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Robot Love December 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

Robotics enthusiast David Levy predicts that in the not too distant future we will routinely make love with robots.

“Love with robots will be as normal as love with other humans,” Levy writes, “while the number of sexual acts and lovemaking positions commonly practiced between humans will be extended, as robots teach us more than is in all of the world’s published sex manuals combined.”

Levy goes on to imagine a world of robot prostitutes, or “sexbots,” which would offer people a chance to practice their technique before entering a human relationship. “With a robot prostitute,” he writes, “the control of disease is implicit — simply remove the active parts and put them in the disinfecting machine.”

No doubt this possibility stimulates the imaginations of inflatable doll enthusiasts but I think most of us will carry on in the old fashioned way.

For one thing, if robots are to be attractive as sexual partners, then they would have to have most of the features of personhood. But if they will be so similar to persons, why would sex with them not be subject to taboos against prostitution, sexual exploitation, adultery, etc.?


The Ethics of Blogging December 21, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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On this blog we frequently talk about ethics—so when I came across a blog discussion about the ethics of blogging, I thought I’d share it here. Is it ethical to have different personas on various blogs expressing different views? Is it ethical to try to boost the hits on a blog by being provocative? Recently we had a “troll” posting an irrelevant comment, but as trolling goes, this was a minor blip. I have visited blogs without password rules where comments are being posted that are extremely provocative and in some cases slanderous, despite the warnings posted on the blogs that such posts will be removed. In addition, I have seen people’s aliases being hijacked by anonymous posters with an agenda. Fun and games? Infantile behavior? Mean-spirited individuals, or just irritants without a life ruining other people’s innocent late-night cyber friendships? Probably all of the above, but a more nefarious agenda seems to be to artificially boost the blog hits—for the simple purpose of getting recognized as an active blog, or for financial gain (advertising $), as described in Wil Wheaton’s blog (yes, Ensign Crusher is blogging! For you Star Trek trekkers).

It’s a Klondike in the Blogosphere right now—there are rules of ethics, but in many cases the game is all about how to circumvent the rules. As much as I probably wouldn’t vote for Kant as president (see Dwight, below), he did have a good point about the Good Will that shines by its own light, like a jewel: Your intention will make or break the moral value of your action. Do you want to be controversial because you have concerns and ideas that, thanks to the Internet, you can now share with the world? Do you post under several aliases so you, like Kierkegaard, can make philosophical points from several different angles and not just because you’re insecure or have a personality disorder? Go for it—if your ideas fly, good for you. If they don’t, then at least you got to share them, and if other people should find them offensive, then at least you’ve got a dialogue going, and maybe everybody can learn something. But if it is to (1) slander individuals or groups or (2) to aggrandize yourself/your blog, using other posters or bloggers as a “means to an end,” then you (everything else being equal) are being unethical. Same rules as in real life. Fortunately our little corner here has been fairly well-behaved up until now, but the cyberworld is big and wild. If you’re blogging or commenting on one of the sites haunted by trolls, “don’t’ feed them.” Happy Holidays…

Going Down the Memory Hole December 21, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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“Sectarian segregation isn’t ideal, but it beats genocide”, writes LA Times Columnist Rosa Brooks.

 Well, true that. But it hardly justifies all the happy talk from Republican candidates and the administration about the success of the surge.

As Brooks describes,

” In Baghdad, 12-foot-high walls now separate Sunni and Shiite communities. Broken by narrow checkpoints, the walls turn Baghdad into dozens of replica Green Zones, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications…Sunnis have been driven out of Shiite neighborhoods, Shiites out of Sunni neighborhoods, the Kurds have retaken their own historic territories and smaller minorities have been shoved to the side.”

“Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison,” says one Iraqi.

Of course, all this ethnic cleansing is policed by various warlords and militias armed by American money and prepared to unleash unspeakable violence when the troops leave.

Now, after countless lives ruined and billions of dollars wasted, we are told by Washington pundits and their pollsters that the war is no longer a campaign issue.

I’ve read that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease will grow astronomically in the near future. Apparently, it already afflicts registered voters.

Immigration and the Culture Wars December 11, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.

Reuben Navarette argues that opposition to immigration is not really about jobs or border security. It is about culture.

“It’s the perception that the country is becoming more Hispanic, that Spanish is replacing English, that Hispanic immigrants are weakening American identity, and that Main Street is turning into Little Mexico. A leader of the vigilante Minuteman movement moronically called it the “colonization” of the United States.This sort of rhetoric is all about fear — that those who thrive in the dominant culture are losing their primacy, that the mainstream is being polluted by foreigners, and that our children are going to live in a world where they’re going to have to work a lot harder to keep up.”

Unfortunately, I think Navarette is spot on. The culture wars have always been about the perceived loss of a particular vision of American culture and the immigration controversy promises to fit comfortably into that interminable controversy over values that seems to have no end in sight.

There is an important philosophical issue that underlies this controversy. Philosopher Thom Brooks, in commenting on a recent paper by Samuel Scheffler, observes that:

“In essence, Scheffler’s argument is that what is of value about culture is not culture itself, but certain values that may (or may not) be present in a given culture. The suggestion is that rather than honour claims from culture, we should honour claims from values: “culture” should then drop from view.”

If Scheffler is right then, given that immigrants exhibit the values Americans are alleged to admire–hard work, family, religion, yearning for freedom etc.–it is hard to see why the influence of immigrant culture would induce a sense of loss on the part of the host communities. The values are not undermined; they persist in new cultural forms.

But I suspect Scheffler is not entirely right about this. Part of our attachment to culture is not attachment to a certain set of values. Rather, it is attachment to very particular persons, artifacts, practices, and narratives of one’s culture. It is  particular expressions of cultural patterns that matters most–the new, imported forms of expression don’t count. Hence, the sense of loss.

For we cosmopolitans, it is easy to find aesthetic value in new forms of cultural expression. But some folks do not find cosmopolitanism attractive. This fact does not augur well for putting the culture wars to rest.

Dangerous Stories December 8, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Isn’t this exciting! We have a new movie getting folks all upset, again. I’m referring to The Golden Compass, based on a series of books (His Dark Materials) by Philip Pullman. The last time I saw this kind of concern over the religious impact of a movie was when The Chronicles of Narnia came out, but that was a different crowd voicing their concerns. The Golden Compass (which I must admit I have neither read, nor seen yet) supposedly advocates atheism, although the author, a British “self-proclaimed atheist,” says he was just telling a story. In particular, Catholic groups worry that parents might take their kids to see a cute movie with talking animals, and be inadvertently exposed to an anti-religious message, thus being indoctrinated with atheism. Now flip to the The Chronicles of Narnia discussion a few years ago (fabulous Wikipedia article), where some media commentators voiced concerns that children would be exposed to a story of sacrifice reminiscent of Christ when watching a cute movie with talking animals, thus being indoctrinated with Christianity. There were also Christian groups worrying that Narnia would convert children to paganism. All this worry about stories, in a time of a Culture War—what luxury, that we can take time out for these kinds of concerns when terrorists are at our gates, and our climate seems to be going haywire, for whatever reason.

           So let’s enjoy the luxury and put this in perspective: We are, with the phrase coined by Alasdair MacIntyre, “storytelling animals.” Stories have been the favorite way to express world views, as far back as we can trace myths and legends, and sometimes these world views collide. Good stories generally have several levels, the plot level, and the level of deeper meaning(s). Is it possible to enjoy a well-told plot while disagreeing with the message? Of course it is—it is one of those nicely challenging cultural moments where one’s brain actually gets a workout. Can it be dangerous for gullible minds to be exposed to stories that may sway them in a new direction? Yes indeed, that’s what we call propaganda. Sometimes the danger is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes we have to resort to the theory that there actually is an underlying set of good values that we should all subscribe to, and that some stories are harmful in themselves if they espouse a lack of respect for other human beings (that ought to be another blog thread).

But the bottom line is that stories are great vehicles for discussing cultural values. There are stories kids shouldn’t be exposed to, because they don’t understand them yet, or because the stories are downright obnoxious—but stories with multiple levels, told well, can be wonderful opportunities for adults to have real conversations with kids about the deeper things—and in addition, the adult may get something out of it, either as a confirmation of one’s own set of values, or a challenge to them. But maybe that’s one reason why “concerned” groups harp on movies—it’s a hassle to have to explain them to their kids…


The Culture Wars Invade Philosophy December 8, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.

Nietzsche attacks Kant! Wins endorsement from Oprah.

 Update: Kant’s campaign advisors respond.

Respect is a Two Way Street December 6, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

Republican presidential candidate Mit Romney gave a speech Thursday allegedly intended to clarify his commitment to Mormonism. Instead, he insults and offends most of the people I know. Romney says:

“In John Adams’ words: ‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.’  Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”

The idea that one cannot be dedicated to freedom and morality without a religious commitment is not only pernicious nonsense; coming from a presidential candidate it is a prescription for tyranny.

Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have recently published books stridently and provocatively challenging the dogmas of religion. Many reviewers of these books have criticized Harris and Dawkins for being excessively shrill and disrepectful towards religion. Somehow religion can be criticized only in honeyed tones that assuage rather than confront.  Yet non-believers can be subject to calumny and wholesale indictments of their personhood by people who aspire to represent them.

Mutual respect is a good thing and we need more of it. But respect is a two way street and it must be earned. Someday, when religious folks and their leaders manage to conjure respect for the moral credentials of non-believers, we may have a respectful discussion of religion and its role in public life.

Until then we need to keep windbags like Romney out of office and we need more books like those of Harris and Dawkins.

Hearts and Minds of Chimps December 6, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

The Kyoto University cognitive scientist Tetsuro Matsuzawa has just  published a study where he demonstrates that a group of chimpanzees have better memory functions than a test group of college students. That ought to interest our students, here close to the finals…

“Matsuzawa showed a computer screen grid of nine numbers to six chimpanzees, all trained to recognize the ascending nature of arabic numberals, and nine college students. When subjects touched one number, the others disappeared. Then they had to touch the squares in the order of the numbers that used to be there. When the original numbers remained on-screen for seven-tenths of a second, the college kids fared as well as Ayumu, the most prodigious of the chimps. Both had a success rate of 80 percent. But when the numbers flashed for just four-tenths of a second or less, Ayumu’s success rate stayed the same, while the others plummeted to 40 percent. Even with six months of training, three students still couldn’t beat Ayumu.”

So what does this mean? The Wired headline asks, “Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee?” but that is not the key question. Memory and intelligence are not the same—birds and squirrels have a fantastic capacity for remembering where they hid the nuts the year before.  It is what we do with our memory that makes the difference. It is entirely conceivable that other animals may have skills that supercede our own; eidetic memory may have been more necessary in the wild for the chimp ancestors than the human ancestors. What is truly interesting about this study is that we barely bat an eye anymore at the suggestion that chimps are smart—and the sea change has happened really fast: In 2000 a Chicago conference on animal behavior chaired by Jane Goodall concluded that there would no longer be any legitimate reason to claim that animals had no emotional life, nor any form of intelligence. In contrast to what was considered an appropriately skeptical academic attitude in most of the 20th century, a new generation of researchers is now weighing in, from the notion that animals may have a natural morality (see Dwight’s blog below) to the concept of animal rationality. Some of us are saying, “It‘s about time,” after a century of critics across the board have disregarded the clear evidence of animal minds based on two cases of animals who weren’t as smart as first assumed, the horse Clever Hans and the ape Nim Chimpsky. As Frans de Waal, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Fouts have pointed out in recent books, the ape capacity for morality as well as abstract thinking expressed in verbal and nonverbal language is real, and not a matter of researchers superimposing their own interpretations on animal reactions in a training program, as the Nim Chimpsky critics used to claim. As late as the 1980s I myself heard the influential linguist Thomas Sebeok lecture that animals have no rational mind activity or language comprehension whatsoever, and now, 20 years later, we are more than willing to accept the thought that not only apes, but dolphins, elephants and perhaps even dogs have some form of self-awareness, through the mirror self-recognition test.

             Add to this paradigm shift the case of Matthew Hiasi Pan, highlighting the fact that these debates about ethics and capacity for reason aren’t just academic ivory tower discussions: As of late September 2007 Pan was in danger of being sold unless the Vienna Supreme Court grant him personhood, because Pan is a chimpanzee, and the animal shelter where he has lived for 25 years is in bankruptcy. Echoing Kant’s infamous dichotomy, the Austrian legislators only recognize the status of a person, and the status of a thing, and as of now, Matthew Hiasi Pan is a thing. In England, New Zealand and Australia apes are considered hominids with limited rights. It seems that Austria is about to have a debate about personhood on their hands. Stay tuned.


The Goodness of Being Animal December 1, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Science.

Time Magazine’s cover story for their December 3 issue is a fascinating summary of recent work in understanding the biological and evolutionary basis of morality.

“The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality that other species share.”

This research, which includes animal studies, investigations into the neurobiology associated with moral behavior, and child development studies, suggests that human beings have a genetically encoded moral compass that has emerged through eons of evolution.

This research is in its infancy and there are limits to how much science can tell us about moral conduct. However, if the research stands up to scrutiny, there are a variety of widely held myths that must be set aside.

Myth #1 would be the pernicious belief in original sin–the doctrine that human beings are inherently corrupt and can lead morally good lives only through God’s grace. Apparently, the capacity for morality is as deeply embedded in human nature as the capacity for savagery.

Myth #2 is the belief that, because evolution prescribes  “survival of the fittest”, evolution has designed us to be self absorbed moral cretins eager to slay anything that piddles on our property. Instead, apparently, “fitness” is in part bound up with the capacity to recognize and respond to the vulnerability of other human beings.

Myth #3 is the idea that becoming moral is a matter of overcoming our animal nature, an idea for which we have Christianity and Kant to thank. Apparently, to be moral we ought to embrace our animal nature–an idea for which we have Nietzche to thank.

Myth #4 is related to #3–the idea that becoming moral is a matter of becoming more rational and less emotional. Apparently, it is rational to embrace at least some of our emotional responses.

This biological and psychological research reduces the plausibility of Kantian and (some?) utilitarian moral frameworks. It enhances the plausibility of Aristotelian ethics and the ethics of care because both revel in the goodness of being animal.