariness” requirement. Many people may take their lives under conditions of coercion, duress or necessity. Does that mean they don’t commit suicide?

Take the example of Hitler. He killed himself in order to avoid the humiliation of execution. Was his decision voluntary? What of the Japanese Samurai, who had a form of ritual self-killing (known as seppuka or hari-kari) that they used to “die with honour” rather than fall into the hands of their enemies? Or the soldier who throws himself on a grenade in order to save his comrades? I suspect we would say that each of these counts as an example of “suicide”, but depending on how we understand the voluntariness condition, they may not meet the conditions set down in our definition.

Harder issues arise when we consider the relationship between responsibility and suicide. Hill uses the example of the Christian martyrs and Socrates to illustrate this point. The early Christian martyrs were given the option of renouncing their Christianity or being fed to the lions. In choosing the latter, they chose their own death, but we would hardly say that they “committed suicide”, would we? Others were responsible for their deaths; they should take the blame. Or what about Socrates? He drank hemlock and thereby killed himself, but he had previously been sentenced to die by the Athenian government. Does that count as a suicide? (Admittedly, the judgment in Socrates case is clouded by the fact that he had the option of exile too).

The point is that describing an act of self-killing as “suicide” is not always straightforward. This has knock-on implications for the ethics of suicide. The ethical assessment of the Christian martyrs is likely to be very different from the assessment of Hitler. This is something that should be borne in mind. In his discussion, Hill suggests that we focus on paradigmatic cases of voluntary and intentional killing first, and then expand our analysis to cover the borderline cases. I’m not so sure that this will work if we include the voluntariness requirement — since that is a highly controversial concept — but it might work if we dropped it.

2. Four Key Questions about Suicide
Assuming we have a basic grasp of the phenomenon of suicide, we can proceed to subject it to some philosophical scrutiny. Hill suggests that there are four important questions to be asked:

A. The Competency Question: Was the person mentally competent and sufficient rational and self-governing to be responsible for the act of self-killing?

I think this is possibly the most important question. In many cases, the default assumption is that the person who commits suicide lacks mental competency or rationality. Indeed, the act of killing oneself is often taken to be conclusive evidence of this. People don’t accept that the reasons typically stated for suicide (feelings of hopelessness etc.) can be embraced by the rational mind. That this is the default assumption seems to be proven by the fact that people only accept the rationality of suicide in certain extreme cases, e.g. terminal illness, self-sacrifice to a greater good. The thought of a rational, fully competent adult, who faces nothing more than the ordinary slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, ending their lives is too much countenance. Such an individual must be mentally or rationally deficient.

I’m not entirely convinced by this default assumption. This is for two reasons. First, it’s not clear to me that, say, a nihilistic worldview which holds that all lives are meaningless and devoid of hope, is all that irrational. To be clear, I don’t accept this worldview and I have argued against it in the past. Nevertheless, it doesn’t strike me as being significantly more irrational other philosophical commitments that we are we don’t judge in the same way (say: moral anti-realism or epistemic internalism). If a person can competently and rationally embrace those views, why can’t they competently and rationally embrace nihilism?

The other reason for rejecting this default assumption is more controversial. The competency question is asked is because it is thought to be a necessary precondition for a more interesting debate about the morality of suicide. The idea being that only a fully competent person could commit suicide in a permissible way. But I wonder whether this is entirely true. One of the most interesting student theses I read in recent years argued that, in certain cases, it was permissible for those suffering from incurable mental illnesses to kill themselves. Now, that could be interpreted as an argument in favour of the competency of such individuals, or as an argument in favour of permissibility despite a lack of competence. If it’s the latter, we might have reason to challenge the importance of competency question.

We can go through the other questions more quickly. The second is:

B. The Deontic Question: Is suicide ever permissible, forbidden or obligatory? This raises related questions, such as: Do we have a right to commit suicide? Should we try to prevent suicide? And so on.

This is the question that motivates the different ethical frameworks outlined below. I’ll say no more about it here.

C. The Axiological Question: Even if suicide is permissible, does it fall short of the moral ideal?

The idea behind this question is that actions can often be permissible without being ideal. For example, I think it is permissible to take recreational drugs, but I don’t think this is always morally ideal. I think certain kinds of drugs may prevent you from achieving other, more important, moral and personal goals. Might something similar be true of suicide? Obviously suicide prevents us from achieving certain future personal and moral goals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t help us achieve others (in certain limited cases). There is, consequently, a possibility that suicide is morally ideal in some cases. Thus, the question of moral ideals is an important one.

The fourth and final question is:

D. The Assisted Suicide Question: Assuming that it is, occasionally at least, permissible to kill oneself, is it ever permissible to help another to end their own lives?

This is the question that seems to dominate the contemporary debate, with the focus being on those with terminal illnesses who genuinely seem to want to end their own lives, but are not in a position to do so safely by themselves. We’ll say no more about it here. The focus in the remainder of this entry is on the second and third questions.

3. Four Ethical Frameworks for thinking about Suicide
In his essay, Hill proposes four different frameworks for thinking about the ethics of suicide: the theological framework; the libertarian framework; the consequentialist framework; and the Kantian framework. I’ll run through each briefly.

The theological framework, as the name suggests, bases its ethic of suicide on theological premises. The typical theistic view being that either (a) life is a gift from God that we cannot revoke; or (b) we are God’s property/creation and in choosing to end our own lives we would violate his authority over us. This means that suicide is always and everywhere ethically wrong. This theological view can be grounded in different ways. Scripturalists will search for some revealed text that endorses this view; natural lawyers will argue that it follows from a proper appreciation of the telos of human life.

The theological view dominated Western thinking about suicide for centuries. It is, however, vulnerable to many objections. Most obviously, if one is not a theist, one is not going to accept it. But even if one is a theist, there are problems. Is it really true that scripture or natural law supports the prohibition against suicide? These things are always open to doubt. Famously, David Hume argued that a theist could accept the permissibility of suicide in his essay Of Suicide.

The libertarian framework is based on libertarian moral and political theory. Libertarians typically believe that we have a natural right of self-ownership, i.e. ownership over our bodies, our labour and the fruits of our labour (the latter being particularly controversial). As such, we have legitimate and total authority over these things: we can do with them as we please. A permissible attitude toward suicide follows from this. If we choose to end our lives, that is our right.

Although the associated political philosophy is not always my cup of tea, the libertarian view on suicide strikes me as being the most plausible. But, just to be clear, this doesn’t imply that suicide is morally ideal or something we should care nothing about. Likewise, the libertarian attitude does not make quality of life irrelevant to the issue of suicide. For any individual choice, future quality of life may be the decisive factor in determining the prudential rationality of suicide. But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean one doesn’t have the right to choose as one sees fit.

The consequentialist framework looks to the potential consequences of suicide to determine whether it is forbidden, permissible or obliged. Given that consequences vary with the context, the consequentialist attitude toward suicide also varies greatly: sometimes it is permissible, sometimes it is forbidden, sometimes it is obliged. If one is an act-consequentialist, this variation can occur with each and every individual act; if one is a rule-consequentialist, the variation is less striking (the question then is: what default rule would produce the best consequences across a whole life or a whole society?).

The consequentialist view allows you to take into account a whole range of factors when determining the permissibility of suicide, including the impact on others and one’s prospective quality of life. It really just depends on what kinds of consequences are deemed positive or negative by the particular consequentialist theory. Traditional hedonistic utilitarianism focuses solely on pleasure and pain; more modern “objective list” theories cast the net more widely.

The big problem for all consequentialist theories is that they can lead to counterintuitive conclusions. Examples abound. For instance, if killing an innocent person would help to avert mass social unrest and upheaval, then it seems like the consequentialist should do it. This is despite the fact that the innocent person has done nothing to deserve this treatment. These counterintuitive results would seem to carry over to the suicide case. Thus, if my death could help to avoid some disaster, then as a consistent consequentialist I should probably kill myself. This is irrespective of whether I want to die, or whether my future life would be a happy one. For many, these counterintuitive implications render consequentialism unusable. But there is, of course, a much deeper debate to be had on this score.

The fourth and final framework for thinking about suicide is the Kantian framework. This is a non-consequentialist approach, focusing on our duties towards ourselves and others, and appealing to the concept of dignity. I have never been a fan of this concept of dignity — I find it much too mysterious and nebulous to be of any use — but the rough idea is that every human being possesses an unconditional and incomparable worth. We must respect that worth in all our actions, never treating the individual as a means to an end but always as an end in themselves.

The Kantian view is usually thought to imply that suicide is impermissible. This certainly seems to have been Kant’s own view. The simplest argument for this is that killing oneself is incompatible with respect for one’s dignity: it denies the unconditional and incomparable worth of your life. It may also require treating your life as a mere means to an end. How much good can I get out of this life? If the future good is likely to be outweighed by the bad, should I just pack it in? If you are asking questions like that, you are treating your life as a mere receptacle of value, not as an end in itself.

Hill has a much longer discussion of the Kantian framework in his article. I won’t get into it here except to note that he thinks that even a Kantian could embrace the permissibility of suicide in specific cases. He mentions three: (i) where one’s future life will involve a complete loss of rational autonomy due to some degenerative disorder (rational autonomy being an essential precondition for Kantian moral reasoning); (ii) where it helps to avoid gross irremediable pain; and (iii) where it is the only way to avoid a future that is degrading and contrary to one’s deepest values. An example of the latter might be the samurai who commits ritual suicide in order to avoid capture by his enemies. The idea being that capture by one’s enemies is not compatible with his deepest values.

I’m not sure about these three examples myself, particularly the second, but then again I’m not sure about the Kantian framework either.

4. Conclusion: Thinking about Others
That brings us to the end of this post. To reiterate the point made at the outset: nothing in this post was intended to provide a definitive argument in favour of any particular view. The goal was to provide a set of tools for thinking about this issue. Hopefully, that goal has been achieved. You should now have a sense of what suicide is, what questions should be asked about it, and how different moral views perceive it.

I want to conclude with some observations about suicide and the effect it may have on others. As Hill emphasises in his article, the effect on other people is always relevant when determining the ethical status of suicide. For the theist, the effect on God and one’s relationship with God is all-important: if one damages that relationship, or violates God’s rights, one should not commit suicide. For the libertarian, the rights of others and the duties one owes to them may count against the permissibility of suicide. For instance, a parent’s caregiving duties toward their child would seem to block the permissibility of suicide. The same is clearly true for the Kantian. And for the consequentialist, the negative impact on others can also provide a compelling reason not to commit suicide (though, at the same time, the consequentialist must also accept that positive impacts on other may provide reason to commit suicide).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Enforcing Morality through Criminal Law (Part Three)

(Part One; Part Two)

This is the third and final entry in my series on Steven Wall’s article “Enforcing Morality”. In the article, Wall tries to make the case for an expansive form of legal moralism. Legal moralism is the belief that only immoral conduct can be criminalised. Minimalistic forms of moralism say that immoral conduct must also be harmful to others before it deserves criminalisation. Expansive forms of moralism say that immoral conduct that is not harmful to others can also be criminalised.

Wall’s particular brand of moralism is concerned with conduct that damages an individual’s moral character, but does not impact negatively on other people. He holds that there should be a presumption in favour of the criminalisaiton of such conduct, though he accepts that this presumption can be outweighed by other factors.

In part two, I outlined Wall’s main argument in defence of this view. In brief, the argument claims that if we care about improving individual well-being through the law, we should also care about individual moral character. I had some criticisms of that argument in the previous post. Today, I’ll outline a different set of criticisms — these ones coming from the work of Ronald Dworkin — along with Wall’s response to those criticisms.

1. Dworkin’s Critique: The Need for Moral Authenticity
To understand Dworkin’s criticisms, we first need to understand what Wall’s proposal would entail. This, unfortunately, is not something that Wall himself is clear about in the article. The idea seems to be roughly as follows: first, we accept that certain kinds of immoral conduct damage individual moral character; second, we legally prohibit or restrict people from engaging in that kind of conduct; and we thereby try to disincentivise or remove certain options from set available to the individual moral agent.

By disincentivising or removing those options, you might think that we impinge upon the agent’s moral autonomy. After all, moral autonomy is the right to choose from a set of options and so any reduction in the number of options available to an agent would seem to necessarily impact upon their autonomy. In another article, Wall addresses this criticism and argues that due regard for moral autonomy does not rule out all such state interventions. As it happens, Dworkin seems to agree with Wall on this score.

But Dworkin thinks there is another problem lurking here. Although restricting options in this manner may not impact upon autonomy, it may impact upon another important value: moral authenticity. By this, Dworkin means something like the value of independently shaping one’s own moral character, of determining the values and principles by which one lives. Dworkin says that this value is damaged whenever “a person is made to accept someone’s judgment in place of his own about the values or goals his life should display” (taken from Wall 2013).

Dworkin adds that the value of authenticity is integral to a sense of self-respect. In other words, he claims that a person cannot truly have self-respect if they lack the ability to shape their own moral characters. This claim has an interesting effect on Wall’s argument for expansive legal moralism. As you’ll recall from the last day, the three premises of Wall’s argument are as follows:

  • (1) If it is a proper function of the criminal law to protect and promote the well-being of those who are subject to it, then it is a proper function of the law to assist those who are subject to it to lead well-lived lives.

  • (2) To live well a person must have and merit a sense of self-respect.

  • (3) To have and merit a sense of self-respect, a person must be committed to pursuing a sound conception of the good and must care about his/her character.

These premises set-up a chain: if A then B; B requires C; C requires D; therefore, if A then D. The effect of Dworkin’s argument is to break that chain at the second link, i.e. at premise (2). Dworkin is claiming that the concept of self-respect incorporates the concept of moral authenticity, and that the concept of moral authenticity excludes the kind of legal moralism Wall defends.

Is Dworkin’s argument any good?

2. Challenging Dworkin’s Argument
There are a couple of ways you could challenge Dworkin’s argument. One, slightly boring, way of doing it would be to question the link between authenticity and self-respect: maybe one can have self-respect even if all of one’s moral decisions are outsourced to another authority? Maybe. But let’s leave possibility to the side for now because even if there is no essential link between the two concepts, it nevertheless seems like moral authenticity is something we might care about and which might be undermined by the legal engineering advocated by Wall.

Is there another way of challenging Dworkin’s argument? One that accepts the value of character, self respect and authenticity? Wall says there is. The problem for Dworkin is that authenticity seems to require independence from the ethical influence of others. But, of course, no one escapes the ethical influence of others. Even if the government didn’t explicitly tell me that I shouldn’t steal or murder my neighbours, we can be pretty sure that other people would and that they would pressurise me into refraining from those actions. Society is replete with non-legal, informal networks of moral influence.

Dworkin accepts this. He simply thinks that there are different kinds of ethical influence. For him, there is something worse about top-down, coercive influence from the government, than bottom-up (or horizontal) influence from one’s peers. This response is itself problematic. If we are not anarchists — i.e. if we accept that the government has to sometimes shape our moral environment — then the distinction between what is an example of top-down interference and what is not, will be difficult to draw.

Wall uses the concept of “countenancing” an ethical environment to make this point. He argues that a government can be said to countenance a certain kind of ethical environment (one that influences choices in particular ways) whenever that environment is a foreseeable consequence of the government’s action or inaction.

Take the example of prostitution (this is one used by Wall). Suppose the government has to decide what legal policy to adopt in relation to prostitution. Suppose, further, that the government knows three things: (i) certain legal measures, if taken, would actually reduce the amount of prostitution; (ii) failing to take these measures will lead to attitudes toward sex that are detrimental to moral character. (If you disagree with this substantive moral claim, you can simply replace this example with another of similar form). Then assume that the government decides not to adopt the legal measures that would reduce prostitution. Has the government influenced your moral decision-making?

Wall argues that in such a case the government can be said to have countenanced the existence of an ethical environment in which attitudes toward sex were detrimental to moral character. In other words, the existence of an ethical environment that promoted or facilitated detrimental attitudes toward sex wasn’t simply a default, natural, bottom-up, byproduct of their failure to legislate. It was something they effectively created through inaction.

Just to be clear, Wall is not claiming that there are no moral differences between governments that do something through inaction and ones that countenance an outcome by inaction. For example, a government that chose to deliberately impose poverty on its citizens is worse (for him) than one that foresees poverty as a consequence of inaction. But notwithstanding that possibility, the notion that there is a stark moral distinction between decisions to legislate or to not legislate is insupportable.

I’m pretty sure all this is correct: ethical environments that impact upon moral character can be created through action and inaction. But how does this observation affect the original point about moral authenticity and the need for ethical independence? I guess Wall’s argument is that the government is nearly always influencing our moral behaviour, either through its actions or inactions, and hence we are never truly ethically independent of the government — the only exception, maybe, being when an outcome or choice is an unforeseeable effect of governmental actions or inactions. But that doesn’t seem to undermine Dworkin’s point about restricting the number of options available to an individual moral agent. If the government criminalises prostitution, then it severely limits access to a particular option — however good or bad it may be. Surely that limitation has a negative effect on moral authenticity? It reduces the agents’ opportunity for developing moral character.

The problem is that this response seems to assume that people need their lives to be ethically challenging, i.e. for them to be consistently presented with genuine moral choices (i.e. not coerced or limited choices). But this can’t be right: we can’t really want to preserve all ethical challenges. After all, we have no problem with restricting some moral choices through the law (e.g. the choice of whether or not to kill someone). The question is: how many such moral choices can we restrict before the ethical challenge is completely undermined? Wall argues, in response to this, that it is unlikely that a government would ever limit that many choices, and, what is more, the government doesn’t have to completely prohibit or outlaw options in order to promote good moral character. Many regulatory crimes, for example, preserve moral choices; they just render them more difficult to make (e.g. through licencing and insurance requirements).

3. Conclusion
That brings us to the end of this series. I hope you enjoyed this brief romp through some of the ideas and debates animating the current literature on criminal law and the principles of criminalisation. Among legal theorists, Wall is certainly one of the people who is more inclined to expansive moralism. But I have noted many people recently (e.g. Duff, Greene) who seem to embrace principles of criminalisation that go beyond the traditional harm principle. It is an interesting trend.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Enforcing Morality through Criminal Law (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second post in my series on Steven Wall’s article “Enforcing Morality”. The article makes the case for an expansive form of legal moralism. Legal moralism is the view that the criminal law ought only to prohibit conduct that is morally wrongful. In other words, that wrongfulness is a necessary precondition for criminalisation. This much is relatively uncontroversial. The controversy is over which moral norms should fall within the scope of criminalisation.

As we saw in part one, minimalistic forms of legal moralism — such as those popular among liberal and libertarian thinkers — hold that the criminal law should only concern itself with immoral conduct that is harmful to others. The more expansive forms of moralism try to incorporate immoral conduct that is harmful to the self. Wall’s particular expansive view is concerned with including so-called “moral” harms to self. By “moral harms” Wall means to include actions which damage or undermine an individual’s moral character, i.e. his or disposition to act well.

In this post, I am going to cover Wall’s main argument in favour of this expansive form of legal moralism.

1. Wall’s Argument in Brief
To start off, we can look at the general structure of Wall’s argument. Unfortunately, Wall’s does not deign to provide us with a formal version in his article. Nevertheless, he does explicitly tell us that his argument rests on three claims. Taking those three claims on board, and reading between the lines somewhat, allows us to come up with the following reconstruction of his central argument:

  • (1) If it is a proper function of the criminal law to protect and promote the well-being of those who are subject to it, then it is a proper function of the law to assist those who are subject to it to lead well-lived lives.
  • (2) To live well a person must have and merit a sense of self-respect.
  • (3) To have and merit a sense of self-respect, a person must be committed to pursuing a sound conception of the good and must care about his/her character.
  • (4) Therefore, it is a proper function of the law to promote good moral character among its subjects.

Formally, this argument follows a very simple pattern. The premises work something like this: if A then B; B requires C; C requires D; therefore, if A then D. The premises speak to the “law” rather than to the “criminal law”, this is a linguistic quirk I’ve carried over from Wall’s article. I take it that he means to refer to the criminal law, given the content and context of his article. Nevertheless, I find the phrasing unfortunate since there are many types of law, and although one may not embrace the use of criminal law to promote good character, one could certainly imagine using other types of law to promote good character.

The most significant objection to this argument will be considered in part three of this series. This objection comes from the work of Ronald Dworkin. In the interim we’ll work through Wall’s initial defence of the three premises.

2. Defending the First Premise
The first premise is expressed in a conditional form. It essentially says to us: “If you accept that A is a proper function of the law, then you should also accept that B is a proper function of the law.” But what happens if you don’t accept A? Then the argument as whole will hold no sway for you. As it happens, this is not a purely formal concern. There are several brands of legal theory that would reject the notion that the law should concern itself with the well-being of its subjects. Staunch rights-based libertarians, for example, might hold that the law should only concern itself with protecting individual rights, even if those rights lead to reductions in individual well-being.

Wall acknowledges this shortcoming and the resulting dialectical weakness of his argument. But he is eager that we do not overstate the problem. He provides evidence elsewhere in his article for thinking that many liberal legal theorists think that the criminal law does have some role to play in promoting individual well-being. For these theorists, the argument will at least be worth considering.

So how, then, about the second half of the conditional? Is it true that a concern for well-being encompasses a concern for the well-lived lives of legal subjects? Wall says a lot about this that I find unnecessarily confusing. I think his basic point is pretty straightforward. It is that we must have a more holistic sense of what “well-being” is. It is not just, say, conscious subjective pleasure, or the satisfaction of desires (as utilitarians may have us believe). It is something more. It encompasses the notion of the well-lived life, i.e. the life spent in the pursuit and fulfillment of rational aims.

I wouldn’t disagree with this at all. I think the concept of the well-lived life — or, rather, the life worth living — should be central to our public policy. Of course, this does not mean that I think the law should necessarily get involved. The big problem, as Wall again acknowledges, is that legal interventions may often do more harm than good. However, this possibility does not disrupt his argument since he is interested merely in defending a presumption in favour of such legal intervention; not a conclusive presumption in favour of such legal intervention.

3. Defending the Second Premise
Granting premise (1), if only for the sake of argument, what can be said in favour of premise (2)? It claims that a necessary precondition for living the well-lived life is a sense of self-respect. According to Wall, “this claim is often asserted and widely believed”. So he doesn’t think it should be in any way controversial.

That’s a little unsatisfying, of course. We would like to be able to say more in favour of premise (2). And fortunately there are some things to be said. Appealing to work done by Rawls, Wall argues that the sense of self-respect is what makes one inclined to pursue and act upon rational aims in the first place. Without the belief that one’s actions are of value, or that one’s life is worthwhile, one will have no motivation to act. As a result, the well-lived life will be forever out of reach. Rawls felt that social institutions could have a profound impact on attitudes of self-respect.

I guess that’s okay — although one may question the armchair psychologising. There is, however, a issue that lurks here and that may disrupt the argument itself. As you can see from premise (2), Wall thinks that not only must the individual have a sense of self-worth, but they must also “merit” that sense of self-worth. There’s a reason why this “merit”-qualifier is included: without it the case for paternalistic legal interventions would be lessened. After all, the idea here is that someone may be trying to live the good life, but failing to do the right things. The law could then be used to “nudge” them in the right direction. But if the good life does not require an objectively merited sense of self-respect — if all it requires is a sense of self-belief and commitment — the opportunities for legal intervention will be much more limited.

So is there anything to be said in favour of the merit requirement? Yes, there is. Indeed, I have considered the issue previously on the blog. It has to do with subjective versus objective theories of meaning in life. Purely subjectivist theories can lead to counterintuitive results, e.g. the person who derives satisfaction from counting all the blades of grass in the world could be said to live a good life on a purely subjectivist account. Purely objectivist theories suffer from a related problem: they might not be very satisfying from the perspective of someone who lives them (though this isn’t as counterintuitive a result). Consequently, many favour a “mixed” account of the good life. Susan Wolf’s “fitting fulfillment” theory is a good example of this trend. She argues that to live the good life one must pursue goals of objective worth, and be fulfilled by doing so.

I think the link between self-respect and the well-lived life in Wall’s second premise is similar to the relationship between fittingness and fulfillment in Wolf’s theory.

4. Defending the Third Premise
That brings us to the final premise of Wall’s argument. This is one claims that in order to have the requisite sense of self-respect, there must be some concern for moral character. What can be said in favour of this premise?

Not much, really. The case for premise (3) is quite easy to make out. A person’s moral character is understood as that person’s set of traits and dispositions. The person with a good moral character will be responsive to moral reasons, i.e. will be able to identify and act upon that which it is good to act upon. Given this definition, and given our new-found understanding of merited self-respect, it pretty much stands to reason that self-respect requires some concern for moral character. After all, in order to have a merited sense of self-respect, the person will need to be attuned to that which is good or bad, i.e. to identify the projects and aims that are of objective worth and pursue them with vigour.

So that’s it. That’s Wall’s defence of the leap from well-being to the well-lived life, and from their to a concern for self-respect and good moral character. I can’t help but being a little underwhelmed by all this. I’m perfectly willing to accept that well-being encompasses the kind of theory of the good life that Wall imagines, but I don’t quite see how this gets us to the brand of legal moralism he wishes to defend. When it comes to it, he has the following to say:

Accordingly, if people are to live well, they must not only have a good character but also care that they have such a character. And if they have this concern, then they will not be indifferent to the character of the ethical environment in which they and others live. They will want that ethical environment to be supportive of, not inimical to, the development and maintenance of good character. 
(Wall, 2013)

True enough, I guess. But why think that the criminal law is the tool to use when building such an ethical environment? Aren’t there other, arguably more preferable, tools out there? Part of the problem here may be the essentially modesty of Wall’s argumentative goal. As noted in part one, he merely wishes to defend the view that the criminal law can get involved in this kind of ethical environmental engineering; he doesn’t want to say that it should always and everywhere get involved in this process. There could be reasons that count against its use. But in that case I worry that the modesty of his argument renders it uninteresting. Particularly if it turns out that there are always reasons that count against using the criminal law to promote good moral character.

Despite this criticism, I must admit that Wall does go some way toward making his argument more interesting. He does this by responding to Ronald Dworkin’s criticism of this expansive brand of legal moralism. We’ll look at that response in the final part.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Enforcing Morality through Criminal Law (Part One)

What kinds of conduct ought to be criminalised? According to a position known as legal moralism, the criminal law ought only to prohibit immoral/wrongful conduct. That is to say: a necessary condition for the criminalisation of any conduct is that the conduct be immoral.

Legal moralism does not state a sufficient condition for criminalisation. It just limits the possible scope of criminal law to the set of immoral conduct. Follow up questions must be asked of the moralist. Which members of that set are most apt for criminalisation? What kinds of factors speak against the criminalisation of immoral conduct? Only when those questions are will we be able to tell whether a particular type of conduct ought to be criminalised.

A common view among liberal legal theorists is that criminalisation should be restricted to that subset of immoral conduct that causes harm to others. This view was famously set out in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Something akin to it was also defended, at much greater length, by Joel Feinberg in his four-volume work The Moral Limits of Criminal Law (though Feinberg added that some offensive acts could be criminalised too).

Recently, some people have tried to defend more expansive versions of legal moralism. In this series of posts, I want to take a look at one of those defenders: Steven Wall. In his article “Enforcing Morality”, published last year in the journal Criminal Law and Philosophy, Wall defends something he calls the “Presumption”:

The Presumption: There is a presumption in favour of the view that criminal law should prohibit conduct that is immoral, even if that conduct is neither harmful nor disrespectful to others.

Wall breaks his defence of the presumption down into three parts. The first part is dedicated to clarifying the presumption. The second part presents an argument in favour of the presumption. And the third part defends that argument from some criticisms posed by Ronald Dworkin. I’m going to replicate his tripartite structure in this series of posts. Thus, the remainder of this post is dedicated to clarifying the thesis. The argument and the response to criticisms will be taken up in subsequent posts.

1. What is the scope of morality?
If the legal moralist believes that only immoral conduct can be criminalised, then it behooves him/her to first trace out the general domain of morality. In tracing out the domain of morality, the goal is to identify the objects of moral concern, i.e. the things we should care about protecting. Once we do this, we can link wrongful conduct to the violation or destruction of those objects of moral concern, and thence determine what kinds of conduct might be worthy of criminalisation.

Thankfully, Wall is willing to play this game. He suggests that morality consists of four separate “domains” of concern. They are:

Autonomy: This refers to the individual right to self-determination. This is understood as the freedom to make choices from a wide range of valuable options. This right ought to be protected from coercive and manipulative types of interference.
Well-being: This refers to things that are in person’s interests (or, put another way, what is good for a person). Ceteris paribus, we should look to increase well-being and prevent its diminishment.
Character: This refers to a person’s traits and dispositions. The morally ideal person would have traits and dispositions that direct them toward moral actions. Again, ceteris paribus, we should look to cultivate such traits and dispositions.
Excellence: This refers to objects of impersonal intrinsic value. Wall gives the examples of the paintings in the Louvre or the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon. The claim is that if these objects have a value that is not fully accounted for by their effects on autonomy, well-being or character, then they belong in a distinct domain of moral concern, and we ought to protect them from destruction or denigration.

These four domains of moral concern are illustrated in the four-quadrant diagram below.

Now that we have a better sense of the domains of moral concern, we can be much more precise in our characterisation of legal moralism. We need no longer rest content with the general principle that only immoral conduct can be criminalised; we can say exactly which domains of moral concern ought to be covered by that principle.

2. Which domains of moral concern ought to be covered by the criminal law?
Of course, working out exactly what is meant when someone calls themselves a legal moralist is still going to be a complicated thing. If we accept Wall’s four domains of moral concern as our starting point, we are still left with the fact that are as many different forms of legal moralism as there are combinations of those four domains. In other words, there is a version of legal moralism which holds that criminal law should only concern itself with protecting autonomy; another version which holds that criminal should concern itself with both autonomy and well-being; and another claiming that it should cover well-being and character, but not autonomy. And so and so on. This doesn’t even begin to include versions of moralism that are possible when you break the four domains of moral concern down into more even more precise sub-domains.

Fortunately, many of these possible varieties of legal moralism can be ruled out pretty quickly. For example, it is highly unlikely that anyone would endorse a version of moralism that said that the criminal law should concern itself with protecting objects of excellence but nothing else. There are certain things that everyone seems to agree should be within the scope of the criminal law.

Still, there are plenty of variants worth considering. Wall mentions six. These variants tend to build upon one another. Thus, when we move through them we will tend to assume that we have already accepted the preceding variant. Wall refers to these variants as “Enforcement Theses”, on the basis that they each make claims about the moral norms the criminal law ought to enforce.

The first enforcement thesis is:

E1: It is a proper function of the criminal law to enforce respect for the autonomy of persons.

This is a pretty common starting point for all liberal theories of criminalisation. It is a quasi-Kantian in nature since it encourages us to use the law to respect persons. It is not a version of the “harm” principle. The concept of “harm” can include more than simply the violation of autonomy.

The second enforcement thesis is:

E2: It is a proper function of the criminal law to protect persons from rights-violations that lower their well-being.

The lowering of well-being is a classic form of harm, hence this enforcement thesis is closer to the harm principle of the liberals. But two points must be noted. First, the concept of “harm” is pretty fuzzy. If we were sufficiently loose with our definition, it could include wrongful actions from all the other domains of morality. That would arguably make the harm principle pretty trivial. The second point is that E2 is limited to “rights-violations” that lower well-being. This is so as to exclude self-harm from the scope of the criminal law.

But is it right to exclude self-harm? The boilerplate liberal position is that it is right to do so on the grounds that interference in acts of self-harm would be paternalistic and insufficiently protective of individual autonomy. There are, however, more nuanced forms of liberalism that distinguish between hard and soft versions of paternalism. The distinction can be captured by the third and fourth enforcement theses:

E3: It is a proper function of the criminal law to restrain persons from harming themselves when they act with a defective will (soft paternalism) 
E4: It is a proper function of the criminal law to restrain persons from harming themselves when they act with a non-defective will (hard paternalism)

The soft paternalist view is that some people are mentally ill or disturbed or otherwise lacking in mental capacity. If these people harm themselves, it is right for the law to step in and regulate their behaviour (though one has to ask whether criminalisation could ever be the best solution to this problem). Contrariwise, the soft paternalist thinks that if a fully competent adult harms themselves, it is not a proper function of the law to intevene.

Hard paternalists hold that the law can step-in in both instances. Interestingly enough, Wall cites the famous legal theorist HLA Hart as a potential proponent of paternalism (maybe even in its hard variety). This is odd given Hart’s liberal sensibilities. But it’s hard to say for sure since Hart’s writings didn’t distinguish between the two varieties. Wall feels more confident in saying that there are many contemporary liberal theorists who endorse E3 but reject E4.

Given the vagueness of the term “harm”, Wall argues that paternalism could be expanded so as to include the concept of “moral harm”, that is: harm to one’s own (or indeed another’s) moral character. This would bring the domain of character within the scope of the criminal law. As follows:

E5: It is a proper function of the criminal law to promote good character, and to restrain or discourage people from engaging in activities that cause moral harm to themselves or others.

The idea here is that having a good moral character is part of what it means to live a good life, and if the law can intervene to protect individual well-being from self-harm then why can’t it also intervene to protect moral character from self-harm?

This then brings us to the sixth possibility:

E6: It is a proper function of the criminal law to preserve objects of excellence and to ensure that they are respected.

Walls suggests that laws against the destruction of artwork or sites of natural beauty could be possible instantiations of this thesis. But he doesn’t dwell on the matter.

With these six enforcement theses in place, we gain a much clearer understanding of what it means to be a legal moralist. If you like, you can look at legal moralism as a spectrum of views, with these six enforcement theses representing different points along this spectrum. The most minimalistic forms of legal moralism will only accept E1 and E2; the most expansive forms will accept all six theses. The classic, liberal view, typically covers E1 to E3; the more recent moralistic view tries to push us into the E4 to E6 half of the spectrum.

Wall’s argument fits within this spectrum of views. It urges us to accept E5 at a minimum. In other words, to accept that there is a presumption in favour of the view that the criminal law can properly concern itself with improving moral character. We’ll look at his argument in favour of that presumption in part two.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book Recommendation ♯15: The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

(Series Index)

I don’t think I’ve recommended a work of fiction before in this series, which is odd given that I read a lot of fiction and I think a lot it is relevant to the themes discussed on this blog. So I am going to break the mould and actually recommend one this week: The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. There is no particular reason for recommending this book — I certainly don’t think it is life changing or anything like that — but it happened to be the novel I read most recently, and I thought it was clever and enjoyable.

Goldstein, as some of you will know, is a philosopher-turned-novelist-turned-non-fiction author. Her most recent book is Plato at the Googleplex, which I also happen to be reading at the moment. I thought I might hate that book given the gimmicky premise (imagine if Plato somehow got transported through time into the 21st century), but it’s actually quite good, mixing history with Platonic-style dialogues. I’ve also read one of Goldstein’s previous novels 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which I liked in places but found disappointing overall.

Anyway, I think The Mind-Body Problem is a much better novel. It was, in fact, Goldstein’s first and was published way back in 1982 (I know that’s old because it’s before I was even born). It tells the story of Renee Feuer, a young woman from an Orthodox Jewish background, who goes to Princeton to study philosophy, falls in love with a famous mathematical genius called Noam Himmel, gets married, and then proceeds to have a couple of extra-marital affairs. That plot description doesn’t do it justice though. The real strength of the novel lies in the “voice” of the main character and the way in which she weaves various philosophical reflections into her description of the events. The central philosophical reflection, of course, being on the mind-body problem, which in the context of the novel has to do with the life of the mind (represented primarily by Renee’s husband, the genius mathematician) and the life of the body (represented primarily by Renee herself and her various sexual dalliances).

The novel is certainly not for everyone. If you like the so-called “literary”-style, and satirical observations on the occasional absurdity academic life, then you’ll probably enjoy it. And I do think Goldstein has a real gift for working some interesting philosophical ideas into her narrative (based on the two books I have read). This might be of interest to people who like “novels of ideas”.

One thing I couldn’t get past when reading it, however, was its quasi-autobiographical nature. Goldstein actually jokes about this at one point: there’s a throwaway line about how female novelists tend to write autobiographical first novels. But it is kind of interesting how many aspects of Goldstein’s real life are shared by her fictional counterpart (Renee): both come from strict Orthodox Jewish backgrounds; both studied philosophy at Princeton; both married older, more established, academics when they were quite young. It does make you wonder how much else is true.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Announcing: The Philosophical Disquisitions Journal Club

From the excellent

I have been blogging for well over four years now. Although I doubt I will ever stop (there are a variety of personal and professional benefits I derive from the exercise, irrespective of the readership), I worry sometimes my approach has become too formulaic, and that the blog lacks a certain level of interactivity that one finds elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Consequently, I'm going to try a few experiments over the next few months in order to shake things up a little bit. These may all turn out to be spectacular failures. If so, I'm perfectly willing to abandon them after a period of time. But I think it's worth giving it a shot. And rest assured none of this means that I will stop doing what I ordinarily do on the blog.

Anyway, this month I'm starting off the first of those experiments: the Philosophical Disquisitions Journal Club.

How is this going to work?
Essentially, it will work like any normal academic journal club wherein academic papers are read and critically analysed and discussed by a group of interested people. So every month a paper will be nominated (by me or someone else), those who are interested can read the paper, and then join in a discussion about it here on the blog. You can even join in if you haven't read the paper. Maybe the discussion will encourage you to do so later.

I, of course, will commit to reading all the nominated papers, and I will try to kick start the discussion by writing up a brief introduction to the paper, along with my own comments and reflections. These will be shorter than my usual posts (probably under 1,000 words). The idea is not to give a comprehensive overview, but to offer up thoughts for discussion. That way we can try to develop a genuine conversation.

These posts will be written on the last day of every month. 

What is this month's paper?
I'm going to abuse my power as the author of this blog to nominate the first paper for discussion. In future, I'll take nominations from readers. If you have a suggestion, there are a variety of ways to get in contact with me. You can simply post suggestions in the comments section, or you can contact me via any of my social media profiles (Facebook; Twitter; Google+). To avoid spam, I don't post my email address on here, but it's pretty easy to find if your interested.

Anyway, this month's paper is....

(From the abstract): "The paper argues that evils perpetrated in the name of God (‘religious evils’) generate a special version of the problem of evil...that cannot be solved by any of the current defences and theodicies."

I think this looks like a very interesting paper (I haven't read it yet), one that fits within the recent group of papers that attempt to disambiguate the problem of evil into more precise forms. I covered several examples of the genre last year on this blog.

Unfortunately, the paper is behind a paywall, which makes it less than ideal for discussion on here (I would generally prefer to nominate papers that are in the public domain). Fortunately, if you contact me by one of the methods listed above, I may be able to help you in procuring a copy...just saying.

So that's it for now. Check back on May 31st for a discussion of the paper.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Is Transhumanism Compatible with Anarchism?

Transhumanists want to liberate themselves from the limitations of the human body. Anarchists want to liberate themselves from the limitations of contemporary human social structures. You might think that these two goals are compatible: that the liberatory ethos of transhumanism could complement that of anarchism. But according to an article by Kolovuo and Karageorgakis (hereinafter “KK”) this is not the case. Starting with the example of eco-anarchism and moving on to more traditional forms of social anarchism, these authors argue that there is an incompatibility between transhumanist and anarchist ideals. In this post, I want to look to take a look at their arguments.

I do so by following, in broad outlines, the structure of their own discussion. Thus, I begin by looking at the concept of human nature and the role it plays in both philosophies, then I look at the argument for the incompatibility of eco-anarchism and transhumanism, and I conclude by considering the argument for the incompatibility of social anarchism and transhumanism. (I’ll exclude any discussion of eco-anarchism and bioconservatism, which although it appears in their paper, doesn’t really interest me.)

Before getting to all that, however, I want to make a comment about KK’s general style of argumentation. Much of their article involves quoting from transhumanist sources, noting the apparent compatibility of the statements in those sources with anarchist principles, but then going on to suggest that other statements, or the implications of thereof, are really inconsistent with anarchist principles. This creates the following pattern of argumentation:

Transhumanist writers are committed to proposition X. 
Prima facie, proposition X is compatible with anarchism. 
But either proposition X has implication Y or transhumanists also say Y, and Y is incompatible with anarchism. 
Therefore, transhumanism is incompatible with anarchism.

I worry about this style of argument. I think “transhumanism” is a pretty broad school of thought, one whose core commitments are not fully worked out nor, indeed, appreciated by individual authors (and arguably the same is true of anarchism, though it has been around for longer). Consequently, I would be cautious about arguments that purport to demonstrate the incompatibility of such a broad school of thought with another broad school of thought. An argument that is limited to the views of particular authors is more likely to be successful (and KK’s arguments could be reinterpreted in this manner) but even then the opacity of certain key concepts — e.g. “freedom” and “nature” — make it difficult to assess. We will encounter some of these difficulties below.

1. Three Conceptions of Human Nature
Anarchism is fundamentally an ideology of human emancipation, specifically emancipation from statist control. If there is one thing that anarchists can agree on, it is that the dominating control that the state exercises over our lives is a bad thing, and that it needs to be eliminated. Freeing us from state control will allow us to prosper as human beings, to realise a happier and more harmonious form of life. Anarchists tend to diverge somewhat on the precise form of that life, with libertarian-anarchists emphasising individuality and freedom of exchange, and anarcho-syndicalists emphasising community and co-operative exchange.

The debate between anarchists and their critics is often cashed-out in terms of competing views of human nature. Defenders of the state usually cling to a Hobbesian conception of human nature. Anarchists cling to a more Rousseauian conception. These can be defined as follows:

Hobbesian Human Nature: Human beings are fundamentally (or, at least when left without state control) individualistic, competitive and violent. Without state control, human society would collapse into a war of all against all.
Rousseauian Human Nature: Human beings are fundamentally communitarian, cooperative and benevolent (“nothing can be more gentle than man in his natural state”). It is state control that distorts this fundamentally good nature.

These conceptions are almost certainly an over-simplification of Hobbes and Rousseau’s actual views, but they serve as useful extremes within which we can frame the debate. Thus, even if anarchists don’t fully embrace the Rousseauian extreme, they tend to be closer to that end of the spectrum than their critics. And those critics, in turn, may not fully embrace the Hobbesian extreme, but they tend to be wary about human nature in the absence of state control.

KK acknowledge quite a lot of complexity in this debate. Anarchists are often critiqued for having a naive and wildly inconsistent approach to human “nature”. On the one hand, they tend to assume that present social structures have immense power to reshape and distort the fundamentally good human nature; on the other hand, they tend to downplay any evidence suggesting that we are biologically inclined towards certain forms of violence or non-cooperative behaviour. The problem here may be that the concept of “nature” itself is highly opaque. Is the natural that which is fixed? Or that which is bequeathed to us by evolution? Or is it just that which will express itself in the absence of state control? It’s not entirely clear. As a result it’s not surprising to find some anarchists — KK cite the example of Eckersley — talking about both our potential and essential natures. I’m not sure any of this is helpful. I think what tends to matter is whether human behaviour can be readily altered in morally preferable ways and what methods are best for achieving this.

Anyway, KK think that transhumanists have their own conception of human nature. This conception leans somewhat in the Hobbesian direction (in the sense that it is negative rather than positive) but focuses predominantly on the limitations and restrictions posed by our current biological form. Thus, transhumanists lament the limited cognitive powers, physical capacities and lifespans that are currently made possible by human biology. They urge us to use our intelligence and our technologies to transcend those limitations:

Transhumanist Human Nature: Our natures are primarily constituted by the limitations of our biological form. These limitations are negative. We must use our intelligence and technology to transcend those limitations.

Still, there is some nuance here too because occasionally you may find transhumanists saying that it is “in our nature” to transcend ourselves, i.e. to use our natural rational capacities to transcend our limitations. Again, the vocabulary of “nature” isn’t particularly illuminating.

2. Transhumanism and Eco-Anarchism
Illuminating or not, the “nature”-related discourse dominates KK’s discussion of transhumanism and eco-anarchism. This is for the obvious reason that eco-anarchism is characterised by the belief that contemporary society not only exerts dominating control over human beings, but over the entire natural world as well. It is the goal of eco-anarchists to end this dominating control. Thus, just as we must stop exploiting our fellow human beings for gain, so too we must stop exploiting nature in order to grease the wheels of the capitalism. Instead, we must develop a more harmonious and cooperative relationship with one another and with nature.

KK think that transhumanism is incompatible with the eco-anarchist goal. KK are frustratingly opaque in their development of this argument. The following is simply my attempt to read between the lines:

  • (1) Eco-anarchism is committed to the goal of ending human domination of nature (i.e. of freeing nature from human domination).
  • (2) Transhumanism is committed to the goal of dominating, expropriating and redesigning nature.
  • (3) Therefore, the ideologies are incompatible.

The first premise of this argument is what I derive from KK’s brief discussion of eco-anarchism. I think it is a fair, albeit stipulative definition of their position. The second premise is where the action is. One problem with it — that KK readily acknowledge — is that many transhumanists have explicitly said and endorsed seemingly contrary views. Thus, for example, they cite Nick Bostrom and James Hughes as disavowing speciesist approaches to moral status. They might also have cited David Pearce (co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, now Humanity+), who is a vegan and who has long argued that we have an obligation to end the suffering of non-human animals. Advocacy of renewable and sustainable energy sources is also found among transhumanists. And indeed, pro-environment principles are incorporated into the Transhumanist Declaration. So what’s the problem?

According to KK, the problem is that despite these explicit endorsements, transhumanists really — when you look at it in more depth — do not value the natural world in and of itself. Thus, despite their claim to value all forms of sentient life, KK submit that transhumanists really only care about intelligent life. They have a couple of examples of this, one being that Bostrom’s concept of existential risk only seems to cover risks to intelligent life. Furthermore, they cite James Hughes as arguing that the ultimate goal of transhumanism is to supplant the natural with the designed, i.e. to use human intelligence to reshape nature in a better way. This suggests a dominating attitude toward nature and leads KK to label transhumanists as “mis-naturalists” (like mis-anthropes, only that their distaste spreads to all natural things).

I think there are two problems with this argument. The first has to do with the general method of argumentation, which I worried about in the introduction to this post. To defend their position, KK must argue that the transhumanists who claim to be committed to pro-nature and pro-environment principles are not really committed to those principles (i.e. that they are either liars or self-deceived), because they are actually committed to another set of contradictory principles. I don’t think that’s a persuasive way to argue, at least when it comes to understanding movements like transhumanism. I think it’s possible for ideologies to contain within them contradictory principles and for the advocates of an ideology to not be fully committed to either (or, to be committed to one set on one occasion and another set on another occasion). Consequently, I don’t think the implicit contradiction has any necessary implications for how transhumanists might act in the real world. Furthermore, I don’t see why we should deny the sincerity of those who do claim to be committed to the pro-environment principles.

The second problem with the argument is that it proceeds on a faulty assumption. Or so I believe. KK seem to presume that nature is intrinsically valuable and is something we should seek to preserve and protect. But I think that is just wrong. Many “natural” things are bad, and not just because they are bad for human beings. Predation is bad for the animals that get eaten; floods are bad for many forms of vegetation; and certain bacteria and viruses can be bad for pretty much everything (apart from the bacteria and viruses themselves). There are many good things about nature too of course, and what I say shouldn’t be taken to mean that plants and animals cannot be afforded some degree of moral status. It simply means that extreme conservationism is morally untenable. We should preserve and protect that which deserves to be preserved and protected; we should try to eliminate or modify that which does not. There’s nothing in the transhumanist view that is inconsistent with that approach to the natural world.

3. Transhumanism and Social Anarchism
So much for the compatibility of transhumanism and eco-anarchism. What about the compatibility of transhumanism with the more traditional forms of social anarchism, i.e. with those that focus on freeing humans from the dominating control of other humans (particularly the state)? Is that also incompatible with transhumanism? Again, KK argue that it is.

Their argument this time round is slightly more subtle than their eco-anarchist argument. I’ll do my best to elucidate its basic logical structure. In general terms, their concern is with the role of technology in the transhumanist project and with who owns and controls that technology. They worry that, far from being a liberatory force, technology can actually reinforce ideologies that restrict and limit human freedom. That gives them the following argument:

  • (4) Anarchists are committed to granting human beings freedom from dominating control.
  • (5) The transhumanist project is likely to reinforce, or create new, forms of dominating control.
  • (6) Therefore, anarchism is unlikely to be compatible with transhumanism.

KK adduce three main lines of support for premise (5). The first is the classic worry that the benefits of enhancing technologies will not be evenly distributed among the population. This may lead to a new transhumanist elite which exerts dominating control over the lower classes of human being. Of course, transhumanists have argued that this may not follow on the grounds that the transhumanist elite might be morally enlightened and less inclined to exert dominating control (just as contemporary human societies are, arguably, more enlightened in this respect than our ancient ancestors). This is speculative to be sure — who really knows what will happen? — but KK dismiss it on somewhat unconvincing grounds, stating that claims like this merely serve to highlight the value-laden nature of the technologies.

The second reason for believing in premise (5) has to do with the control over the innovation necessary for the transhumanist project to succeed. KK argue that this innovation will be controlled by scientific and technological elites (coupled to a technopolitical lobby). These groups will tend to reinforce the existing capitalistic status quo. Finally, the third reason, which is slightly weaker, stems from Bostrom’s concept of the “singleton”, which is a single, independent decision-making entity that he feels may be necessary if we are to guide human evolution in the desired direction. KK reply to this in a pithy fashion: “It sounds like the nightmare of every anarchist” (p. 325).

I have mixed feelings about this argument. I think its best if it is not interpreted as an attempted argument for the incompatibility of transhumanism and anarchism, but rather as a warning call. If we are to follow the transhumanist project, we certainly should be wary about the possibility of reinforcing or perpetuating forms of dominating control, and about the corporate interests and ideologies that might be served by that project.

Nevertheless, I would reject the idea — implicit in KK’s analysis — that enhancement technologies cannot be genuinely emancipatory. Last year, I wrote a paper about enhancement and hyperagency, suggesting that one of the goals of enhancement was to allow human beings to become hyperagents (i.e. agents with complete control of all aspects of their agency). Although there are some legitimate concerns about that possibility — several of which I address in that paper — I fail to see why it would not be genuinely emancipatory. Not unless the concepts of “freedom” and “emancipation” are being understood in some mystical sense that I don’t fully appreciate.

In summary then, although KK’s analysis of transhumanism and anarchism is certainly provocative, and occasionally insightful, I don’t think it is, in the final analysis, persuasive.