About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Pluralism as a sign of strength

In (re-)reading Max Charlesworth's lovely little book Bioethics in a Liberal Society, I came across a paragraph in which the author discusses feminism - this is in the context of different feminist attitudes to assisted reproduction. While some of those attitudes strike me as irrational and and generally deplorable (there are plenty of feminist bio-Luddites around), Charlesworth does make a nice point about the sheer diversity of positions.

Rather than seeing the diversity as showing incoherence within the feminist movement, we can see it positively. Charlesworth suggests that it is an index of the maturity of any movement that it has moved beyond a single monolithic view, to accept and even welcome a variety of views and positions. This is, he says, a sign of diversity and strength.

Charlesworth's suggestion is worth recalling when we encounter disagreement from people who are generally our allies and share many common values with us. We should be open to different views and positions from them, as long as it does not get to the point when they disagree on so many specific issues that we can no longer think of them as allies at all. Perhaps transhumanism is reaching a point, after its development in the 1980s, where it is now something far less monolithic and a variety of views and positions can now be found within the broad movement - showing that it has matured and gained strength.

Execution of Saddam Hussein

I broach this topic with a heavy heart, because I can see no good coming out of the current situation in Iraq.

In principle, I am not opposed to all use of military force to remove tyrannical regimes - not where there is some urgent issue and it appears very likely that the operation can be carried out with a balance of good over harm. That is not meant to be an easy test: when you go to war, the potential for horrific, individually unpredictable, ramifications is endless. Without wanting to embrace any precise set of principles, such as those of traditional just war theory, I am always going to look with a sceptical eye at any proposal to go to war, and will want to see some convincing explanation of how the ramifications can be managed, as well as powerful humanitarian justification. Unlike most of my friends, I thought the war to remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was justified, but I am now dismayed by the way the aftermath is being managed. I have always been opposed to the invasion of Iraq - from Day One, it looked like madness - but I have no wish to crow about how badly the operation has gone since Saddam was actually removed from power. I just hope there will, against the current odds, ultimately be some reasonably satisfactory outcome.

Furthermore, my opposition to the death penalty is less than absolute. First, let me clear: I cannot imagine realistic circumstances in which I would support its re-introduction to the penal codes of countries that have abolished it. Nor can I imagine circumstances where I would support its retention in, for example, those US states that still have it. There are many good reasons not to have the death penalty as an option in ordinary domestic systems of criminal justice.

That said, the balance of considerations may be different in one-off cases like this involving murderous tyrants who have killed and tortured on a mass scale, and whose guilt in a vast range of crimes against humanity is not in serious doubt, even if particular details are uncertain. I find it hard to believe that such people have a "right" to go on living that trumps all else, so whether we retain the option of a death penalty in these special cases is much more open to argument. Or so it seems to me.

But at the end of the day, I can't see what has been gained by killing Saddam Hussein. Better to have let him eke out his old age in prison somewhere. Besides, there is too much of a sense that this was a kangaroo court ... and then there is the not-so-small matter that many of his other crimes will never be able to be investigated properly. The whole thing just looks too contrived, like something the victors wanted to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Whatever else we want to say, this does not look or feel like justice.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Beagle solution

The official answer to the beagle puzzle is "p = 1/3", which is a relief. But I see people are still arguing about it over at EvolutionBlog. I know I have some readers out there somewhere, but none of you got excited about it, it seems.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Well, the good news here is that my mum has been a lot better the last couple of days, and I'm hopeful she'll be out of hospital next week.

My own lesser health problem also seems to be resolving - looks like it was, as speculated, a dental abscess that went a bit crazy. With some heavy antibiotics, my face has just about returned to a symmetrical shape already.

At the moment, I'm working like a fiend at this second Ph.D.; whenever I run out of energy, I tackle some of my target articles at Wikipedia, where I've done a lot of work lately on the Second Life article, among others. One article that is in very good shape already, but which I'm trying to improve as much as I can in my spare moments, is the one on Richard Dawkins.

Ideally, I'd be submitting the Ph.D thesis in March, but that seems like it might be beyond me if I'm going to read/re-read and properly consider everything that is still on my list - sometimes I'm perhaps too much of a perfectionist. In any event, the thesis will definitely be submitted in 2007 - hopefully in the first half of the year.

We currently have something of a short-term strain on the household finances - Jenny and I live in a house on which the mortgage is, fortunately, all paid off, but which nonetheless has all the associated expenses of a big house for two well-paid professionals, not a place for two people scraping a living by freelance writing and editing, some part-time teaching, and a much-valued but certainly not huge Ph.D scholarship. Sooner or later, something will have to give, but I'm sure we'll survive. It's essentially a short-term cash problem - our underlying financial position is healthy, or we wouldn't be doing this - but there are sometimes pressures from being income poor, even if you're relatively wealthy in assets. I may have to take an actual full-time job again some time, but it would have to be something I really wanted to do.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Beagle puzzle

I spent a good part of yesterday puzzling over this, published on Jason Rosenhouse's EvolutionBlog (and getting involved in the surprisingly enthusiastic debate over it):

"A shopkeeper says she has two new baby beagles to show you, but she doesn't know whether they're both male, both female, or one of each. You tell her that you want only a male, and she telephones the fellow who's giving them a bath. “Is at least one a male?” she asks him. She receives a reply. “Yes!” she informs you with a smile. What is the probability that the other one is a male?"

At the moment, I'm firmly in the "p = 1/3" camp - after initially putting an argument for "p = 1/2" - but I'm anxiously awaiting Rosenhouse's analysis. So far, he's just let us debate it back and forth.

I find these sorts of probability puzzles fascinating, but they often make me feel as if my head is spinning. It took me a full day to convince myself that the solution to the famous Monty Hall problem is correct, after my pal Chris Lawson introduced the problem and the solution to me some years ago. There was a similar problem (wish I could remember the details) doing the rounds at the AAP conference earlier this year, and I never did manage to bring myself to agree with the most popular solution - although I'm willing to concede I was probably overlooking, or not getting, something ... and that the popular solution was sponsored by better logicians than me.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Yuletide to all

It's that time of the year to wish everyone, regardless of belief or background, a happy solstice festival. I've had a particularly quiet time this year, partly because I visited my folks interstate a couple of weeks ago, partly because, after being incredibly healthy through the last several months or so, I've suddenly been struck with what seems to be a tooth abscess or something that has led to one side of my face being swollen and sore - and initially to a throbbing toothache that then receded, thankfully - making me not a happy camper these last couple of days. I'll get to the doctor tomorrow and try to find out what is wrong.

I'm also worried that my mother has come down very sick (a helluva lot sicker than I am) in the last week, though there's little I can do at the moment beyond keeping in touch with my dad and my sister about the situation, as they're all 600-odd miles away from me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

More on moral relativism

Moral relativism is an unpopular philosophical position, at least within academic philosophy departments, and there are a couple of obvious reasons for this.

One is its association with a truly crazy idea, espistemic relativism (or truth relativism) - the idea that truth about the universe is not objective, but exists only relative to cultures or perhaps even individuals. This is a self-defeating idea, because someone who propounds it need not be listened to, even according to her own advice. The obvious rejoinder is, "Well, truth is objective in my (or my culture's) worldview. Go away!" If the idea is modified to something like, "All truths are relative except this one," it raises the question of what is so special about this particular truth. May there not be other truths that have whatever mysterious property grants objectivity in some cases? Furthermore, espistemic relativism, taken literally, denies the objective truth of seemingly undeniable facts about ordinary experience ("There is a computer in this room, but no hippopotamus."). And it flies in the face of science's success in understanding the world. An epistemic relativist will typically say (and is logically committed to) such nutty claims as that there is no objective truth to the heliocentric model - rather than a geocentric model - of our solar system. The craziness goes beyond science, narrowly defined: for example, we are left with the conclusion that there is no objective answer to whether or not atrocities such as the Holocaust actually took place.

Another reason for the unpopularity of moral relativism with philosophers, apart from its association with the crazy idea of espistemic relativism, is that it is typically advanced in a very naive form which includes a crude argument about how moral relativism entails a requirement for tolerance of other cultures. This crude argument can easily be demolished, but that then destroys the psychological attractiveness of the theory for many people.

I suppose a third reason may be this: taken seriously, moral relativism is a challenging doctrine. It requires us to say that there is a sense in which seemingly incontrovertible moral claims are false. No one wants to be stuck with denying the objective truth of a claim such as, "Hitler's actions in attempting to exterminate the Jews were morally wrong." That makes the doctrine psychologically unattractive, to say the least, just as its supposed connection to cultural tolerance may make it attractive to many.

In fact, moral relativism does have something going for it in terms of delivering a more tolerant, less fanatical, morality than do traditional, commonsense, moral ideas. It is just that the effect is somewhat more subtle, and the arguments somewhat more complex, than those which are usually offered and which I have seen demolished repeatedly by philosophers as diverse as Bernard Williams and Peter Singer. David Wong and Neil Levy have explored the issue in much more depth than can be seen in the sort of vulgar relativism that is commonly picked up by undergraduates before philosophy teachers go to work on them.

There is, indeed, something unsettling about the claim that moral propositions, including those that condemn evil actions such as those adding up to the Holocaust, are not objectively true. It is far more comfortable to be able to condemn such actions without complex explanations or secret caveats. However, comfort does not equate to truth. It is actually quite easy to make me feel uncomfortable about positions that I am convinced are true but go against my socialisation (for which reason, I am a good philosopher but would make a lousy politician).

I'm convinced that a rational being (perhaps from some distant planet) that refuses to condemn the Holocaust is not necessarily making an intellectual error, provided that the normative judgment it makes is consistent with its own most fundamental values and it makes no mistakes of empirical fact or of reasoning. While it is objectively true when I say that, "The Holocaust is condemned within my own system of norms, which I consider justified," it is not true that I can necessarily find an error in the reasoning or the knowledge base of any rational being that refuses to make such a claim. If such a being proceeds to act towards us in much the same way that Hitler acted towards the Jews, we may consider it to be evil, but that does not entail that it is making an intellectual mistake.

My claims in the last paragraph are a crude, perhaps distorted, summary of the views of Gilbert Harman; whether or not Harman would accept the way I have formulated them, they seem to me to be correct. At the same time, they are remote from the usual kinds of vulgar relativism. They are still slightly uncomfortable ideas to try on for size, because they are not consistent with widespread and commonsense metaethical beliefs or with the wish to be able to condemn Hitler unequivocally. In so far as they claim that widespread and commonsense metaethical beliefs are false, these ideas amount to an error theory of morality, though Harman himself has attempted to develop them in a way that avoids this implication (my provisional view is that he does not succeed, but I don't think much depends on this).

There is a limited sense in which we cannot condemn Hitler unequivocally: i.e., we can imagine him taking the same actions even if he had not made many intellectual mistakes, e.g. about human biology. However, in the end, I'm not too worried about not being able to condemn Hitler in that sense. The worst thing about Hitler was not his actual intellectual errors, but other features of the man - his malevolence, cruelty, fanaticism, and so on. For most human beings, fortunately, these are qualities to which we are fiercely opposed. Our opposition is based on very deep values that are widely shared among us. We have very powerful reasons to join together in expressing our horror at Hitler's actions and in resolute opposition to the Hitlers of the world. In such extreme cases, the fact that Hitler can be imagined to have acted as he did without making intellectual errors does not water down the vehemence of our response.

However, in cases where less is at stake, theories (such as moral relativism) that deny the objective truth of moral claims may lead to our watering down some moral responses. Where the values involved are not so deep and widely held, we may come to see some moral norms as more like the norms of social convention, to which we may be attached, but not whole-heartedly. This sort of watering down of at least our less deeply and widely held moral beliefs is very unwelcome to moral conservatives, but I actually think it is something that should be welcomed.

Sophisticated non-objectivist theories, such as those of Gilbert Harman and John Mackie are not as immediately attractive as vulgar moral relativism, but they have the great virtue that something like them is actually true (and this is an objective statement about the universe!). Furthermore, by a more subtle route they can deliver what is (for many of us) admirable about the more vulgar kinds of moral relativism, without the extreme of preventing us from condemning Hitler (or even more everyday murderers and rapists, and the commonplace cruel or callous people with which the world is well-stocked). While these theories require careful explanation, and are not straightforward to grasp, they should resonate with philosophy undergraduates and other educated people who are currently working with relativist ideas of a less sophisticated kind. They are onto something, even if they cannot articulate it in the careful manner of somebody like Harman.

This suggests to me that philosophy teachers should be less trigger-happy about simply shooting down vulgar moral relativism, and more willing to explore the implications of non-objectivist accounts of morality, to see where they lead when refined. I also think that moral philosophers should be more prepared, in their own work, to explore the normative implications of such ideas; like some of the other thinkers I've mentioned, particularly Wong, I think that rational and sophisticated non-objectivist metaethical theories do have normative implications. In particular, they can preserve our full horror at grossly violent or cruel acts, while leading us to a less rigid morality when it comes to actions more at the periphery of our moral thinking. Overall, I think this is beneficial (though that is itself a value judgment that can be disagreed with by somebody who is not necessarily making an intellectual error).

In short, I'm calling for an approach to moral philosophy that may not have much resonance for most current moral philosophers (though I see a few signs that non-objectivist theories are making a comeback), but may have a lot of quite justifiable resonance for our students and within the larger culture. This resonance will give its prescriptions a degree of political realism, even if they are not popular with philosophers. The approach I am calling for fits well with a naturalistic account of the universe and ourselves, and, most importantly, has truth on its side.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poor Thomas Nagel

Well, I can't feel too sorry for Nagel, since he is one of the most successful and celebrated philosophers in the world today. But I'm currently re-reading his lovely book Equality and Partiality, and wondering why it is has never gained the same sort of fame as, say, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Admittedly, it is much shorter and less comprehensive, but for my money it is superior in lucidity and insight.

I say this even though I disagree with Nagel's starting point - the foundation for the whole argument - that we are required by reason to value the interests of all people equally. The argument for this is only sketched, but Nagel has developed related arguments elsewhere. He is prone to argue along Kantian lines, and I believe that all such arguments must fail. Thus, he bases a pressure towards egalitarianism in attempts at Kantian reasoning, without relying on such (more Humean) bases as natural human sympathy for the repressed or the destitute. For reasons that I won't go into here, this is a hopeless quest.

That said, Nagel then spends the book worrying at the obvious facts that we are beings with personal interests and that political systems somehow have to take this into account along with any moral pressures toward a comprehensive egalitarianism. He struggles with this in such detail, and with such sensitivity, that I find myself enlightened by almost every paragraph. I can't stop annotating the pages.

His ultimate political recommendation is to move towards a much stronger form of social democracy - this is something that I actually agree with, but on other grounds. In a sense, he could have saved himself all the heartburn and doubt if he began without a system that wants to find objective values in the universe, but the result isn't something to be regretted at all, since he ends up producing a brilliant, in-depth explanation of why creatures like us cannot adopt an entirely impartial, egalitarian stance that goes beyond the institutions of social democracy.

For Nagel this is not a welcome conclusion, but to me it is both sensible and reassuring: there is something that we are capable of achieving without feeling some sort of guilt at our inability to move further to a much more utopian system. Although the book has a flaw in its assumptions throughout, it's like the bit of grit in an oyster that leads to the production of a pearl. Nagel's Equality and Partiality is a small masterpiece of political philosophy that deserves more attention.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rational relativism

I've been reading Neil Levy's Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction, which, despite its sub-title, is a sophisticated and thorough study of the philosophical issues surrounding moral relativism. This is actually the third time I've read this book, and probably not the last: I find something new in it each time, and each time I am led way out of my intellectual comfort zone by powerful arguments that highlight the difficulty in criticising the substantive moral ideas of people with whom you are in a fundamental disagreement about values.

In my view, Levy succeeds in establishing that moral relativism can be developed as a coherent and plausible theory - which is not to deny that there are naive versions of it around, versions that philosophers delight in debunking. I've been known to do a bit of demolition work myself when lecturing to philosophy undergraduates, many of whom come along with rather half-baked relativist notions picked up somewhere during their high school years, or perhaps from other disciplines where relativism tends to rule.

In the end, Levy defends a watered-down cultural relativism that he prefers to call "pluralism" (note that he considers both subjectivist theories and theories that make morality relative to culture to be varieties of "moral relativism", but the book is almost entirely about the latter, i.e. "cultural relativism" in Levy's terminology). I have a lot of sympathy for this position of moral pluralism, although the arguments actually seem to me to support a slightly more robust endorsement of moral relativism. Levy's ultimate claim, as I understand it, seems to be that there are objective values - such as those of individual liberty and those of social harmony - but these are plural, conflicting, and not entirely commensurable. Different culturally-based moral systems will emphasise different values - and may conflict with each other - without any system necessarily being "wrong".

A better conclusion, in my view, would be that there are no objective values: there are, indeed, things that tend to be valued widely by beings like us - with our biological needs and evolved psychology - under a wide range of environmental conditions. However, someone who does not value all of these things is not making an intellectual mistake. In that sense, none of these things can be said to be objectively valuable. I need to explain this.

Different rational beings, with different needs and psychological propensities, might not value all the same things that we do, and might not (I suppose) value any of them. At any rate, we seem to be able to imagine some pretty bizarre alien intelligences that might have very different value sets from ours. The same might apply to a human being with a sufficiently unusual fundamental psychology (a psychopath, say); such a person might have a radically different value set from the rest of us, without making any mistake about what objectively exists. Likewise for a whole group of human beings who have established a society in unusual environmental circumstances. These people might not be failing to identify something that exists "out there" in objective reality.

Nonetheless, most human beings are sufficiently similar that, in practice, we can obtain a great deal of intersubjective and intercultural agreement on what we really do value.

Perhaps Levy would accept the above formulation, though it is not his. Although it is neater, in a way, to propose that there are plural objective values in the world, it looks to me like metaphysical overreaching. We do better simply to emphasise what we have in common, rather than claiming objectivity for it. It's a matter of psychology, not metaphysics.

Or maybe Levy would count this kind of intersubjective agreement among most humans as a sort of objectivity. For myself, I would rather save talk of "objectivity" for theories that assert, or assume, some kind of independent, transcendentally guaranteed, realm of value that lies beyond human need and desire. Commonsense morality appears to involve an assumption something like that (at least to some extent), and I think we should be prepared to bite the bullet and say that commonsense morality is (to that extent) in error. It's for this reason that I follow J.L. Mackie and call myself an error theorist, or a moral sceptic, rather than a relativist.

Be that as it may, Levy has offered us a rational relativism, and his ultimate position is one that I could accept with just a bit of structural, or perhaps merely linguistic, tweaking. He has also shown how it is, nonetheless, possible to engage in rational arguments and judgments about other moralities - sometimes they are based on empirical falsehoods, and sometimes they refuse to provide deeper argument in circumstances where the rock-bottom values relied upon seem to cry out for further support (perhaps because they are values that lack the right kind of widespread intersubjective and intercultural endorsement, creating a pressure for more to be said). We are not left bereft of tools with which to condemn irrationalists and fanatics, though sometimes the full argument against their positions would need to be developed very carefully.

The book is so good, that it has actually taken me the aforementioned three readings before I have been able to find much in the way of cracks in the argument, and even then I am not always sure. When they do appear, they don't seem to affect the final position that is adopted, though I feel that occasionally Levy is slightly too quick in his dismissal of arguments that can be put against relativism.

Consider his critical treatment of claims that some values and moral beliefs are acquired more autonomously than others (and so deserve more deference).

At the end of the day, he may be correct in his criticisms - and he certainly sends out a powerful challenge to theorists who make much of the need for autonomous reflection on our own deepest values and beliefs, something that may not be possible. However, I question his claim that parents always socialise their children into one or another total worldview, and that no rational distinction can be made between someone who is indoctrinated as a child into a particular set of religious (or anti-irreligious) dogmas and someone who is taught to think critically without being indoctrinated into a particular position. Without invoking a spooky kind of free will that takes human reason out of the causal order of things, I think we can say that the latter child is in a much better position - later in life - to draw her own rational, evidentially-supported conclusions. This may not be true of fundamental values, but it does seem to be true about purported matters of fact, such as claims about the existence of supernatural beings. We do seem to have good mental tools for finding evidence, and engaging in reasoning, about matters of fact.

That said, I think very highly of this book, particularly as an antidote for those many philosophers who have come to believe that moral relativism is an obviously crazy idea (like epistemic relativism, which is another story). Folks, it ain't that simple.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Two million before Christmas!

I see that Second Life has now made it to two million registered users. Excellent going. (Now if only its latest upgrades while I was away were not beyond the capacity of my computer system to handle well; for better or worse, my poor avatar is currently having to get by with little clothing.)

Home again, home again

Thank you to those people whom I love who looked after us in Newcastle.

Now, I'll have to get to some serious blogging when I've caught up with things.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Compulsory blog break

Jenny and I will hit the road tomorrow to drive interstate to visit loved ones back in Newcastle. It won't be practical for me to try to blog while away - it'll be difficult enough keeping up with e-mails - so I'm declaring a break until mid-December.

A bigger victory for reason - Australia liberalises cloning laws

According to news reports tonight, the House of Representatives has voted in favour of legislation to overturn the ban on therapeutic cloning in Australia. The legislation has already passed the Senate and will now be enacted as law.

While this legislation goes nowhere near far enough - and has actually gone backwards in certain respects - overall, it will produce some liberalisation of Australia's harsh and unnecessary cloning laws. This is a major step forward in the struggle against various kinds of irrationalists and anti-liberals who want to ban practices that do no harm ... but may aid medical scientists in conducting research that will lead to treatments for disease.

One disturbing aspect of the debate was that Australia's new Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, joined with the socially conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, in opposing the reform. Howard's stance was predictable, but Rudd's less so - and it is sad to see the leaders of both major parties in Australian politics hitching a ride on the shaky-wheeled wagon of irrationalism. Quickly, someone find us a political leader with an ounce of sense when it comes to issues of biomedical policy. Fortunately, the majority of members of the house disagreed with their leaders, and this issue was the subject of a conscience vote with no party discipline applied. So there it is.

When all is said and done, it's a day for rejoicing after the bitterness we've watched over the past few weeks, as the irrationalists have fought tooth and nail against reform. I can still scarcely believe that this process has led to a result in which reason has (more or less) prevailed. I wasn't going to believe it could happen until the final numbers were in.

But it's finally over. Crack open the Champagne.

Horrible, horrible news reporting

Two young high school students were expelled from a Muslim school in Melbourne for desecration of the Bible, apparently in expression of some sort of anti-Christian feeling. Evidently they urinated on it and set fire to some pages. Not very nice of course.

But why have the media seized upon this relatively trivial incident? I've just been watching 9 News, where a female journalist speaks, with a distraught throb in her voice, of "this horrible, horrible act." Oh, give me a break! There are young teenage schoolboys doing far worse things every day, including acts of violence against each other, but these are not reported in the mainstream news media. In this case, no one seems to have been hurt in any way.

These were kids who can't be expected to show much maturity, the act was rather trivial, and it did no great harm beyond the reporting of it. Besides, I'd defend adults' liberty to burn holy books, effigies, flags, or any other symbols of things they dislike. Merely symbolic destructive acts such as this fall well within freedom of speech, as the US Supreme Court has found with burning of the American flag. School students doubtless need more discipline than adults - their characters are still being formed and perhaps they don't have the same civil liberties - but setting that aside, the act was legitimate expression. The underlying problem is that the kids may have been brought up to feel this way (however, exactly, it is that they feel) by their parents or other adults. Then again, kids get ideas from all over the place.

Meanwhile, the media beat-up of the story is sickening. It is far more likely to cause social division than the original incident. And I don't see this as the same as something I defended recently: reporting on the views of a senior cleric, Sheik Hilali, which have great influence and are a matter of public interest.

Here's the bottom line: 1. These kids should not even have been expelled - something obviously needed to be done to find out what was bugging them and to see if they could be put straight about the school's attitude to religious toleration, but some frank counselling would have been quite enough. 2. The news media are not there to report the day-to-day antics and wrongdoings of school students. Talk about cracking a peanut with a sledgehammer.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bring Hicks home

I'm not normally one to give any support to somebody who has, apparently, trained with fundamentalist terrorist organisations, but the situation with David Hicks has become absurd. The man has now been held for five years in what are, by all accounts, appalling conditions, without being tried on any charges. There is no serious suggestion that he has committed any heinous war crime or crime against humanity that should attract universal juridiction. He committed no crime in the territory of the United States of America, the country that is holding him prisoner. None of his actions were in breach of the laws of Australia, the country of which he is a citizen.

It strikes me as simply extraordinary that the Australian government excuses its refusal to lobby on Hicks's behalf on the basis that he cannot be tried and punished here because he broke no Australian laws in effect at the time. Well ... let me get this straight, the fact that he broke none of our laws is a reason why we want him to remain in prison. Yeah, right.

Maybe we mean he did something we wish we'd thought to ban at the time - so leaving him now to rot in the hellhole of Guantanamo Bay is a pragmatic substitute for retrospective criminal legislation. If that's the sub-text, we should all be afraid of where current government approaches are taking us.

I don't like seeing Hicks portrayed - as he sometimes is by the media - almost as if he's some sort of hero. He is nothing of the sort. On the other hand, I doubt that he is all that dangerous. If it could be established that he is, then perhaps he needs to be kept under close police surveillance once he is returned to Australia and freed. That's fine, as long as strict process is followed. But Australians should not be acquiescing in the continued imprisonment of a fellow citizen for supposed crimes that he committed outside the territory of the imprisoning power and in breach of no Australian law. Surely we can give this man a little sympathy by now, but more importantly there is a principle here. Bring him home, and be done with it.

On cyborg citzenship - where I have a problem

My friend James Hughes has a great narrative to tell about the expanding circle of recognition of rights to all persons, irrespective of sex, race, culture, and even species and physical substrate. According to this narrative, we will ultimately accord citizenship - and the legal rights that go with it - to non-human persons and then to non-biological persons such as advanced, fully-conscious artificial intelligences. We will realise that it is Lockean personhood, rather than species membership, that accords full moral considerability.

I wish I could go along with this without qualification, because it's a wonderful story to tell, and much simpler than the complex, ambiguous, difficult reality that I see. But I do have a problem here.

I think James's account is roughly correct, and if we need a simple moral story to tell I'm going to tell this one, rather than spout nonsense about "human dignity" - the idea that there is some mysterious factor or set of factors that accords infinite moral worth to human beings, making us exceptional within the universe. As I've often said, there is no such X factor that amounts to human dignity. From my naturalistic point of view, "dignity talk" involves a bizarre kind of human exceptionalism, and I applaud the efforts of anyone who wants to combat it. If we do create fully conscious artificial intelligences, I think we'll need to find ways to integrate them into human societies and to grant them citizenship. A good start towards this way of thinking is to get behind Peter Singer's Great Ape Project, and argue for at least some special legal protections for chimpanzees and the rest of our near-brethren in the animal world. Let's get used to the idea that personhood is what counts.

And yet, and yet...

All that said, this is still the area where I always feel the need to part company somewhat with a number of my friends and intellectual allies. Despite all the above, I continue to question whether it is a good idea to create fully-conscious, self-aware, non-human beings with high intelligence, etc. Even if the personhood theory of ethics is correct, that does not mean it is intuitively correct. Until it has been internalised by most people, it is unlikely to be applied by them, in practice, from moment to moment and day to day. I'd like to see a lot of change in the way people think before we create beings who need the new kind of thinking to prevail in reality, if their interests are going to be protected. Accordingly, despite the solidarity that I feel with transhumanists and technoprogressives in many current bio-political struggles, I worry about the creation of these "new humans" (or whatever shorthand we use), and I don't think that we should accept their inevitability, at least in the short or medium term, when we argue for therapeutic cloning, for the in-principle acceptability of safe reproductive cloning, and for a raft of technologies that will assist us to retain (and even enhance) our capacities, helping us to lead better and longer lives.

James, of course, is aware that there would be practical problems. In Citizen Cyborg, he suggests that we may come to the conclusion that it's best to hold off on uplifting any non-human animals to higher levels of intelligence if this will only make then miserable, while we might have prudential reasons for preventing machine minds from obtaining self-awareness, or for making sure they feel solidarity with us. All this makes sense, but I am as worried about how we would treat a cute little baby Skynet as about how it would treat us. (As a sidenote, the original Skynet only initiated Judgment Day when human beings panicked and tried to shut it down - at least that's how the story is told in Terminator 2.)

Actually, I think the situation is even more complex. Although personhood theory is superior to the spooky doctrine of human dignity, it is still only an approximation to the truth. The truth of the matter is that there are no objective values in the disenchanted universe in which we find ourselves - there are merely things that we value. Human species-membership is not of objective value, but neither is personhood.

Out of our shared values, we have created moral systems that suit our interests, but these are institutions invented by human beings to serve human beings. Moral systems are our servants, not our masters; they have no deeper justification than that. They are responses to our values, fears, and sympathies, including the sympathetic responses that we have to non-human beings whose sufferings we recognise. There is no higher court of appeal to some objectively "correct" set of values, etc., although there is also no reason why we cannot attempt to alter and shape our own values if we wish (but the decision to do so will always be based on our deeper or stronger values; stepping entirely out of our initial value set is not possible, or even something that can be imagined coherently).

On this picture, we don't have a spooky "objective moral worth" that a fully-conscious AI would lack. On the other hand, if someone is simply more emotionally responsive to fellow human beings than to fully-conscious AIs, she is not making an intellectual mistake. It is a contingent empirical fact about us that we are not especially more responsive to people of different racial background (for example) once we overcome our tribalism and fears of the Other, but that fact is probably rooted in the additional fact that we are genetically programmed to respond to human facial expressions, tones of voice, basic morphology, and typical movements ... and not to such things as skin colour. If we were beings who really cared about skin colour at the deepest level of our genetic programming, morality as we now understand it would be impossible for us. Fortunately - as seen from inside our moral institutions and our actual values - Homo sapiens are not like that. Racism is cultural, not biologically programmed; it is skin deep.

However, we'll have to think very long and hard before we screw around with the most basic kinds of emotional responsiveness built into our genetic programming, even if it proves to be possible. Perhaps we'll eventually decide to make some changes to bring all our values into a better alignment, but it's not happening any time soon.

Meanwhile, if we start creating beings that possess the attributes of personhood, but do not possess the down-to-earth empirical characteristics that we are actually programmed to respond to, it is going to be much more difficult for us to extend our sympathies to them than has been the case with ongoing efforts to overcome racism. Perhaps we - or at least some of us - have reached a point where we would most value the happiness and fulfilment of persons, whatever appearance they took, and perhaps we could treat the "new humans" with the same concern as we treat other Homo sapiens. We are, perhaps, ready to put a higher value on the happiness of all Lockean persons than on the happiness of human beings in particular. We can abandon human-racism.

I suspect that in practice, however, even the most enlightened of us would be much more conflicted if push came to shove, and that there would be plenty of resistance from the less enlightened.

In the end, I agree, more or less, with the great importance attaching to personhood, and hope that I'll be able to act with kindness towards any fully-conscious artificial intelligences that I happen to meet over the next few decades. But I also think that we have good, non-spooky reasons to be very cautious about actually creating such beings. While there is no rational argument available against, say, therapeutic cloning, there is plenty of room for rational discussion about what is, and what is not, wise when we begin to contemplate issues that lie far on the other side of current bio-political controversies.

If only we could reach the point where society could have that discussion.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Wikipedia concludes science case

Over at Wikipedia, the complex arbitration on science and pseudoscience editing has come to an end. Without commenting on any of the parties involved, I just want to say that the outcome - with various people being cautioned, put on probation of diferent sorts, or being banned from writing about themselves and their own work - looks pretty fair and measured overall. Importantly, it has shown an admirable concern to maintain the integrity of Wikipedia's science articles, protecting them from the disproportionate incorporation of points of view from fringe science.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Polar bears

I'm just back from dinner with Jenny, Alison Goodman, and Ron Gallagher. Hmmm, at one point we were playing "Who reminds you of what animal?". Alison said she thinks of me as a polar bear: in her words, "A mixture of ferocity and shyness."

I'll have to think about that one, but I believe it was meant to be a compliment. Actually, she's probably about right. :)

Friday, December 01, 2006

You've got to love those irrationalists

They're at it again. As legislation to liberalise Australia's draconian laws on cloning and other reproductive technologies goes to the the lower house for debate (after narrowly passing in the Senate), we are seeing yet more hysterical, irrational opposition. One of the latest claims is that there will be a loophole because nothing will stop the creation of a zygote using the sperm of an adult man and an egg from an aborted fetus.

A letter in The Australian this morning from members of the Lockhart committee shows how misleading this is. The insemination of an egg cell to create a zygote outside a woman's body for any purpose other than reproduction is a crime that will have a 15-year jail term attached to it. The effect of this is to force the use of "spare" IVF embryos for research purposes, except where specifically provided for in the legislation. As for using IVF to create an embryo, using an egg from an aborted fetus, for reproductive purposes, there is a plethora of regulation in Australia that would rule this out. Once again we are seeing irrationalists dreaming up bizarre situations to try to oppose legislative reform through appeal to people's emotions.

That is the first point.

More fundamentally, though, if it assisted scientific research to create embryos using eggs from aborted fetuses what would actually be wrong with it? The idea stirs up emotions because of the connection with abortion, anathema for many people (though usually for irrational reasons). However, let's think about this. Who would actually be harmed by such a procedure?

The aborted fetus is already dead. Moreover, it is not as if something is happening to it after its death against its wishes while it was alive, as when someone fails to honour the terms of my will. A fetus is not the sort of entity that can have wishes about what happens after its death. I can see no other candidate for a "victim" of the conduct. In other words, we have a situation where Australia will continue to impose a penalty of fifteen years' imprisonment for a so-called "crime" that actually harms nobody and could be of use in scientific research that will ultimately yield health benefits. That is simply ridiculous.

It's about time we stopped listening to irrationalists when we formulate public policy. If reason prevails, we will see some minor liberalisation of the law in the short term, but there will still be draconian penalties against a whole range of procedures that cause no harms and should not be crimes at all. It's time to put the irrationalists who got us into this situation back in their box.

Just stop listening to them.