Archive for the ‘criticism’ Category

Ronald Bailey at Reason Magazine quotes a passage from Adam Smith’s 1759 text, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and finds remarkable similarities with what modern neuroscience has to say about altruism.

It’s nice to see the Enlightenment making itself known in the press, but he goes a bit far when he says:

Now neuroscience is confirming Smith’s insights into the neural bases of human morality.

No. There is a difference between 18th century moral psychology and neuroethics.

Smith had no insights into the neural or biological bases of human morality. He was interested in the human experience of sympathy, its frailties as a product of our imagination, its causes and effects, and the way we judge the propriety of passions felt by other people. Like most armchair treatments of human nature, his overlaid a conceptual analysis upon a mix of introspective and behavioural observations.

The philosophically interesting stuff happens when Smith makes a connection between innate moral feelings and moral rules. In addition to suggesting our natural sentiments bias our judgements, he argues that moral sentiments create generalizable moral rules.

It is thus that the general rules of morality are formed. They are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of.

What is agreeable to our moral faculties, is fit, and right, and proper to be done; the contrary wrong, unfit, and improper. The sentiments which they approve of, are graceful and becoming: the contrary, ungraceful and unbecoming. The very words, right, wrong, fit, improper, graceful, unbecoming, mean only what pleases or displeases those faculties.

This view conjoins moral naturalism with moral realism, but it relies on moral sentiments being infallible products of divine origin.

A more thorough treatment of moral psychology, one which which posited a specific ‘moral sense’, can be found in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751).

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Henry at Crooked Timber has a post called The Political Economy of Bibliographies in which he asks the sensible question: why do social science publications have different house styles for citations?

It’s a good question, but I’m going to focus on something else he says, because it gives me the opportunity to do something unusual – make a radical suggestion.

He says,

[L]awyers likely do have good reason to have those long confusing footnotes bristling with references.

No, they don’t.

They are just participating in bad habits of misdirected scholarship.

The problem is an artifact of overwrought legal scholarship where breadth of research materials replaces depth of cogent analysis. I blame authors’ overactive sense of precedent, and student law review editors who are forced to ignore poor writing skills. The result: papers devoting more page space to citations than to the authors’ own ideas.

Perhaps this could be changed by an annual award for the law review article with the fewest footnotes?

While it can be useful to a researcher when an article they read has a citation for every statement, that’s only the case if the notes are of good quality. Most are not.

Footnotes tend fall into five groups:

  1. Trigger citations, which appear early in the paper and link readers to essential texts that have provoked the article.
  2. Plagiarism avoidance, identifying the origin of quoted and paraphrased material.
  3. Exploratory notes, where the author has license to make tangential comments on the topic or literature.
  4. Padding pointers to sentences written by someone else saying exactly the same thing, usually in no greater depth than that of the citing paper. This may be an over-cautious defense against plagiarism, in which case their prominence tells me legal scholars are mostly recycling other academics’ ideas, stringing together statements that may as well be cut and pasted from journals and reports.

The first and second are essential, the third is disposable, and the last is noxious clutter.

In a different context, judges have good reason to not like the footnotes that appear in lawyers’ facta. The lawyers cite things that don’t count as usable precedent, or reference well-known cases that are easy to find.

The formatting of legal citation is similarly distraught, and that’s where my radical suggestion comes in.

Journals should get rid of uniform citation style guides, apply a Principle of Parsimonious Citation, and use open access to get the job done.

Whew. That wasn’t easy to say, and goes against deeply entrenched editorial instincts. But it comes from realizations that don’t beggar common sense, and is an argument to trim citations to their bare essentials:

  1. Just give useful information. Readers just need a simple set of information that allows them to find a reference. Anything else is noise.
  2. Completeness is overrated. Thanks to search technologies, we usually don’t need full citations to track down a reference. Even the simplest citations return unambiguous search results. When a Google search won’t get you the information via the journal’s home page, commercial databases will serve it up without much fuss even if you only know the title of the article. So, in most instances all you need is a variant of: [Author’s name; Title of document; Date of authorship]. Toss in a localizer to identify paragraph, page, or section and the reader has everything they need.
  3. Open access does it better. It gets rid of the need for uniform styles, and makes documents easier to find with less information. It also propels online referencing: why bother with ordering and punctuating defunct volume and issue numbers when a digital object identifier (DOI) will do the job?
  4. Citations demand no syntax. Formats are mostly arbitrary. So as long as citations are consistently styled within a document and don’t confuse the reader, don’t fuss over it.

I don’t expect people to agree with this, especially in a traditional field like the law. Instead, I’d expect complaints to the effect that courts need authoritative citation styles, and that this sets the default standard for legal scholarship.

Not so. Even if there is a trickle-down effect, courts using neutral citations don’t need authoritative style guides to locate publications. Judge’s law clerks can probably find information using standard research tools better than anyone else.

Worries about the ‘officiality’ of the law are just public relations laden with bad metaphysics. It ignores how citations function: footnotes are just about flagging sources of interest and finding them, nothing more.

If we are going to use a uniform standard of citation – either to avoid styles that don’t look pretty, or to guide authors who can’t be trusted to think about this for themselves – it should do four things:

  1. Use neutral citations that identify cases without referencing print reporters.
  2. Be short and intuitive, because there is no reason it should take 208 pages and multiple lectures in a first year law course to master this.
  3. Be fluid, to accommodate a wide variety of documents – and the legacy of proprietary or hard-to-find print volumes.
  4. Be open access, because there is no reason to lock citation recommendations within a book.

While we are at it, why not use the styleguide to improve the habits of legal scholars? Prior to press, tag footnotes with metadata along the lines of ‘Essential reading’, ‘See, no plagiarism’, or ‘Just padding’.


In Canada, it is normal to follow the McGill guide, but LEXUM and CANLII are spurring movement towards more universal standards of citation – see the Canadian Citation Committee.

In the US, judges use either the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation or the ALWD Citation Manual. Their differences are documented at:

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CBC Radio’s Ideas recently broadcast an in-depth interview with Richard Tarnas which originally aired on the religion and spirituality program Tapestry.

Why is this worthy of mention?

Because Tarnas is a proponent of astrology. Astrology! His position as professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco is supposed to lend credence to this.

Hynes interviewed him after reading his book called Cosmos and Psyche. And thanks to the CBC, people think he has something important to say. According to his website:

In the hours immediately after the broadcast, Cosmos and Psyche leapt to #1 on the Amazon Canada bestseller ranking.

When confronted by this sort of thing, it helps to remember why we value free speech. The reasons are enumerated by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Keegstra, a hate-speech case. But they miss out on a big one: it’s a good idea to know which people are prone to dangerous failures of judgement – especially if they have any authority.

Even so, the CBC has done a disservice to the Canadian public. There was no attempt to challenge this man. A gushing Mary Hynes seems to lose all critical faculties in this interview, and presents Tarnas as a respected scholar with “mind blowing” evidence on his side.

She might be helped to recall this statement by Simon Blackburn, which captures nicely why we shouldn’t take mysticism seriously:

There may be rhetoric about the socially constructed nature of Western science, but whenever it matters, there is no alternative. There are no specifically Hindu or Taoist designs for mobile phones, faxes or television. There are no satellites based on feminist alternatives to quantum theory. Even the great public sceptic about the value of science, Prince Charles, never flies a helicopter burning homeopathically diluted petrol, that is, water with only a memory of benzine molecules, maintained by a schedule derived from reading tea leaves, and navigated by a crystal ball.

(Hat tip to Rationally Speaking via Evolving Thoughts for mention of the quote.)

You can find the audio of the interview archived here.

Can neuro-philosophers out there tell me why people are so susceptible to this sort of nonsense?

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It’s no secret I was excited by word of Jonathan Haidt’s latest publication. His work with Joshua Greene first caught my attention during a law school course in Health Law, where it made an appearance in my critique of the wisdom of repugnance promoted by Leon Kass. Their research introduced me to moral psychology, neuroethics, and experimental philosophy; thanks to their work, the political and legal ramifications of moral disgust and moral intuition has since become one of my primary research interests.

So today, I dived into Haidt’s new paper expecting something great. I got it. You can too, although it is locked behind a subscription.

Rather than covering Haidt’s review in detail, I’ll distill three insights from the paper that make a theoretical foundation for any further work in the fields of moral psychology and moral ideology.

  1. Moral reasoning is driven by affective responses like moral disgust. Gut reactions are immediate, and bias or distort subsequent processes of reasoning and justification.
  2. Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration—constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown.

  3. Humans have five classes of moral intuitions, which each have unique evolutionary origins in the behaviour of individuals within gossiping moral communities. These are intuitions about…
    1. protection from harm – altruism
    2. fairness – rights, reciprocity, and justice
    3. loyalty – ingroup and outgroup relationships
    4. authority – respect and obedience
    5. purity of body and spirit – sanctified, not carnal
  4. In Western societies, conservatives make use of all five intuitions, but liberals pay more attention to harm and fairness. (Coincidentally, most research so far also focuses on harm and fairness – is research being driven by liberals, or are these easier to study?)

This is a rather dense package, so I encourage you to read the paper to unpack it.

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It isn’t a stretch to say ethics about artificial intelligences is in its infancy. More science fiction has been published than there are serious papers on this topic.

Should this be a hint that while there might be a lot that philosophy can mine from the topic of artificial intelligence, the codes of ethics being proposed don’t have much to do with ethics after all?

Take, for instance, the 6 target topics in robo-ethics as identified in a conference document hosted on Roboethics.org. They don’t have much to do with ethics:

  1. warfare use of robots
  2. social acceptability of robotic assistants and human augmentation
  3. impact of humanoid robotics on job management
  4. morality of autonomous robots
  5. impact of robotics research on human identity, safety and freedom
  6. theological and spiritual aspects of robotics technology

As stated, the 6 topics noted above are red herrings. Half don’t have anything to do with the things that make artificial life philosophically interesting, let alone have anything to do with a sub-discipline in ethics.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Warfare use? That’s just alarm about robots killing people by accident, killing people by going rogue, or encouraging humans to kill people. No novel ethics there.
  2. Social acceptability? Robot assistants? No ethics there. Cyborgs? As a philosophically interesting issue, that died on the operating table when the first artificial organ was implanted.
  3. Effect on jobs? That’s just labour politics. No novel ethics there, except in the background questions of how we want to order society, public duties to citizens, and so on.
  4. Robot’s morality? I don’t know what that even means. I’ll take a guess it is about including robots in the family of things we give moral concern and legal rights. That’s philosophically fun, and a political nightmare – not just because giving them the vote means people can quite literally manufacture election results. This point is the only legitimate plank in the platform put forward by the nascent field of robo-ethics.
  5. Effects on human identity? Expect the term ‘human dignity’ to make an appearance. While this area might be a candidate for fun philosophy, it doesn’t concern ethics except as an off-switch for the entire artificial intelligence program.
  6. Human theology? Expect the term ‘playing god’ to make an appearance. Again, that’s not ethics.

Not mentioned in the list is the issue lurking deep in the hind-brains of moralists and taboo-busters:

What happens if robots turn out to be sexy?

The purile response should not be surprising, and it’s a moralists nightmare:

Ick. Unless they look really, really hot.

Whatever the case: no ethics unique to robots has made an appearance, though objections will doubtless come loaded with familiar pseudo-philosophical baggage.

Henrik Christensen, chairman of the European Robotics Network, sums up the hot topics in robo-ethics this way:

security, safety and sex are the big concerns.

But none of these are really about ethics, let alone ethics specific to artificial intelligence.

Here are the big ethical and meta-ethical questions that ethicists should be addressing:

  • Should we create autonomous, artificial intelligences?
  • Should we have them behave according to human ethics? Is so, do we go with something from the deontological or utilitarian catalogues?
  • Should we make allowances for them to develop their own systems of ethics?
  • Should a moral system created by an artificial intelligence be accepted by humans as genuine ethics? (“Thou shalt not sudo” just won’t cut it, and I’ll leave speculations about robot evangelism to Battlestar Galactica.)
  • Should we include an off-switch, and under what conditions can it be used?
  • Should artificial intelligences have moral and legal rights?

With all of these interesting questions, it is a shame the so-called codes of ethics being proposed are just about heading off an imagined threat.

We can see the motivation for these codes in a statement by Gianmarco Verruggio.

We have to manage the ethics of the scientists making the robots and the artificial ethics inside the robots… Scientists must start analysing these kinds of questions and seeing if laws or regulations are needed to protect the citizen… Robots will develop strong intelligence, and in some ways it will be better than human intelligence. But it will be alien intelligence; I would prefer to give priority to humans.

The upshot? When they aren’t about safety, these ‘codes of ethics’ are really just about making rules to stop the creation of  beings who might be our equals. It hardly seems fair.

Now that is a philosophically interesting topic…

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