Three of the Best Podcasts About Ethics

Anyone can start a podcast, so you can run into everything from the conspiracist muttering into his cousin’s microphone to Barack Obama’s speechwriter talking about politics. The topics are endless, and the quality is variable, but there’s something for everyone.

If you’re looking for podcasts that seriously grapple with ideas in ethics and morality, then here are three of the best ones out there.

  • Very Bad Wizards

    This one is brought to you by Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, and Dave Pizarro, a social psychologist at Cornell who studies morality. Of the three podcasts listed here, this one is the most entertaining, and maybe even the most informative. Tamler and Dave are funny, and irreverent at times, but they also have nuanced conversations. Each episode revolves around an article or two in moral philosophy or moral psychology. There’s an occasional guest, but typically it’s just the two of them disagreeing with each other.

  • Waking Up

    If you like longform interviews with scholarly people, then you’ll like Waking Up, a podcast by the neuroscientist and independent scholar Sam Harris. While the topics aren’t confined to ethics, there is almost always an ethical component to the discussion. It’s clear that Sam likes examining ethical issues. He even wrote a book called The Moral Landscape, where he argues that the is-ought gap and the naturalistic fallacy need not worry anyone because science can answer questions about morality. I’m not convinced, but Sam’s book is still worth reading, and his podcast is worth listening to. He’s thoughtful and systematic when approaching ideas, and you can learn a lot from him and his guests.

  • The Partially Examined Life

    The Partially Examined Life is a podcast “by some guys who were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.” Mark Linsenmayer, Seth Paskin, and Wes Alwan all went to graduate school in philosophy but called it quits before finishing their PhDs. Now they, along with Mark’s brother-in-law Dylan Casey, philosophize on their podcast. The show covers philosophy broadly, but a good bit of the episodes are devoted to moral philosophy. In each episode, the guys have an informal but serious discussion of a philosophical text, sometimes with a guest. You can follow along and learn without reading the text, but you’ll get much more out of the episodes if you do the reading, which they link to in the show notes, beforehand.

These podcasters aren’t unknown to each other. Tamler appeared on The Partially Examined Life to discuss free will and moral responsibility, and he frequently jokes about needing to surpass them in the iTunes rankings. Dave announced that he’ll be joining them soon. Sam has thrice been on Very Bad Wizards, and Tamler and Dave were very recently Sam’s guest on Waking Up.

All three of the podcasts have been running for several years, so there are plenty of places to jump in. Take a break from Radiolab and This American Life and check them out.

The Unseemliness of Saintliness

There’s a psychological process called ethical fading that Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrusel talk about in their business ethics book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. Basically, when we make decisions, the ethical implications can fade from the decision criteria, allowing us to violate our own moral convictions without even realizing it. No one is immune to this phenomenon, not even you.

The good news is there are simple strategies – of the behavioral economics stripe – that can keep the moral dimensions of decisions from disappearing into the dark. For instance, publicly pre-committing to an ethical action, or pre-committing to an ethical action and sharing it with an unbiased and ethical person, makes people more likely to follow through with an ethical action in the future. There are also ways to ensure that abstract ethical values are salient during the decision process. These include imagining whether you’d be comfortable telling your mom about the decision, or thinking about your eulogy and what you’d want to be written about the values and principles you lived by.

We can, in effect, nudge ourselves toward morality.

It’s not hard to argue that battling meta-moral defects like ethical fading is a good thing. For Bazerman and Tenbrusel’s target – the business and organizational context, where misconduct tends to flourish – this seems self-evident. What is difficult, however, is figuring out how hard and how often we ought to battle our default psychology in the name of morality. Should we inject ethics into every decision we make and every action we take, or is there a limit to how morally good we want to be?

Bazerman and Tenbrusel don’t advocate taking on our psycho-ethical inadequacies at every turn, nor do they suggest that it’s even possible, but it’s still an interesting question whether as much moral goodness as possible is a good thing – whether we should, if we could, hack our psychology all the way to moral perfection. Whether we would want to be moral saints.

Moral Sainthood

Benjamin Franklin embarked on a systematic quest for moral perfection, which he described in his autobiography. He failed but wrote that he became a “better and happier man” than he otherwise would have been. His desire to be morally perfect, he said, was like “those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wished-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavor, and tolerable, while it continues fair and legible.” In other words, moral perfection is probably unattainable, but it’s nonetheless worth striving for.

George Orwell disagreed. In his essay on Gandhi, he wrote of his “aesthetic distaste” for the man’s saintliness, and he argued that sainthood is incompatible with what it means to be human:

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.

It isn’t just that the average human is simply a failed saint who snubs the ideal of sainthood because it’s too hard to achieve. “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints,” Orwell said, “and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

The philosopher Susan Wolf was equally unimpressed with the moral saint. In her 1982 article “Moral Saints,” she argued that moral perfection isn’t “a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.”

There are two possible models of the moral saint, Wolf said. The Loving Saint is motivated solely by the wellbeing of others. Where most people derive a significant portion of their wellbeing from the ordinary joys of life – material comforts, fulfilling activities, love, companionship, etc. – the moral saint’s happiness genuinely lies “in the happiness of others, and so he would devote himself to others gladly, and with a whole and open heart.” The Rational Saint, on the other hand, is as tempted as the non-saint by the ordinary constituents of happiness, but she denies herself life’s pleasures out of moral duty. Broader moral concerns make her sacrifice her own interests to the interests of others.

Though the motivations of these types of saints differ, the difference would have little effect on the saints’ ultimate commitment – being as morally good and treating others as justly and kindly as possible. The moral saint, no matter which type, “will have the standard moral virtues to a non-standard degree.” The problem with moral perfection, according to Wolf, is that it conflicts with our ideals of personal excellence and wellbeing:

For the moral virtues, given that they are, by hypothesis, all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.

If the moral saint spends his days pursuing nothing but moral goals, Wolf argued, then he has no time to pursue other worthwhile goals and interests. He’s not reading novels, playing music, or participating in athletics. There are also nonmoral characteristics that people value – a cynical or sarcastic wit, or sense of humor that appreciates one – that would be incongruent with sainthood. A moral saint, Wolf said, would oppose such characteristics because they require a mindset of resignation and cynicism about the darker aspects of the world. The morally perfect person “should try to look for the best in people, give them the benefit of the doubt as long as possible, try to improve regrettable situations as long as there is any hope of success.”

Nor could the moral saint take an interest in things like gourmet cooking, high fashion, or interior design. If there is a justification for such activities, Wolf said, “it is one which rests on the decision not to justify every activity against morally beneficial alternatives, and this is a decision a moral saint will never make.”

Our ideals of excellence, Wolf said, contain a mixture of moral and nonmoral virtues. We want our models to be morally good – but “not just morally good, but talented or accomplished or attractive in nonmoral ways as well”:

We may make ideals out of athletes, scholars, artists – more frivolously out of cowboys, private eyes, and rock stars. We may strive for Katharine Hepburn’s grace, Paul Newman’s “cool”; we are attracted to the high-spirited passionate nature of Natasha Rostov; we admire the keen perceptiveness of Lambert Strether. Though there is certainly nothing immoral about the ideal characters or traits I have in mind, they cannot be superimposed upon the ideal of the moral saint. For although it is a part of many of these ideals that the characters set high, and not merely acceptable, moral standards for themselves, it is also essential to their power and attractiveness that the moral strengths go, so to speak, alongside of specific, independently admirable, nonmoral ground projects and dominant personal traits.

According to Wolf, although we include moral virtues in our ideals of personal excellence, we look in our models of moral excellence for people whose moral virtues occur alongside interests or traits of lower moral salience – “there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.”

And, to be sure, it’s not just that we value well-roundedness and can’t stand saints’ singular commitment to morality. We don’t usually object to those who are passionately committed, above all else, to become, say, Olympic athletes or accomplished musicians. Such people might decide that their commitment to these goals are strong enough to be worth sacrificing other things that life might have to offer. Desiring to be a moral saint is different, however:

The desire to be as morally good as possible is apt to have the character not just of a stronger, but of a higher desire, which does not merely successfully compete with one’s other desires but which rather subsumes or demotes them. The sacrifice of other interests for the interest in morality, then, will have the character, not of a choice, but of an imperative.

There is something odd, Wolf continued, about morality or moral goodness being the object of a dominant passion. When the Loving Saint happily gives up life’s pleasures in the name of morality, it’s striking not because of how much he loves morality, but because of how little he seems to love life’s nonmoral pleasures. “One thinks that, if he can give these up so easily, he does not know what it is to truly love them,” Wolf wrote. The Rational Saint might desire what life offers in a way that the Loving Saint cannot, but in denying himself these pleasures out of moral duty, his position is equally disturbing – one reckons that he has “a pathological fear of damnation, perhaps, or an extreme form of self-hatred that interferes with his ability to enjoy the enjoyable life.”

Like Orwell, Wolf confronted the possibility that we are put off by models of moral saints because they highlight our own weaknesses and because sainthood would require us to sacrifice things we enjoy. She granted that our being unattracted to the requirements of sainthood is not, in itself, sufficient for condemning the ideal, but some of the qualities that the moral saint lacks are good qualities, ones that we find desirable, ones that we ought to like. And this, she said, provides us with reasons to discourage moral sainthood as an ideal:

In advocating the development of these varieties of excellence, we advocate nonmoral reasons for acting, and in thinking that it is good for a person to strive for an ideal that gives a substantial role to the interests and values that correspond to these virtues, we implicitly acknowledge the goodness of ideals incompatible with that of the moral saint.

So, Wolf agreed with Orwell that people don’t, and shouldn’t, strive to be moral saints – not because sainthood is incompatible with being human, however, but because it is incompatible with being an excellent one. And although Ben Franklin endorsed the pursuit of moral perfection, his life story seems perfectly harmonious with Wolf’s view: he may have failed to become morally perfect, but he succeeded in achieving personal excellence.

If moral sainthood is not a model of personal excellence and well-being toward which we should aspire, then maybe the psychological constraints on our morality aren’t defects at all. Maybe we need them to attain and enjoy the nonmoral goods in life. Sometimes it might be good to just let the ethics fade. The big question is, when?

Five Scientific Theories That Tell Us Why Things Are Funny

For some scholars, the study of humor is no laughing matter

If you’re an ordinary adult, you laugh around 20 times a day. And you probably haven’t given much thought to why the things you laugh at are funny. In fact, you might even think that analyzing humor is the best way to destroy it.

That’s what E.B. White thought. He said, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

He was correct in at least one those claims. Some scientists are interested in what makes things funny, and they’ve developed some pretty sophisticated explanations. Here are five of the major scientific theories of humor. Read with caution, as this article could kill your sense of humor.

The Relief Theory

The relief theory says that humor and laughter work as a pressure valve for releasing excess or unnecessary energy. Sigmund Freud was a proponent of the relief theory. He believed laughter is the release of either psychic energy that is normally used, in typical Freudian fashion, to repress feelings or psychic or emotional energy that was summoned in response to a stimulus but was then determined to be unnecessary.

The Arousal Theory

The arousal theory rejects the relief theory’s idea that humor involves the release of excess or unnecessary energy. Instead, it builds on the idea that the right level of physiological arousal causes subjective pleasure. Low levels of arousal are not enough to induce pleasure, and too high of levels are unpleasant. But there is a sweet spot that people enjoy. People laugh, according to the theory, when they are aroused to the point of discomfort (a joke setup) and then something (a punchline) causes their arousal level to suddenly drop into the sweet spot.

The Superiority Theory

The superiority theory says that aggression is at the core of all humor. Early theorists claimed humor was intertwined with actual aggression, but Charles Gruner, a contemporary advocate of the perspective, says humor is not real aggression. Rather, it’s a playful form of it rooted in an evolutionary context of competition. People find humor in others’ plights, when they assert their superiority over others, or when they simply outwit someone else, he says.

The Incongruity Theory

The incongruity theory is probably the most popular theory of humor today. It says the perception some sort of incongruity is necessary for thinking something is humorous. People laugh, for instance, when they experience something that’s surprising, atypical, or a violation or departure from the way they think things should be. Consider this joke about two fish in a tank. One says to the other, “You man the guns. I’ll drive.” We expect the fish to be in a fish tank, so their being in a combat vehicle is slightly humorous.

One shortcoming of incongruity theory is that incongruity alone isn’t enough to explain humor. A fish driving a tank may be funny because its incongruous, but some incongruous things aren’t funny, such as tragic accidents.

The Benign Violation Theory

The benign violation theory is the newest theory out there. It incorporates elements from some of the other theories, particularly incongruity and superiority, into one unifying one. It says people laugh when three things happen. First, there must be a violation of some norm or sense of how the world ought to be. Second, the person must judge the violation as playful, non-serious, or non-threatening. Third, the judgment that something is a violation and that it’s benign must occur simultaneously.

To get a better grasp of benign violation theory, think about malapropisms. They violate our linguistic norms, but they are not threatening. And they are almost always funny. Now think about sexist jokes. They violate our norms of gender equality, and they are probably funniest to sexists because sexists are most likely to see the violation as benign.

Now that you know some of the most famous theories of humor, keep them to yourself. Don’t be the buzzkill explaining the joke.

The Needle and the Plug: Is There a Difference Between Killing and Letting Die?

Many people believe there is a significant difference between withdrawing life-sustaining treatment and letting a terminally ill patient die (passive euthanasia) and actively causing a terminal patient’s death by, for instance, delivering a lethal injection (active euthanasia).

Even the American Medical Association (AMA) endorses the distinction. The AMA’s code of medical ethics states that a patient with decision-making capacity “has the right to decline any medical intervention or ask that an intervention be stopped, even when that decision is expected to lead to his or her death and regardless of whether or not the individual is terminally ill.” If a patient doesn’t have decision-making capacity, her surrogate decision maker may, in accordance with her wishes, decline the initiation of life-sustaining treatment or have such treatment stopped if it has already been started.

Active measures to end a patient’s life, however, are forbidden by the code. It says that doctors engaging in active euthanasia “would ultimately cause more harm than good” and that the practice is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.” Another strike against active euthanasia, according to the AMA, is that it “could readily be extended to incompetent and other vulnerable populations” (a rather odd concern given that it could be guarded against by limiting it to when it’s truly voluntary, as is the case for passive euthanasia).

But is active euthanasia morally worse than passive euthanasia if the goal for each is to relieve the patient’s suffering? In his classic 1975 article “Active and Passive Euthanasia,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the philosopher James Rachels argued that it isn’t.

In fact, Rachels contended, active euthanasia can be more humane than passive euthanasia. To demonstrate his point, he used the case of a man dying of incurable throat cancer. Even with continued treatment, the man’s going to die eventually. But he’s in excruciating pain, which can’t be successfully relieved, so he doesn’t want the treatment to keep him alive any longer. If he asks the doctor to end treatment, and the doctor obliges, the doctor’s withholding treatment would seem compassionate because the patient is suffering, his disease can’t be cured, and extending his suffering unnecessarily would be wrong.

However, as Rachels pointed out, if treatment were simply withdrawn, it would take longer for the man to die and he would suffer more than he would if he were actively killed by a lethal injection. “This fact,” Rachels argued, “provides strong reason for thinking that, once the initial decision not to prolong his agony has been made active euthanasia is actually preferable to passive euthanasia, rather than the reverse.” Claiming otherwise, he said, “is to endorse the option that leads to more suffering rather than less, and is contrary to the humanitarian impulse that prompts the decision not prolong his life in the first place.”

Rachels also attacked the common belief that killing in itself is morally worse than letting die. He presented two cases that are exactly alike except one involves killing someone and the other involves letting someone die:

In the first, Smith stands to gain a large inheritance if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. One evening while the child is taking his bath, Smith sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so that it will look like an accident.

In the second, Jones also stands to gain if anything should happen to his six-year-old cousin. Like Smith, Jones sneaks in planning to drown the child 4 in his bath. However, just as he enters the bathroom Jones sees the child slip and hit his head, and fall face down in the water. Jones is delighted; he stands by, ready to push the child’s head back under if it is necessary, but it is not necessary. With only a little thrashing about, the child drowns all by himself, “accidentally,” as Jones watches and does nothing.

Rachels argued there is no morally relevant difference between the two cases. “In the first place,” he said, “both men acted from the same motive, personal gain, and both had exactly the same end in view when they acted.”

As for arguments that the Smith and Jones cases are different from cases of euthanasia because they involve nefarious motives and obviously objectionable actions, Rachels said that the point is the same in euthanasia cases – the difference between killing and letting die is not a difference along which moral lines can be drawn:

If a doctor lets a patient die, for humane reasons, he is in the same moral position as if he had given the patient a lethal injection for humane reasons. If his decision was wrong—if, for example, the patient’s illness was in fact curable—the decision would be equally regrettable no matter which method was used to carry it out. And if the doctor’s decision was the right one, the method used is not in itself important.

So, what about arguments declaring that the difference between active and passive euthanasia is that in passive euthanasia the doctor doesn’t do anything to bring about the patient’s death?

It’s incorrect, Rachels argued, to say that in passive euthanasia the doctor doesn’t do anything to bring about the patient’s death. The doctor “does one thing that is very important: he lets the patient die.” Rachels granted that letting someone die is different from other actions in that it’s a kind action that is performed by way of not performing certain other actions, but he maintained that it is nonetheless a type of action.

“The decision to let a patient die,” he said, “is subject is subject to moral appraisal in the same way that a decision to kill him would be subject to moral appraisal: it may be assessed as wise or unwise, compassionate or sadistic, right of wrong.” And if a doctor deliberately let a patient die who had an easily curably disease, the doctor would be just as blameworthy for what he’d done as he would be for needlessly killing a patient.

It’s hard to argue that Rachels was wrong. In cases of both active and passive euthanasia, the motive, to relieve a terminally ill patient’s suffering, and the result, are the same. The method by which the result is brought doesn’t seem to matter. Though Rachels thought there was no morally relevant distinction between active and passive euthanasia, he never went so far as to say explicitly that to let someone die is to kill her.

The medical ethicist Dan Brock, on the other hand, argued just that with this case in his 1992 article “Voluntary Active Euthanasia,” published in the Hastings Center Report:

Consider the case of a patient terminally ill with ALS disease. She is completely respirator dependent with no hope of ever being weaned. She is unquestionably competent but finds her condition intolerable and persistently requests to be removed from the respirator and allowed to die. Most people and physicians would agree that the patient’s physician should respect the patient’s wishes and remove her from the respirator, though this will certainly cause the patient’s death. The common understanding is that the physician thereby allows the patient to die. But is that correct?

Suppose the patient has a greedy and hostile son who mistakenly believes that his mother will never decide to stop her life-sustaining treatment and that even if she did her physician would not remove her from the respirator. Afraid that his inheritance will be dissipated by a long and expensive hospitalization, he enters his mother’s room while she is sedated, extubates her, and she dies. Shortly thereafter the medical staff discovers what he has done and confronts the son. He replies, “I didn’t kill her, I merely allowed her to die. It was her ALS disease that caused her death.” I think this would rightly be dismissed as transparent sophistry-the son went into his mother’s room and deliberately killed her. But, of course, the son performed just the same physical actions, did just the same thing, that the physician would have done. If that is so, then doesn’t the physician also kill the patient when he extubates her?

Brock noted the important moral differences between the doctor’s behavior and that of the son: the doctor acted with the woman’s consent and the son didn’t; the doctor had good motives and the son didn’t; and the doctor occupied a role in which he was authorized to fulfill the woman’s wishes and the son didn’t.

So, the doctor’s act was justified, and the son’s act wasn’t. Yet in both cases, the woman is killed.

Whether you agree with Rachels and Brock or not, you have to admit that the conceptual and moral distinctions between active and passive euthanasia aren’t very sharp. In cases in which passive euthanasia is justified, it’s hard to come up with good reasons why active euthanasia is not also justified – whether compassion is delivered through a needle or the pulling of a plug doesn’t matter all that much.

John Christman’s Content-Neutral Version of Positive Liberty

This is a post is a follow-up to a previous post discussing Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty.

In his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin warned that the logic of positive liberty could lead to authoritarian corruption. Deemed the “inversion thesis” by George Crowder, Berlin’s argument was that by purporting to be more consistent with liberty than an individual’s actual wishes, the notion of positive liberty can be used to justify coercion against individual’s expressed wishes, thereby inverting the concept of liberty into its very opposite.

In “Liberalism and Individual Positive Freedom,” philosopher John Christman attempts a positive conception of freedom that is not subject to the dangers that concerned Berlin.

Whereas Berlin emphasized the historical notions of positive liberty that opened the door for coercion because the coerced desires or actions supposedly conformed with reason more so than the individual’s own, Christman argues that positive liberty need not rely on such strict conditions. It is not the content of the individual’s desires, he argues, but the procedures by which his desires are formed that constitute positive liberty. According to Christman, a person P is positively free with regard to some desire D if:

  1. P was in a position to reflect upon the processes involved in the development of D;

  2. P did not resist the development of D when attending to this process of development, or P would not have resisted that development had P attended to the process;

  3. The lack of resistance to the development of D did not take place (or would not have) under the influence of factors that inhibit self-reflection (unless exposure to such factors was autonomously chosen, in which case that choice had to be made without such factors); and

  4. The judgments involved in this self-reflection, plus the desire set that results, are minimally rational for P.

Christman spends quite a bit of time elaborating on the fourth condition and its requirement of minimal rationality. Traditional accounts of positive liberty, he argues, are laden with declarations connecting “true” liberty with the demands of reason. The question, he maintains, is to what extent must the judgments involved in the self-reflection demanded by positive liberty be rational, or in what sense must they be rational?

The criteria for rationality vary, he notes, and they can range from the requirement of consistency between beliefs and desires, to requiring the choice of the most effective means to achieve one’s ends, to having sufficient evidence for the beliefs upon which one’s desires depend. All accounts of rationality, however, can be put into one of two categories: “internalist” or “subjective” accounts and “externalist” or “objective accounts.”

For an internalist account, the criterion by which an action is considered rational is dependent only on those beliefs and desires that are “internal” to the person. The relation of those beliefs and desires to the external world (i.e., their accuracy) is not considered. It is usually demanded, Christman maintains, that the internal beliefs (upon which the conditional desires are based) are consistent and the desires are consistent.

By contrast, the externalist account of rationality requires that the person have adequate objective evidence to justify his beliefs, and that his desires be based on these beliefs. An even more stringent version of the externalist condition is one that requires the person to conform his desires to the correct values as well as to factual external evidence.

Christman summarizes the distinction between internalist and externalist accounts of rationality in the following way: “the internalist would only demand that a person acts for reasons (perhaps ones which meet some requirement of consistency), while the externalist demands that the free agent must act in accordance with reason, where that includes knowledge of the truth, both about the world as well as morality.”

Christman defends the minimal, internalist account of rationality for the development of the desires of a positively free, autonomous person. This means that individuals whose actions are based on inconsistent beliefs or inconsistent desires are positively unfree. Christman does note that probably no one has completely consistent beliefs and desires, so the requirement is actually that there be a lack of manifest inconsistencies. He doesn’t offer a point at which beliefs or desires should be considered manifestly inconsistent, but I suppose a line could be drawn, at least in theory. There is no requirement, however, that the beliefs in question fit the external (objective) facts, and there is, similarly, no requirement that the brute desires be appraised on the basis of their rationality.

This conception of positive liberty, Christman argues, answers Berlin’s critique that proponents of positive liberty can justify interference with others’ actions by claiming the coercion is consistent with liberty. No one, he argues, will be in an epistemic position to justify interference on the basis of failed rationality of the internalist type. To do so, the interferer would have to know more than the agent about the internal structure of the agent’s desires and beliefs, and judge them to be inconsistent. Chirstman thinks this is practically impossible.

Christman even argues that requiring an external evidence condition for one’s beliefs would only allow for interference in a narrow range of cases. The cases would include, for instance, those in which the interferer has access to more factual information than the agent and where the information is indisputable and the agent had reasonable access to it. Interfering with an agent’s actions under such circumstances is justifiable, Christman says, because “to act unwittingly is not to act freely. And if I interfere with your unwitting actions I do not disrupt your self-government in any meaningful way.” Further, he continues, “most writers in the liberal tradition accept this as neither paradoxical nor pernicious.”

If these less stringent conditions of positive freedom are accepted, and the notion that freedom requires adherence to the correct values is rejected, then what results is a content-neutral, autonomy-based conception of positive freedom. Christman defends this content-neutral conception as follows:

There are good theoretical reasons for a content neutral conception. For any desire, no matter how evil, self-sacrificing, or slavish it might be, we can imagine cases where, given the conditions faced, an agent would have good reason to have such a desire. That is, there may be many cases where I freely pursue a strategy of action that involves constraining my choices and manipulating my values. But if this is part of an autonomous pursuit of a goal, it is implausible to claim that the resulting actions or values do not reflect my autonomy. So since we can imagine any such preference as being autonomously formed, given a fantastic enough situation, then it cannot be the content of the preference that determines its autonomy. It is always the origin of desires that matters in judgments about autonomy.

On this view, Christman argues, as long as an individual’s desires and values are generated in accordance with the procedural conditions of autonomous preference formation, then the actions that stem from them will be positively free, regardless of the content of those desires and values.

This post was adapted from my bioethics master’s thesis: “The Moral Significance of Non-Autonomous Refusals of Medical Treatment.”

The Knobe Effect and the Intentionality of Side Effects

Imagine that the chairman of a company decides to implement an initiative that will reap profits for his company but will also have a particular side effect. The chairman knows the side effect will occur, but he couldn’t care less. Making money is his only reason for making his decision.

The chairman goes forward with the initiative, his company makes a lot of money, and the side effect occurs as anticipated.

Did the chairman bring about the side effect intentionally? Don’t answer yet.

In a famous 2003 experiment, the philosopher Joshua Knobe showed that people’s judgments about whether a side effect is intentional or not depend on what the side effect is. He randomly assigned subjects to read one of two scenarios, which were the same as the one above, except the actual side effects of the chairman’s decision were presented. In the first scenario, the initiative harms the environment. In the second, it helps the environment.

Of the subjects who read the scenario in which the initiative harmed the environment, 82% said the chairman intentionally brought about the harm. Subjects made the opposite judgment in the other condition. Asked whether the chairman intentionally helped the environment by undertaking the initiative, 77% said that he didn’t.

So, there is an asymmetry in the way we ascribe intentionality to side effects – now known as the “Knobe Effect” or the “Side Effect Effect” – and this study suggests that it stems from our moral evaluations of those side effects. As Knobe concluded in the 2003 study, people “seem considerably more willing to say that a side-effect was brought about intentionally when they regard that side-effect as bad than when they regard it as good.”

But subsequent research by Knobe and others has shown that it’s not that simple. Sometimes people judge good side effects, such as when an action violates an unjust Nazi law, as intentional and bad side effects, like complying with the Nazi law, as not intentional. Richard Holton argues that it is whether a norm is knowingly violated, and not necessarily whether a side effect is morally good or bad, that influences people’s judgments of intentionality.

You probably would’ve struggled to say whether the chairman intended the “particular side effect” because there was nothing to guide your intuitions. If there were, though, you likely would’ve exemplified the Knobe Effect.

Freedom is Freedom is Freedom: Gerald MacCallum’s Singular Concept of Liberty

In a previous post, I discussed Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty (or freedom). Here I will discuss Gerald MacCallum’s objection to it.

MacCallum doesn’t think that negative and positive liberty are two distinct concepts. Rather, he thinks that there is only one concept and that it’s a mistake to characterize liberty, as Berlin does, as either one of two “dyadic relations” – “freedom from” (negative liberty) and “freedom to” (positive liberty).

MacCallum says that freedom is always a “triadic relation” in which someone is free from some constraint to do (or not do) something. All discussions of freedom, he argues, can be fit into the following format: “X is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,” where “x ranges over agents, y ranges over such ‘preventing conditions’ as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance.”

So, MacCallum preserves the structure of Berlin’s negative liberty as the freedom from interference, but he applies it to positive liberty as well. All obstacles to a person’s liberty, according to MacCallum, are simply constraints – internal or external – on his capacity to act according to his wishes.

On one hand, this view seems to successfully collapse Berlin’s distinct notions of positive and negative liberty into one concept. If anything that hinders liberty can be conceptualized as a constraint, whether it is internal or external, then there is no useful distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty. Under MacCallum’s formulation, it doesn’t matter whether an individual’s actions are interfered with by another agent or by his or her own inner psychological capacities. Both are instances in which the individual’s liberty is constrained by something.

On the other hand, it’s possible to view Berlin’s distinction as consistent with MacCallum’s formulation. Although MacCallum suggests that Berlin sees negative and positive liberty as mutually exclusive, Berlin’s distinction doesn’t eliminate the possibility of common ground between the two conceptions. Negative and positive liberty can be seen as different aspects of an overarching concept of liberty, but aspects that are, nonetheless, incommensurable. In Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, George Crowder notes that instead of sharing a single essence, as MacCallum’s formulation seems to imply, negative and positive liberty could be seen as belonging to a family of concepts with an underlying commonality.

And even if all impediments to liberty can be viewed simply as constraints, this doesn’t rule out a conceptual distinction between internal and external constraints.

Imagine a man who wants to leave his home, drive to the grocery store, and buy some tomatoes. He can’t leave, though, because he’s been taken hostage by a masked gunman. Now imagine another man with the same desire for tomatoes who can’t fulfill it because he can’t remember how to get to the store. Under MacCallum’s formulation of liberty, there is very little difference between the ways in which these two men are unfree. They’re both subject to some constraint on their capacity to act in accordance with their wishes. And it doesn’t seem to matter that one man’s constraint is a limitation within his head and the other man’s constraint is a gun to his.

Still, the two constraints do appear to differ in at least one important way.

Even if the men are constrained to the same extent, and thus are unfree to the same extent, the man taken captive has been violated by another person. He feels like he’s been wronged – because he has been. The man whose memory has failed him hasn’t been wronged in any meaningful way – unless you believe in some notion of cosmic injustice – and he’s unlikely to feel otherwise. There’s something different, something worse, about being blocked by another person from doing what you want to do.

It is therefore at the disjuncture between the experiential aspects of internal and external constraints, and between the ways in which the idea of being wronged applies to each, where a wedge can be driven between the two types of constraints.

MacCallum may be right that all obstacles to liberty can be conceptualized as constraints, but Berlin is right that not all liberty is the same.

This post was adapted from my bioethics master’s thesis: “The Moral Significance of Non-Autonomous Refusals of Medical Treatment.”

The Liberty Bell’s Crack: Isaiah Berlin and Two Concepts of Liberty

Which Liberty?

It’s hard to find someone who is against liberty, but it’s easy to find disagreement about what the term “liberty” means.

Imagine a conspiracy theorist who is convinced that government agents are blasting mind-controlling waves into his apartment. To keep the government out of his head, he lines his walls, floor, and ceiling with aluminum foil. To be safe, he also lines his baseball cap with the foil and watches television from inside a foil-lined refrigerator box placed strategically in the center of his living room, as far away from the windows as possible. Is this man free?

In one sense, yes. No one is stopping him from protecting himself from non-existent waves by lining his home and himself with kitchen packaging. In another sense, no. The man’s behavior is exceptionally irrational. He is so divorced from reality that he can’t recognize and act in his true interests.

The man’s story highlights two dominant notions of liberty (or freedom, a term which is normally used interchangeably with liberty) that have occupied philosophers and others for centuries: negative liberty and positive liberty. He enjoys negative liberty because there is no external interference with his actions, but he lacks positive liberty because he lacks rational control over his own desires and actions.

The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin drew perhaps the most explicit distinction between positive and negative liberty in his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” But Berlin didn’t merely articulate the distinction between these two conceptions. He exposed a tension between them, arguing that positive liberty often perverts the concept of liberty so much that it doesn’t resemble liberty at all.

Negative Liberty

Negative liberty, according to Berlin, is “simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.” The central obstacle to negative liberty is coercion, and a measurement of someone’s negative liberty is the degree to which he or she is free from coercion: “If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum requirement, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.”

Berlin is clear, however, that for interference with an individual’s activities to be coercion, the source of the interference must be human. He maintains that “[people] lack political liberty or freedom only if [they] are prevented from attaining a goal by human beings” and that “mere incapacity to obtain a goal is not lack of political freedom.”

Because negative liberty requires only that someone be free from coercion by other humans, it relies on a minimalist conception of human agency. There is no requirement that he possess certain internal capacities or values for him to be entitled to non-interference by others. Negative liberty presumes an entitlement to non-interference, and it imposes an obligation on everyone to refrain from obstructing others’ actions.

It is negative liberty, and the concomitant notion that one’s right to non-interference doesn’t depend upon the possession of other capacities, goals, or values, that the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill defends in his book On Liberty:

His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

Positive Liberty

Liberty in the positive sense, according to Berlin, is the freedom accompanied by being one’s own master. It represents freedom from “nature” or one’s “own ‘unbridled’ passions.” It involves, among other things, the “higher,” rational self achieving mastery over the lower self, the self that is dominated by irrational desires and impulses.

This idea of an individual having two selves, a rational, ideal self and an empirical self, is fundamental to positive liberty. Regarding the two selves that are inherent to this notion of liberty, Berlin says the following:

This dominant self is then variously identified with reason, with my ‘higher nature’, with the self which calculates and aims at what will satisfy it in the long run, with my ‘real’, or ‘ideal’, or ‘autonomous’ self, or with my self ‘at its best’; which is then contrasted with irrational impulse, uncontrolled desires, my ‘lower’ nature, the pursuit of immediate pleasures, my ‘empirical’ or ‘heteronomous’ self, swept by every gust of desire and passion, needing to be rigidly disciplined if it is ever to rise to the full height of its ‘real’ nature.

As you can see, fundamental to this version of liberty is a higher form of agency than that required by negative liberty. Positive liberty requires certain essential capacities or conditions, which may vary according to the particular form of positive liberty being endorsed, that are, by definition, required for an individual to be considered free. The common assumption underlying this line of thought, according to Berlin, is “that the rational ends of our ‘true’ natures must coincide, or be made to coincide, however violently our poor, ignorant, desire-ridden, passionate, empirical selves may cry out against this process. Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong.”

The Relationship Between Postive and Negative Liberty

The danger of the notion of positive liberty, according to Berlin, is that it divides the individual into two selves: the true, or rational, self and the empirical self, which is subject to the irrational passions and desires that need to be controlled or contained. Once this metaphorical bifurcation of the self has occurred, he argues, the door is open to the infringement upon people’s empirical wishes and desires in the name of their ‘true’ selves – or their own freedom:

What, at most, this entails is that they would not resist me if they were rational and as wise as I and understood their interests as I do. But I may go on to claim a good deal more than this. I may declare that they are actually aiming at what in their benighted state they consciously resist, because there exists within them an occult entity – their latent rational will, or their true purpose – and this entity, although it is belied by all that they overtly feel and do and say, is their ‘real’ self, of which the poor empirical self in space and time may know nothing or little and that this inner spirit is the only self that deserves to have its wishes taken into account. Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf, of their real selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom – the free choice of his ‘true,’ albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self.

In Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, George Crowder calls Berlin’s argument the “inversion thesis” because the idea is that the notion of positive liberty allows the concept of liberty to be inverted into its very opposite. Coercion can be justified under the rubric of positive liberty because it is purported to be more consistent with liberty than the individual’s actual wishes. Crowder points out that there is a strong undercurrent in Berlin’s thesis that the logic of positive liberty ought to make us suspicious because the idea itself exposes it to the potential for authoritarian corruption.

Berlin is not wholeheartedly against coercion for a person’s own good, however. He’s more worried about the imposition of certain philosophical ideals on someone in the name of his own freedom. The positively unfree person, with his “poor earthly body and foolish mind” might expressly reject what he is being coerced to do, but since his empirical body is not truly free, he is not really being coerced. Instead, his higher self has willed it, “not indeed consciously, not as he seems in everyday life, but in his role as a rational self which his empirical self may not know.”

What Berlin is criticizing is the view that the tension between someone’s expressed desires and a specific conception of his own good can be relieved by opining that coercion is permissible because, in the coerced person’s current empirical configuration, he is not free anyway. This is a distortion of what freedom is, according to Berlin. “Enough manipulation with the definition of man,” he says, “and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes.” As John Christman put it, for Berlin, “to label as ‘freedom’ the mastery of the ‘lower’ desires by the higher capacities of morality and virtue, not to mention by the supposedly superior wisdom of a general will, marked a treacherous tilt toward the justification of centralized power under the guise of moral superiority.”

Berlin’s ideas are not without their critics. In two follow-up posts, I discuss Gerald McCallum’s view that the distinction between positive and negative liberty can be collapsed and John Christman’s argument that positive liberty doesn’t necessarily open the door for authoritarianism.

This post was adapted from my bioethics master’s thesis: “The Moral Significance of Non-Autonomous Refusals of Medical Treatment.”

G.E. Moore and the Naturalistic Fallacy

Justifying Moral Values

Think about your most firmly held moral values. Now imagine that you have to justify them to the most inquisitive five-year-old conceivable.

If you believe, for example, that causing harm is wrong, why? Or if you think that maximizing happiness or pleasure is the right thing to do, what do you suppose makes it right? What makes fairness, respect, generosity, and truthfulness good? What does good (or bad or right or wrong) even mean?

You might see these questions as just the naïve ramblings of a moral novice, but can you answer them? Can they even be answered?

It’s hard to justify our moral values at the most basic level, and criticism of attempts to do so is not new.

In a previous post, I discussed David Hume’s view that what people ought morally to do can’t be inferred from factual, non-moral observations about the world. Hume’s view suggests that the foundations of our moral judgments rest on something other than logical deductions from non-moral states of affairs; for Hume, moral sentiments, rather than rationality, are what guide our moral judgments and actions.

The philosopher G.E. Moore, writing in the early 20th century, advances a similar – though not identical – criticism of the grounding of moral claims in non-moral observations, which Moore refers to as natural properties. In his book Principia Ethica, first published in 1903, Moore focuses on the nature of the fundamental moral concept good and how attempts to define it are confused. By good, Moore isn’t talking about whether anything in particular should be considered good but how the concept itself is to be defined.

The Naturalistic Fallacy and Defining Good

So, how should good be defined?

There is no shortage of possible definitions. Good is naturalness. Good is normalness. Good is virtuousness. Good is happiness. Good is pleasure. Good is fulfillment of duty.

Every single one of these is wrong, according to Moore, because good can’t be defined. And defining it in terms of natural properties, such as pleasure or happiness, is to commit what Moore calls the “naturalistic fallacy.”

It’s important to note that Moore isn’t saying that things that are pleasurable or natural or normal aren’t good or can’t be good. Many of them are good. He’s just saying that the property of goodness can’t be the same thing as pleasure, naturalness, normalness, or any other natural property, so any attempt to define it as such (e.g. “pleasure alone is good) is fallacious.

Trying to define good is like trying to define yellow. You can’t thoroughly explain it to anyone who doesn’t already know what it is. You can describe its physical equivalent, Moore says. “But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to shew that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow. They are not what we perceive …The most we are entitled to say of those vibrations is that they are what corresponds in space to the yellow which we actually perceive.”

Now think about the concept good. How do you explain it to someone who doesn’t already know what it means? You can’t, according to Moore because good, like yellow, is such a simple notion that it can’t be defined without referencing itself. Other things such as pleasure can contain the property good, but good can’t be reduced to pleasure or some other natural property. Good is simply good.

Moore contrasts good and yellow – simple concepts that can’t be broken down any further – with complex concepts, which can be. You can define a horse, for example, by listing its many different properties and qualities – it has four legs, hooved feet, and so on. But once you reduce it to its simplest terms, Moore says, those simple terms cannot be explained to anyone who doesn’t already know them. “They are simply something which you think of or perceive, and to any one who cannot think of or perceive or perceive them, you can never, by any definition, make their nature known.”

Like the simplest properties of a horse, good can’t be reduced to anything else, and trying to do so is a mistake. (Although Moore focuses on good, the basic idea – that moral properties can’t be reduced to natural properties – appears to apply to other moral properties, such as right, but Moore believed that the good was the ultimate end of ethical inquiry).

The Open Question Argument

To support his idea that good can’t merely be equated with natural properties, Moore proposes a thought experiment which has come to be known as the “open question argument”:

The hypothesis that disagreement about the meaning of good is disagreement with regard to the correct analysis of a given whole, may be most plainly seen to be incorrect by consideration of the fact that, whatever definition may be offered, it may always be asked, with significance, of the complex so defined, whether it is itself good.

For example, you may say that good means simply to promote the most overall happiness, and you may apply that definition to a particular question, such as whether it’s good to tax rich people at a much higher rate than poor people. And if you conclude that is indeed good, then you are thinking that it is one of those things that promotes the most overall happiness.

As plausible as your account may seem to you, the question “Is it good to promote the most overall happiness?” is still just as intelligible as the question “Is it good to tax rich people at a much higher rate?” It’s an open question. It can’t be settled in the same way that other definitional questions (e.g., “Is a bachelor married?) can. The notion that promoting the most overall happiness is alone what good means can always be doubted, “and the mere fact that we understand very well what is meant by doubting it, shews clearly that we have two different notions before our minds.”

Moore applies a similar line of reasoning to the idea that good is a meaningless concept that merely stands in for natural properties. For instance, if whatever is called good seems to always be pleasant, you might suppose that good and pleasant are the same thing. You might think that the statement “Pleasure is the good” isn’t referring to two distinct things, pleasure and goodness, but only to one – pleasure. Moore points out the flaw in this: “But whoever will attentively consider with himself what is actually before his mind when he asks the question ‘Is pleasure (or whatever it may be) after all good?’ can easily satisfy himself that he is not merely wondering whether pleasure is pleasant.”

Everyone, Moore says, understands that the question “Is this good?” can be distinguished from questions about whether things are pleasurable, or desired, or whatever else has been proposed as the definition of good. So, it only makes sense that good is a distinct concept and not merely one of these natural properties.

How to Deal with the Five-Year-Old

If Moore is right that our moral concepts are real but can’t be reduced to natural, empirically verifiable things in the world, then it would, in fact, be naïve of the probing five-year-old to expect that moral values can be explained in the same way that a horse can be explained to be a horse. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that our moral notions are baseless. Moore’s view is that our morality is intuitive and that moral truth is self-evident. So, when the five-year-old metaethicist asks why something is good, the answer is that it just is. And when he asks what makes it so, the answer is the property goodness. It might seem like these answers are dismissive, but remember Moore wrote a whole book working these same answers out.

Of course, some philosophers have given alternative interpretations of Moore’s thesis that morality can’t be demonstrated in natural terms. Rather than claiming that moral truths exist exist and are self-evident, like Moore does, these skeptics, called moral anti-realists, take the impossibility of inferring moral truths from non-moral truths as evidence that there is no objective morality. Try explaining this to a five-year-old: Morality is a sham!

If you want to give the kid what he’s likely asking for, you can try to justify your values according to readily available natural concepts. You can take the route of the moral naturalists and deny that the naturalistic fallacy is even a fallacy. You can embrace their view that moral truths exist and are natural facts just like anything else discoverable by science.

But first you have to get past Moore and Hume.

 

 

Law and Morality

It’s hard to pin down how exactly the law relates to morality.

Some people believe that acting ethically means simply following the law. If it’s legal, then it’s ethical, they say. Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals this view to be preposterous. Lying and breaking promises are legal in many contexts, but they’re nearly universally regarded as unethical. Paying workers the legal minimum wage is legal, but failing to pay workers a living wage is seen by some as immoral. Abortion has been legal since the early 1970’s, but many people still thinks it’s immoral. And discrimination based on race used to be legal, but laws outlawing it were passed because it was deemed immoral.

Law and morality do not always coincide. Sometimes the legal action isn’t the ethical one. People who realize this might have a counter-mantra: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. This is more a sophisticated perspective than the one simply conflating law and ethics.

According to this perspective, acting legally is not necessarily acting ethically, but it is necessary for acting ethically. The law is the minimum requirement, but morality may require people to go above and beyond their basic legal obligations. From this perspective, paying employees at least the minimum wage is necessary for acting ethically, but morality may require that they be paid enough to support themselves and their families. Similarly, non-discrimination may be the minimum requirement, but one might think that actively recruiting and integrating minorities into the workplace is a moral imperative.

The notion that legal behavior is a necessary condition for ethical behavior seems to be a good general rule. Most illegal acts are indeed unethical. But what about the old laws prohibiting the education of slaves? Or anti-miscegenation laws criminalizing interracial marriage, which were on the books in some US states until the 1960s? It’s hard to argue that people who broke these laws necessarily acted unethically.

You could say that these laws are themselves immoral and that this places them in a different category than generally accepted laws. This is probably true. These legal obligations do indeed create dubious moral commitments. But how can you say that the moral commitments are dubious if law and morality are intertwined to the extent that one can’t act ethically without acting legally?

And aren’t there some conditions under which breaking a generally accepted law might be illegal but still the right thing to do?

What about breaking a generally accepted law to save a life? What if a man, after exhausting all other options, stole a cancer treatment to save his wife’s life? The legal bases for property rights and the prohibition against theft are generally accepted, and in most other contexts, the man would be condemned as both unethical and a criminal. But stealing the treatment to save his wife’s life seems, at the very least, morally acceptable. This type of situation suggests a counter-mantra to those who believe legality is a prerequisite for ethicality: Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s unethical.

This counter-mantra doesn’t suggest that the law is irrelevant to ethics. Most of the time, it’s completely relevant. Good laws are, generally speaking, or perhaps ideally speaking, a codification of our morality.

But the connection between law and morality is complex, and there may be no general rule that captures how the two are relates.

Sometimes, actions that are perfectly legal are nonetheless unethical. Other times, morality requires that we not only follow the law but that we go above and beyond our positive legal obligations. Yet, there are also those times when breaking the law is at least morally permissible.

There are also cases in which we are morally obligated to follow immoral laws, such as when defiance would be considerably more harmful than compliance. We live in a pluralistic society where laws are created democratically, so we can’t just flout all the laws we think are immoral – morality is hardly ever that black and white anyway. And respect for the rule of law is necessary for the stability of our society, so there should be a pretty high threshold for determining that breaking a law is morally obligatory.

If there is a mantra that adequately describes the relationship between law and morality, it goes something like this: It depends on the circumstances.