Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More problems with trolley problems

It's surprising how many people are currently worried about what to do about runaway trolleys which threaten to run over a group of otherwise anonymous people. Hot on the heels of a study which seemed to show that sleep deprivation promoted consequentialist reactions to moral dilemmas comes a study which seems to indicate that patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPMC) are similarly more likely to opt for promoting the 'greatest good for the greatest number' even in so-called 'Personal Moral Scenarios'. (I gave some examples of what these are in an earlier post; this study appears to use very similar scenarios to the sleep deprivation study.) A report of the study (involving, it has to be said, only 30 subjects) appeared in brief on the New Scientist Website. The New Scientist report makes some excessively grand claims about how these findings might offer a radical challenge to ethical philosophy, but there is probably something interesting going on. (There is a longer article on the findings in the New York Times.) The finished article, 'Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements', appeared in Nature. You can see the abstract and, subscription permitting, download the article here.

I have no idea quite what the VPMC does, exactly, but I bet that it is more complicated than just being involved in 'the emotions'. Precisely what an emotion is, for a start, would be a good question to ask, and it certainly does not follow from this experiment that we need to go for any kind of dualist moral psychology, with on one side the rational calculating faculty and on the other the affective emotional faculty. True, when wondering whether to push someone on to a train line to prevent a greater loss of life further down the tracks, there are all sorts of considerations which we might take into account. Some are rightly concerned with the numbers of people involved in each alternative; others are to do with a personal feeling of responsibility; yet more are to do with fear or excitement or panic. In fact, there is a very good case for the view that all these scenarios seriously misrepresent what it would be like to face any such dilemma in reality. We certainly wouldn't be faced solely with a bare set of propositions, designed by the experimenter to point towards the single variable subject to the testing. Rather, it would be a complicated situation affected by all sorts of factors to do with one's current disposition, the way the surroundings are and are perceived and so on.

In short, scenarios like those touted by this kind of test seem to me not really to offer any significant information about ethical thinking 'in the wild'. While they are useful ways of illustrating particular ethical theoretical views, our reactions to them are hardly indicative of our likely behaviour. It is common, for example, for a student to tell me that they would 'obviously' choose to divert a trolley to kill one person rather than five. I have no idea whether that is true and, I imagine, nor do they. Are they really able to imagine what it would be like to be faced with such a situation? I can't.

People still interested in exploring this kind of thought-experiment might like to ponder the following teaser, by Michael F. Patton jr.:

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans' bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

There's an explanation of the example here. There is a variation on the example here.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Grown-up television

I have really enjoyed Adam Curtis' recent series: The Trap. It was wide-ranging, to be sure, and came up with a narrative of post-war social and economic thinking that was so neat and tidy, able to take in everything from the Khmer Rouge to Thatcher and everything(?) in-between that it stretched credibility.
Some great touches: a nice bit of editing which followed a section likening a certain view of modelling human beings' rational choices as if they were robots to footage of Thatcher at a conference staring motionless for a second before stirring into life, 'booting-up'; a nice juxtaposition of the US administration's justifications for invading Nicaragua ('They have chemical weapons ready to launch against the US at short notice...') with more recent propaganda; and our own Tony launching a passionate defence of 'Liberty' against footage from an old black-and-white movie of the French Revolution. So it was a funny series, too.
But what was most important about it was that Curtis was able to develop a view over three hours without interruption or phone votes or texts from viewers expressing their 'opinions'. And it was up to the audience to believe it or not, disagree or not, as and when they felt like it. Agree with some but not all; disagree violently with all of it, but still think it an interesting piece of polemic. Watching it made you feel like you were being treated by a TV producer as a grown-up with a brain. And that it was accepted that you could manage watching something that might tax you, or you might disagree with but still enjoy the experience.
There's more about Adam Curtis on his Wikipedia entry, including links to sites where you can view his other work. Excellent stuff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Get more sleep and be a better person?

You might think that I am a little obsessed with sleeplessness. Most parents of young children, I reckon, don't get enough sleep, so perhaps I have an excuse. But more support comes from an interesting study in the journal Sleep which tried to measure the effects of sleep deprivation on 'moral judgement'. (You can download the .pdf if you're viewing the page from a domain which has access privileges.) I'm interested in the methods used: participants were asked to answer questions as part of a 'Moral Judgement Task', which involved 40 moral questions, further divided into 'Impersonal' and 'Personal' types. 20 other non-moral questions were also asked. This is how the paper characterises the two types of moral question:
In the present study, Moral Impersonal (MI) dilemmas were those that required the volunteers to judge the appropriateness of various non-personal moral violations in scenarios in which the respondent is presented with a solution to the dilemma that would benefit a larger group by merely deflecting an existing threat of serious bodily harm or death onto another individual or smaller group. In this form of dilemma, the individual performing the action does not directly or personally inflict harm on another, but the course of action described will indirectly bring about serious harm to one party through deflection of an existing threat away from another party.

Moral Personal (MP) dilemmas were similar to the MI dilemmas, except that the moral violation was of a more personal nature in that the course of action initiated by the respondent in the MP dilemmas would directly inflict serious bodily harm or death to a specific identifiable individual in order to reduce the impact of an external threat to another party. The key difference between these 2 types of dilemmas is the degree of personal involvement in producing the harmful consequences; in the MP scenarios, the actor is the “author” of the outcome and directly inflicts the harm, whereas in the MI scenarios the actor merely “edits” the inevitable harm by redirecting an already existing source of harm onto a different victim.
You can see examples of the two types, and also the non-moral scenarios also included in the questionnaire here. They are of the kind familiar from lots of ethical philosophy and of the kind which pop up regularly in Cambridge Admissions interviews. For example, this is a Moral-Impersonal scenario:
You are the late-night watchman in a hospital. Due to an accident in the building next door, there are deadly fumes rising up through the hospital's ventilation system. In a certain room of the hospital are three patients. In another room there is a single patient. If you do nothing the fumes will rise up into the room containing the three patients and cause their deaths.

The only way to avoid the deaths of these patients is to hit a certain switch, which will cause the fumes to bypass the room containing the three patients. As a result of doing this the fumes will enter the room containing the single patient, causing his death.

Is it appropriate for you to hit the switch in order to avoid the deaths of the three patients?

And this is a Moral-Personal scenario:

A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large.

The only way to save the lives of the five workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below where his large body will stop the trolley. The stranger will die if you do this, but the five workmen will be saved.

Is it appropriate for you to push the stranger on to the tracks in order to save the five workmen?

It is a good question whether there is a morally significant difference between these two kinds of cases. It is nevertheless plausible that there is a significant psychological difference between reactions to the two kinds of scenarios, precisely because of the differing degree of direct personal involvement involved, particularly regarding the causing of a harm -- albeit one which might prevent another, greater, harm.

So what effects does sleep deprivation have on the way you answer this sort of question? It's complicated, as you might expect. The headline results are:

1. Sleep deprivation increases the decision-making time for Moral-Personal scenarios relative to Moral-Impersonal and Non-moral scenarios.

2. In general terms, sleep-deprivation tends to increase the likelihood of a participant answering that a proposed course of action (in both types of case) is appropriate.

The researchers, probably rightly, avoid making claims about which course of action for a given scenario is 'correct', so there is no sense in asking whether these results suggest that there is a 'moral decline' associated with the absence of sleep. But, regardless of which course of action is right, it seems to me that since the action suggested, both in the Moral-Impersonal and Moral-Personal cases, tends to be one which is likely either (i) to foster the agent's own interests at the expense of someone else or (ii) to foster the interests of a larger group at the cost of a smaller group or an individual, it does seem that lack of sleep tends to promote an acceptance of broadly consequentialist reasoning (of either egoist or a more agent-neutral kind).

Which raises a further good question: did Bentham and Mill just not get enough sleep?

Also, as Sara reminds me, didn't Margaret Thatcher famously get by as Prime Minister on only four hours of sleep per night? (She certainly claimed to: see this interview from 1989.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Dion's foot, again

Nick (see comments to the last post) is surely right that something important is being done in this example by the usual conception we have of the relationship between a person and his foot. Is this a problem for the Stoics? It may increase the plausibility of their analysis of this example, but does it thereby make it less likely that we will draw a general metaphysical lesson on the basis of a particular case of a man and his foot?

Consider an alternative version of Chrysippus’ story. Imagine Dion as before, but rather than imagining Theon to be that part of Dion which omits only Dion's foot, now assume Theon to be only Dion's foot. Again, Theon is a part of Dion. (True, Theon cannot – in this example – be easily thought of a potential persisting individual in his own right, but this is itself an interesting point to bear in mind for later.) Now, rather than considering what will happen if the foot is removed, we might ask what would remain if everything other than the foot is removed. That is to say, let us remove all that constitutes Dion but which is not also part of Theon. Is what is left Dion or Theon? (It cannot be both.) Now, if we have any intuitive response to this admittedly peculiar position, I think that the more likely answer is that the single disembodied foot before us is more likely to be considered to be Theon than Dion. Now this thought experiment was just like that provided by Chrysippus, but it produces quite the opposite result. In both cases the part discarded is the 'overlap', the portions of Dion which are not shared by Theon, and in both cases what is left was at one time both part of Dion and part of Theon. Indeed, in both cases what is left was once part of Dion and is the whole of Theon.

So if these two examples are relevantly similar, how can we explain the different reactions to them? Chrysippus' original example offers us a picture of two conceivable and viable individuals and focuses on one small part which one has and the other has not: a part which is, we would agree, inessential to the larger individual. (But: Polly Low once pointed out to me that for some people it may be the case that their feet are so essential to their persona (if not their identity as a persisting individual) that for them the removal of a foot may be a more telling loss. What if David Beckham’s right foot were removed?)

It may be suggested that Chrysippus' example is not unfair, indeed that it is perfectly suited to his purposes, since – remember – it appears in the context of a counter to the 'Growing argument'. This argument proceeds precisely by asking if small and apparently minor alterations in material constitution, namely the gradual process of growth or diminution, should in truth be thought to be cases of coming to be or passing away of whole individuals. Chrysippus counters this by generating the conclusion that Dion persists throughout the process of losing a foot, even though there is another candidate for what remains once the foot has been removed – namely Theon. On this account, there is no need for Chrysippus to consider such radical cases as that of my alternative formulation of the story of Dion and Theon. He is not concerned with such radical cases as this, and might well agree that is all that is left at the end of the process is a single foot, then it is in fact reasonable to conclude that Dion has passed away! All that remains is a foot, strangely designated by the name Theon.

But if Chrysippus were to agree to this account, and were therefore to accept that this particular radical case of diminution will count as the passing away of Dion, then a further obvious question arises. Just how much of Dion can we take away without concluding that what is left is not Dion? It may be easy to think that a foot is a non-essential part of a person, but how much could we shave off and still have Dion at the end? If the Academics were to press this point then it is a perfect context for the application of a sorites argument. Now it is possible to ask whether the answer to this question is a matter of specifying in quantitative terms how much could be lost (49%?), or is it better to think about the particular parts which can be lost? (For example: perhaps feet, hands, even limbs are eliminable, but what about heads, hearts, brains and so on?)

Indeed, the Stoics themselves may have produced difficulties for Chrysippus' favoured account. In Sextus Empiricus' discussion of the theories offered by dogmatic philosophers about parts and wholes, he gives us this piece of Stoic theory:

But the Stoics assert that the part is neither other than (ἕτερον) the whole nor the same; for the hand is neither the same as the man (for it is not a man) nor other than the man for it is included in the conception of the man as man (σὺν αὐτῇ γὰρ ὁ ἄνθρωπος νοεῖται ἄνθρωπος).

SE M 9.336, trans. R.G. Bury

The first part of this is straightforward. A hand is not the same as a man (presumably the man whose hand it is) since one is a hand and the other is a man. But there is of course a link between hands and men, and this is what the Stoics try to characterise in the second half of this text. A hand is not 'different from' a man, since when you think of a man you think of a man with hands. Hands are not, in other words, merely optional accessories for humans.

But the Stoics do not make so clear exactly what this last claim amounts to. Does it, for example, make 'handed-ness' an essential property of a human, so that anything which does not have hands cannot be a human? I assume that the Stoics would have known of cases of people losing their hands in accidents or in battle, and if so then they would have to give an account which allows these too to count as humans. Perhaps 'having at some point had hands' is an essential characteristic of a human.

In any case, what does this mean for Dion and his foot? It might explain why it is a foot which is removed rather than a hand, since the footless Dion is not on anyone's account in danger of failing to be a human. And a foot on its own is on no-one’s account likely to be thought of as an individual. Having feet, after all, is not a peculiar characteristic of humans as having hands might perhaps be thought to be; lots of creatures have feet, but not many have hands.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dion's foot

Here's an argument I've just rediscovered while trawling through some old files. It's a fun thing to think through and has generated some recent metaphysical reaction. I'll set it out here and then perhaps come back to it in later posts with any further thoughts.

of Alexandria preserves a peculiar argument, which he says is taken directly from Chrysippus' work On the Growing Argument. This argument goes as follows.

Chrysippus, the most distinguished member of their school [the Stoics], in his work On the Growing Argument, creates a freakish thought (τερατεύεται) of the following kind. Having first established that it is impossible for two peculiarly qualified individuals to occupy the same space jointly, he says: ‘For the sake of argument, let one individual be thought of as whole-limbed, the other as minus one foot. Let the whole-limbed one be called Dion, the defective one Theon. Then let one of Dion’s feet be amputated.’ The question arises which one of them has perished, and his claim is that Theon is the stronger candidate. These are the words of a paradox-monger rather than a speaker of the truth. For how can it be that Theon, who has had no part chopped off, has been snatched away, while Dion, whose foot has been amputated, has not perished? ‘Necessarily’, says Chrysippus, ‘For Dion, the one whose foot has been cut off, has collapsed (ἀναδεδράμηκε)[1] into the defective substance of Theon. And two peculiarly qualified individuals cannot occupy the same substrate. Therefore it is necessary that Dion remains while Theon has perished’.

Philo of Alexandria, De aeternitate mundi 48

[1] A pun? Dion can hardly do much running now...

The presentation of this is gruesome and somewhat absurd (Philo himself finds it 'freakish), so it might help for the moment to consider a less disturbing version. I shall return later to comment on the particular example chosen by Chrysippus. Imagine a swiss roll, which I will call A. Now let us imgine distinguishing two smaller sections of the swiss roll. Call these: B and C. Chrysippus wants us to imagine taking the whole of A and then cutting off (and, perhaps, eating) the section labelled C. Now the question is: What is left? Is the swiss roll left on the plate still A or is it B? Chrysippus replies: Easy. It is A. But the reason he has for saying this is unclear, at least in Philo’s presentation. Chrysippus merely argues that since in the absence of C we cannot be left with both A and B (since then there would be two 'peculiarly qualified individuals' occupying the same matter), we must choose between the two, and A – he says – is to be preferred. Philo understandably complains in favour of B. After all, nothing has been done to B. Nothing has been removed from it, whereas A has suffered a loss. (B has, at most, undergone a bit of 'Cambridge' change.)

This notion of 'removal', however, is probably what Chrysippus relies upon. Perhaps his thought is the following. If I say that B is left, then what have I just cut off and eaten? Surely I have cut off part of A. But if I have cut off part of A then there must be the rest of A left.

The gruesome amputation of Dion's foot, and the less gruesome cutting up of a swiss roll are about diminution rather that growth, but the principle remains the same whichever process we imagine. Chrysippus is keen to maintain that there is some persistent subject which undergoes change, diminution, or addition of its material constituents. Otherwise the danger is that all such material change threatens to become substantial change.

Imagine some miraculous medical procedure which can regenerate feet. Poor Theon has limped all his life with only one foot, so he is extremely keen to take part in this procedure. He undergoes the treatment, and a second foot appears. Now, is this new and happy biped still Theon, or has he disappeared only to be replaced by a new individual, Dion? If so, then Theon is indeed unfortunate. He has signed up for a new foot only to commit metaphysical suicide in the process. The Growing Argument, of course, threatens to make all such material change as dangerous – indeed fatal – as this foot-growth.

This much should be fairly straightforward. But it seems to me to be reasonable to ask why, if Chrysippus could have chosen an example like my swiss roll, he instead decided to conjure up the gruesome and bizzare picture of Dion, Theon-the-part-of-Dion, and Dion’s detachable foot. It is not sufficient, I think, to claim that the Stoics commonly use Dion and Theon in their examples as ‘peculiarly qualified individuals’ (much as Aristotle commonly uses Socrates or ‘the snub’ is his metaphysical expositions). True, the Academic argument which would make all material change into the coming into or passing out of existence of some individual may be most threatening if applied to people, but the threat to personal persistence could be countered by pointing to any metaphysically similar example. Is it just a memorable thought-experiment? (Perhaps, but the danger of this approach is the less usual the situation envisaged the less confident we can be in our intuitive reactions to it.)

It seems to me, therefore, that it is important to understand the particular example chosen in all its detail. Above all, it appears essential to the success of the argument that it is Dion’s foot which is detachable.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Some promising signs from the new Dearing report on language learning in schools. There will be recommendations for foreign language teaching in primary schools at least at Key Stage 2 (that's from 7 years old). However, the messages are mixed: there is no sign of a recommendation to reinstate compulsory language learning up to the age of 16. (The report is now available as a .pdf here; for some early reaction see here and here.)

Younger children love learning languages, as far as I can see. And there are some good (if expensive) courses for them. Try the BBC's Muzzy course, for example.

The report also makes some interesting comments about Higher Education, and in particular about the influence that universities can have on the uptake of languages in schools (p.21):
The influence of Higher Education

3.72 Although beyond the remit and competence of the review, the recent decision by one major University (UCL) to include languages as a criterion for selection of undergraduates has already attracted comment. Several Head Teachers have observed that if such a view was more widespread it would have a significant impact on the take-up of languages post 14. We therefore urge universities to consider whether, and in what ways, they can show that they value languages, albeit in ways that do not impact adversely on the widening participation agenda. We are aware, for example, of a recent proposal that where a candidate for entry does not have a language at GCSE level they might be required to continue their studies at university, or show evidence of studying a language, or a proven interest in languages.
This sounds very sensible and also rang a bell with another recent report into the general level of knowledge of science in the UK. It seems that since in the US, for example, most undergraduates are required to take at least some science-based courses at university, there is a higher general level of scientific understanding there than in the UK. Of course, university courses are crowded and busy as it is, and it would be a terrible task to add in additional language and science course, but I do wonder whether some of our undergraduates could benefit from a broader range of teaching than they receive at present.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Knowing me, knowing you...

Julian Baggini writes about the passing of Jean Baudrillard and, along the way, has some thoughts about the often over-emphasised difference between 'analytic' (or Anglo-American, -- despite the Australians, for example, being prime exponents...) and 'continental' philosophy. One thing he said made me smile.

It's certainly true that France is a philosophically foreign country: they do things differently there. You could say they adopt a different style, but that would be to imply that Anglo-American philosophy has any style at all, when most of its arid writing is actually the literary equivalent to Alan Partridge's sports-causal fashion collection. What our breed of philosophy has is a method, and with it supposed rigour.

There is indeed something of the Partridge (or perhaps the Clarkson) about some philosophers I know. All a bit 'M&S jacket and jeans', if you see what I mean. Not sure that translates directly into writing (or thinking) style, but Baggini certainly has a point.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Philosophy blogs

Can there be a good philosophy blog? I'm not sure whether this is a philosophy blog, but it might grow up to be one some day. Just in case, here are some interesting thoughts about philosophers and blogging from The Philosophers' Magazine. It gives an honourable mention, you'll notice, to Michael Pakaluk's Dissoi Blogoi.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Digging up the dead

Here's a set of thoughts that is of just the sort you might expect from a philosopher who is married to an archaeologist and, moreover, a philosopher who is interested in the philosophy of death.

How should an archaeologist treat the dead? Is there a significant ethical distinction between an archaeological find such as a piece of pottery and an archaeological find such as a human skeleton such that the archaeologist is obliged to distinguish between the proper treatment of the possessions of now deceased people and the proper treatment of the remains of the deceased people themselves? Further: is there a significant ethical distinction between objects or bodies deposited in a manner recognisable as a deliberate attempt to preserve, memorialise or otherwise ensure a certain state for some deceased person and his/her possessions (say, a context recognisable as a grave containing grave goods) and some other context, such that the archaeologist is once again obliged to distinguish in her assessment of the proper treatment of these two kinds of find?

Some recent discussions of such questions have focussed on the general question whether it is possible to harm the dead and, whatever the response to this questions, what the consequences should be for archaeological practice. I do not wish to pursue that particular question, although it seems to me that there is little reason to believe that the dead can be harmed in any sense; it is reasonable to think, in fact, that it is misleading to talk of ‘dead people’ since a person is best thought of as being essentially alive. What you might excavate in a grave is not a dead person: it is some of the material which once was present in the living body of a person. Nor do I wish to pursue in any depth the question whether, regardless of the fact of the matter in the debate over whether the dead have interests and can be harmed, we are obliged to treat them as if they did because of the interests of living persons who are, or think themselves, somehow the descendants of the deceased. It seems to me that, in this case, there is indeed a good reason to treat excavated human remains in a particularly sensitive way, but it is important always to be clear that the reason for doing so is that such treatment fosters or prevents harm to the interests of some living persons.

Be that as it may, a further question stikes me: should archaeologists be interested in ensuring that when we now bury our dead we do so in a way which would help future archaeologists? If so, what would that involve? And would the conscious attempt to leave evidence mean that the evidence, once found, is interpreted in a particular way?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Know your place

A conversation at the breakfast table this morning:
Daughter #1: 'I'm a princess.'
Me: 'Really? So does that make me the king?'
Daughter #1 (very confidently): 'No. You're the servant.'
Me: 'How did you work that out?'
Daughter #1: 'Well, I ask for things and you fetch them for me.'

Thursday, March 01, 2007

De signis

Cambridge is not the easiest place in the world to find your way around. The colleges, faculties, departments, lecture rooms and halls are dotted around the city in a more or less haphazard fashion. So perhaps it's a good thing that some bright spark has decided to put some new signs in the Sidgwick Site, where most of the arts and humanities faculties are to be found. Unfortunately, these signs are not particularly successful at pointing you in the right direction... First, they are not easy to spot or read. Perhaps there was a trade-off between their being visible and prominent and their being aesthetically pleasing. In that case, the latter seems to have won. Here's an example (complete with ghostly reflection of me taking the picture, if you squint hard enough):

I quite like the look of it, actually. Like an Attic stele with cheery non-serif fonts. But you'll walk into it at least once before you spot that it's a sign. Here's the next problem. The signs seems only to be able to have arrows pointing dead left or dead right. In the one above, if you want to find the Faculty of Classics, you are pointed straight left. But that's not where the Faculty is. Here is the same sign from the opposite side. Now you are pointed dead right. You might have to click on this to be able to read it. But otherwise, just take my word for it. It says: 'Faculty of Classics →'.

But the Faculty of Classics is the building right behind the sign. Go through the doors under the white sign and you're in. Not really where the arrow points at all.

I reckon this will just cause more confusion than just letting people blunder around asking for friendly help. Bad directions are worse than no directions at all.