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The Moral of the Story 7/e is Out! April 15, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Education, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy Profession.
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I’m happy to announce that the seventh edition of my ethics textbook The Moral of the Story is now available:

The cover painting is by Karen Barbour, Bay Area artist, and every edition of the book has had a painting by her on the cover. She has a wonderfully visionary style, and I love being able to maintain the visual consistency in this new edition. This image in particular perfectly illustrates the maze of thoughts we often find ourselves in, in regard to moral issues. (And as with all mazes, there is always a way out, even if it is not within view…)

McGraw-Hill has a website where you can check out the Table of Contents and other features of the new edition. Instructors can request a desk copy. Among the new sections are a thoroughly updated Chapter 1, and sections on Happiness studies, Moral Naturalism, updated research on ethics and neuroscience, ethics and empathy, a new Nietzsche section, an updated Ayn Rand section, and several new movies and novels including Avatar, State of Play, True Grit, The Invention of Lying, and A Thousand Spendid Suns. And  Chapter 10 has a picture of Dwight Furrow! 🙂

Red Pill or Blue Pill? April 5, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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I can’t even begin to say how nauseated this article from The Guardian made me feel:

A pill to enhance moral behaviour, a treatment for racist thoughts, a therapy to increase your empathy for people in other countries – these may sound like the stuff of science fiction but with medicine getting closer to altering our moral state, society should be preparing for the consequences, according to a book that reviews scientific developments in the field.

Drugs such as Prozac that alter a patient’s mental state already have an impact on moral behaviour, but scientists predict that future medical advances may allow much more sophisticated manipulations.

The field is in its infancy, but “it’s very far from being science fiction”, said Dr Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner.

“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate,” he said. “There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression.”

Researchers have become very interested in developing biomedical technologies capable of intervening in the biological processes that affect moral behaviour and moral thinking, according to Dr Tom Douglas, a Wellcome Trust research fellow at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre. “It is a very hot area of scientific study right now.”

He is co-author of Enhancing Human Capacities, published on Monday, which includes a chapter on moral enhancement.

But would pharmacologically-induced altruism, for example, amount to genuine moral behaviour? Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner, said: “We can change people’s emotional responses but quite whether that improves their moral behaviour is not something science can answer.”

He also admitted that it was unlikely people would “rush to take a pill that would make them morally better.

“Becoming more trusting, nicer, less aggressive and less violent can make you more vulnerable to exploitation,” he said. “On the other hand, it could improve your relationships or help your career.”

And on it goes, concluding that such chemicals would be nifty in the criminal justice system. Can anyone say A Clockwork Orange? Undoubtedly, this is the way we’re heading. It probably has its pros, but all I see right now are cons. I’m one of those philosophers who regard the new connections between philosophy and neuroscience with a lot of optimism. Well, let’s just say I feel less optimistic this morning…

Patricia Churchland at Book Works March 9, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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A quick message for interested San Diegans: Patricia Churchland will be doing a reading Thursday evening , March 10:

In “Braintrust,” Patricia Churchland, professor emeritus of philosophy at UCSD, uses neuroscience to question accepted wisdom about the origins of morality.

She will be at Book Works in Del Mar Thursday at 7 p.m. for a reading.

From a San Diego Union Tribune interview:

What is new about the hypothesis you are offering?

As I see it, moral values are rooted in family values displayed by all mammals — the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves — first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring” circles.

Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is apportioned, conscience molded, and moral intuitions instilled.

A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

Read more here.

Torture Doctors Don’t Care April 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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A leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concludes that medical personnel were involved in torturing terrorist suspects held overseas by the CIA, according to reports in the New York Times. The article highlights the fact that the medical personnel were violating codes of medical ethics.

Facilitating such practices, which the Red Cross described as torture, was a violation of medical ethics even if the medical workers’ intentions had been to prevent death or permanent injury, the report said. But it found that the medical professionals’ role was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners, and that the professionals had “condoned and participated in ill treatment.”

This suggests that there is something especially egregious about medical personnel being involved. Torture is bad, but it is even worse when medics participate.

Dominic Wilkinson at Practical Ethics asks why:

But would it really make it better if the assistants were soldiers or CIA officers who had received some medical training? What if they were scientists or vets?

He goes on to argue:

Sometimes we hold doctors to higher standards than the rest of the community. We may, for example, feel particularly aggrieved if a doctor gossips about our health to another patient, but not be concerned (or as concerned) if this is done by our hairdresser. But the moral requirement not to torture or to assist in torture is not of this nature. It is something that should have equal force on a doctor or a CIA officer, a hairdresser or a vet…But the reason that it is wrong for doctors or other health professionals to assist in torture is because it is torture – not because they are doctors.

I am not convinced that the wrongness of the action is unaffected by the fact it is committed by medical professionals. And I think the ethics of care explains why.

We expect medical professionals to be at least in part motivated by care. Doctoring or nursing is a helping profession in which having the motive to help others is essential to being successful.

Medical professionals who assist with torture not only violate their medical code of ethics. They also are acting on a motive which is diabolical when it moves a medical professional, thereby amplifying the wrongness of their actions.

CIA officers (or hairdressers) need not have any special caring motive. Thus, although they violate a code of ethics by torturing prisoners, their motives are not in substantial conflict with the motives required to do their job.

Of course, all human beings ought to be motivated to some degree by care (on my view of an ethic of care). The act of torture by anyone (in most circumstances) is wrong because it (usually) lacks a caring motive. But for persons who are not medical professionals, that wrongness is not amplified by a motive utterly out of line with professional requirements.

There is more on torture of a different sort at Reviving the Left.

Hoops, Paydays, and Epistemology April 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left 

The excessive risk-taking by banks and investment firms that caused the economic meltdown was in part the result of the skewed incentive structure of their compensation packages. Because their compensation was based on how well their company’s stock did over the relatively short term, they had every incentive to take on excessive, long-term risk if it would boost their short-term profits.

What was bad for the health of the firm was good for the stock trader or manager who pocketed immediate benefits.

NPR’s Scott Horsley, referencing a recent NY Times article by Michael Lewis on NBA star Michael Battier, compared Wall Street’s approach to compensation to compensation based on individual statistics in the NBA. Players often take poor shots in order to pad their stats, even though passing the ball would be better for the team, and many players virtually ignore defense, an essential part of the game, because it is more difficult to represent in statistical measures. If a player’s compensation is dependent on individual statistics only, they are rewarded for actions that often hurt the team.

These skewed incentives indicate a disturbing trend in contemporary society. We tend to form beliefs around data that is pervasive only because it is easy to acquire. It is easy to count and assign individual responsibility for baskets or sales minus expenses. These are convenient ways of keeping score.

However, the fact that a bit of data is easy to gather does not mean that it is providing a comprehensive, accurate measure of the health of the firm (or a basketball team). Stuff that isn’t easy to measure is not part of the calculation.

So why do hard-working, serious people take the easy way out when trying to measure performance? Isn’t it obvious to management (whether in sports or business) that the way the measure performance can be incomplete?

In a recent post, I argued that our economic problems were the result of an epistemological crisis. Our Wall St. wizards created lots of investment vehicles they didn’t understand and could not analyze.

But this tendency to form beliefs and hence policies around easily accessible data suggests another epistemological dimension to this crisis that explains why we take the easy way out.

Jerry Z. Muller writes:

From the point of view of top management, the diversity of operations means that executives were managing assets and services with which they have little familiarity. This has led to the spread of pseudo-objectivity: the search for standardized measures of achievement across large and disparate organizations. Its implicit premises were these: that information which is numerically measurable is the only sort of knowledge necessary; that numerical data can substitute for other forms of inquiry; and that numerical acumen can substitute for practical knowledge about the underlying assets and services. A good deal of our current economic travails can be traced to this increasing valuation of purportedly objective criteria, so denoted because they can be expressed and manipulated in mathematical form by people who may be skilled at such manipulation but who lack “concrete” knowledge or experience of the things being made or traded.

This is a theme that I emphasize in Reviving the Left. The pursuit of objectivity, and the resulting abstract representations, often leave out crucial data we need in order to act well, especially where human beings are concerned. Sensitive, situational knowledge that sometimes involves feelings and intuition is essential for guiding human action, but it is not well represented by mathematical models. Yet the “cult of accountability” is fast spreading throughout society. From finance and basketball to education and health care, every activity is being measured by a metric that may not capture crucial components of the activity—with sometimes disastrous consequences.

Service—Military and Non-military April 1, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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I have occasion to speak with many veterans in my line of work. And when they talk about why they went into the military, they often say they wanted to make a contribution, make the world a better place, or make something of their lives.

Their decision and motive is certainly worthy of admiration, respect, and gratitude.

But I find it disconcerting that, in our society, military service is viewed as the primary avenue to achieving this kind of fulfillment. Although the military fills an important need—defense—our world has many other vital needs that are typically underserved—teaching, caring for the indigent, the elderly, and the disabled, environmental cleanup, infrastructure development, etc.

And although the military yields a variety of satisfactions and builds skills that are useful in civilian society, so would these other non-military activities.

Of course, the fundamental difference between military and non-military service is that those in the military sometimes risk their lives and must engage in the distinctively destructive activity of learning to and sometimes having to kill people, some who might be quite innocent, and often for less than justifiable reasons.

The fact that some members of the military sacrifice their lives for their country gives military service an heroic aspect. But shouldn’t we judge the value of a service at least in part according to how much good it produces? Doesn’t the fact that military service involves killing sometimes innocent people for bad reasons count against it as a form of service?

I suppose we think of the value of military service in light of the fact that physical security is a vital, non-optional collective good. Having an effective military is an absolute necessity. And the military can perform its function only if its members are willing to do what is necessary regardless of personal sacrifice and despite some moral qualms.

In other words, the heroic aspect of military service is just inherent in the “whatever it takes” necessity of providing physical security. The non-military forms of service, although they provide unqualified goods, are perceived as less necessary.

But this ignores the fact that much military activity has little to do with providing collective security and much to do with projecting power based on quite illegitimate motives. Furthermore, it ignores the subtle but very real damage to our collective security when poverty, despair, and environmental degradation are allowed to fester.

It is to be hoped that some of the new initiatives to promote community and national service will elevate their prestige.

The Road to Imperial Ruin March 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left..

One of the main themes of Reviving the Left is that the ethics of care is relevant in the political arena in areas such as foreign policy.

Unlike moral theories that strive for universality, and thus focus on what human beings have in common, the ethics of care rests prescriptions on knowledge of particular persons, their circumstances, and their differences, and the cultivation of empathy and perceptiveness to gain such knowledge.

Matt Yglesias makes a point about our approach to Pakistan that implicitly reinforces the importance of an ethic of care.

In responding to the argument that we may not be able to trust the Pakistanis to root out the Taliban and Al-Quaeda from tribal areas he writes:

“This sort of thing is, in my view, really the achilles heel of the American imperial project….And when we get involved in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English….they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

This is one reason why so many of our foreign policy and foreign aid initiatives go wrong. We assume that other people are like us. We assume they share our interests, habits of communication, and ways of looking at the world because we assume our way is simply the human way.

And these assumptions are encouraged by our dominant moral theories (e.g. Kantian or utilitarian theories) that enjoin us to act only on prescriptions on which it would be rational for anyone to act. Our moral reflection tends to take place on a very general and very generic level.

The Boss Says We’ve Lost Our Moral Center March 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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And no one wants to argue with The Boss.

Recently two of my favorite people appeared on the same show. Jon Stewart interviewed Bruce Springsteen.

So what did Springsteen have in mind when he said “the country has lost its moral center?”

Here is how I would explain it.

It has long been an assumption in most social and political theories, whether in philosophy or the social sciences, that we can best understand human behavior by assuming that each person is a thoroughly self-interested, rational agent.

This self-interested rational agent knows what he wants and he makes decisions by making rational calculations about how to maximize the satisfaction of his desires. So regardless of whether it is a consumer choosing between Coke and Pepsi, an investor deciding between stocks and bonds, or a person deciding how best to spend her time, we make rational calculations about how to maximize our desires based on comparisons of the added benefit we would get by pursuing alternative courses of action. (Economists call this marginal utility)

Of course, no one really makes decisions this way because emotions, irrational attachments, and a variety of human weaknesses always enter the mix of factors explaining our decisions. But most theorists, and especially economists, have found this idea of a rational, self-interested agent useful, while realizing that it is an idealization and oversimplification. It is useful because our lives are really complicated and messy and, it is thought, that we have to eliminate some of that messiness if we are going to produce intelligible models of human action.

The recent collapse in our economic system, and the inability of economists to predict it, has called into question the effectiveness of these assumptions as a model. But I think the model has had more pernicious effects than simply disrupting economic theory.

One way to understand what Springsteen was talking about when he referred to losing our moral center is that, as a culture, we took this theoretical idealization of a rational, self-interested person out of the context of economic modeling and made it a moral ideal—something we should strive to be. This move largely defines modern conservatism.

It is thus no wonder that we have lost our moral center. No doubt human beings are sometimes self-interested desire machines trying to accumulate as much as we can. But morality begins when we see the folly of that. When we make the idea of a self-interested, rational maximizer our moral ideal, we lose the very basis of any moral point of view.

The question our current predicament poses is whether we can regain our moral center.

You can find out how right here.

Geithner’s Plan: Getting the Values Right March 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s plan to rescue the banking system is due to be released today. Details of the plan have been leaking all weekend, and it should come as no surprise that there is no consensus among economists (or at least the one’s I read) on whether it is a good plan or not.

Paul Krugman called the plan “an awful mess”

But it’s immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives… For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem.

But Brad Delong is more smitten:

So why do I have a positive and Paul a negative view of the Geithner Plan? I see three reasons:

1. The half empty-half full factor: I see the Geithner Plan as a positive step from where we are. Paul sees it as an embarrassingly inadequate bandaid.

2. Politics: I think Obama has to demonstrate that he has exhausted all other options before he has a prayer of getting Voinovich to vote to close debate on a bank nationalization bill. Paul thinks that the longer Obama delays proposing bank nationalization the lower it’s chances become.

3. I think the private-sector players in financial markets right now are highly risk averse–hence assets are undervalued from the perspective of a society or a government that is less risk averse. Paul judges that assets have low values because they are unlikely to pay out much cash.

In fact, Delong’s entire FAQ is worth reading if you want a brief, clearly written analysis of the plan.

I’m not an economist so dear reader beware. But, as I sort through the various opinions of economists, it seems to me some of the disagreement is about values, not technical economic issues.

Some people emphasize the fact that this scheme throws more taxpayer money at the same dingbat scumbags who got us into this mess. The government will insure overpriced assets that will have little value in the future, and we will end up once again rewarding investors for their bad bets. This is fundamentally unfair and unjust. These folks don’t like the plan.

Others emphasize the chance that this plan will get the bad assets off the bank ledgers and encourage more lending, giving consumers more buying power and firms less reason to lay off workers, thereby (hopefully) stanching economic decline. These folks like the plan a lot more.

I think both sides are right on the economics. It seems to me that there is plenty of incentive for investors to buy these assets since the government will limit their losses if they go bad. That is good and should provide further stimulus to the economy. They also have an incentive to bid up the price of the assets since they don’t have to put a lot money on the table to acquire them. That is bad because undoubtedly the taxpayers will have to pay up.

No one knows if this will work or not, and my economics crystal ball shattered many decades ago. But the moral philosopher in me would rather sacrifice a little justice and fairness to avoid the misery that a prolonged recession (or worse) entails. So independently of the economic issues, I think the administration gets the value question right.

Singer Vs. Cowen March 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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Bloggerheads has a terrific video of an interview with Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher. The interviewer is Tyler Cowen, a widely respected economist. The interview is in part devoted to Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save, in which Singer argues that as individuals we have an obligation to do more to end world poverty.

But the discussion ranges over a variety of topics that capture the flavor of utilitarianism, and to my mind, expose some of its flaws. Cowen’s questions are sharp and well-informed—it you’re interested in applying ethics to real world problems, the video is worth checking out.

I was surprised that at one point Cowen attributes to Singer the view that “people whether we like it or not will be committed to working on their own life projects rather than giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint…” Cowen asks whether Singer is comfortable with that fact or if he thinks it is a human imperfection.

This has always been one of my pet peeves against utilitarianism—its tendency to ignore human psychology and our need to devote substantial resources and attention to our own projects. Apparently, Singer is addressing the issue in his new book. (To be fair, he may have addressed the issue in earlier work. I am not familiar with all of it.)

In the interview, Singer’s response was to hope that people would adopt aid to others as part of their personal projects, and he suggests that individuals should do so only if it makes them happy. But this is not really a utilitarian response since it puts such a premium on individual human happiness.

Utilitarianism asserts that our actions should advance the general welfare. Our personal happiness is only one very small component of the general welfare, and thus utilitarians cannot be motivated primarily by the pursuit of personal happiness. That is psychologically implausible. But some utilitarians argue that we can best advance the general welfare when we focus on personal happiness. But then they are conceding defeat. If that is the case, utilitarianism no longer provides us with a theory of practical reason.

If there is a coherent utilitarian position that places such a premium on individual happiness, utilitarianism is inching closer to an ethic of care (or at least my version of it).