Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Depressive Thinking Styles and Philosophy

Recently I read two interesting pieces that I'd like to connect with each other. One is Peter Railton's Dewey Lecture to the American Philosophical Association, in which he describes his history of depression. The other is Oliver Sacks's New York Times column about facing his own imminent death.

One of the inspiring things about Sacks's work is that he shows how people with (usually neurological) disabilities can lead productive, interesting, happy lives incorporating their disabilities and often even turning aspects of those disabilities into assets. (In his recent column, Sacks relates how imminent death has helped give him focus and perspective.) It has also always struck me that depression -- not only major, clinical depression but perhaps even more so subclinical depressive thinking styles -- is common among philosophers. (For an informal poll, see Leiter's latest.) I wonder if this prevalence of depression among philosophers is non-accidental. I wonder whether perhaps the thinking styles characteristic of mild depression can become, Sacks-style, an asset for one's work as a philosopher.

Here's the thought (suggested to me first by John Fischer): Among the non-depressed, there's a tendency toward glib self-confidence in one's theoretical views. (On positive illusions in general among the non-depressed see this classic article.) Normally, conscious human reasoning works like this: First, you find yourself intuitively drawn to Position A. Second, you rummage around for some seemingly good argument or consideration in favor of Position A. Finally, you relax into the comfortable feeling that you've got it figured out. No need to think more about it! (See Kahneman, Haidt, etc.)

Depressive thinking styles are, perhaps, the opposite of this blithe and easy self-confidence. People with mild depression will tend, I suspect, to be less easily satisfied with their first thought, at least on matters of importance to them. Before taking a public stand, they might spend more time imagining critics attacking Position A, and how they might respond. Inclined toward self-doubt, they might be more likely to check and recheck their arguments with anxious care, more carefully weigh up the pros and cons, worry that their initial impressions are off-base or too simple, discard the less-than-perfect, worry that there are important objections that they haven't yet considered. Although one needn't be inclined toward depression to reflect in this manner, I suspect that this self-doubting style will tend to come more naturally to those with mild to moderate depressive tendencies, deepening their thought about the topic at hand.

I don't want to downplay the seriousness of depression, its often negative consequences for one's life including often for one's academic career, and the counterproductive nature of repetitive dysphoric rumination (see here and here), which is probably a different cognitive process than the kind of self-critical reflection that I'm hypothesizing here to be its correlate and cousin. [Update, Feb. 26: I want to emphasize the qualifications of that previous sentence. I am not endorsing the counterproductive thinking styles of severe, acute depression. See also Dirk Koppelberg's comment below and my reply.] However, I do suspect that mildly depressive thinking styles can be recruited toward philosophical goals and, if managed correctly, can fit into, and even benefit, one's philosophical work. And among academic disciplines, philosophy in particular might be well-suited for people who tend toward this style of thought, since philosophy seems to be proportionately less demanding than many other disciplines in tasks that benefit from confident, high-energy extraversion (such as laboratory management and people skills) and proportionately more demanding of careful consideration of the pros and cons of complex, abstract arguments and of precise ways of formulating positions to shield them from critique.

Related posts:
Depression and Philosophy (July 28, 2006)
SEP Citation Analysis Continued: Jewish, Non-Anglophone, Queer, and Disabled Philosophers (August 14, 2014)

Update April 23:

The full-length circulating draft is now up on my academic website.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why I Deny (Strong Versions of) Descriptive Cultural Moral Relativism

Cultural moral relativism is the view that what is morally right and wrong varies between cultures. According to normative cultural moral relativism, what varies between cultures is what really is morally right and wrong (e.g., in some cultures, slavery is genuinely permissible, in other cultures it isn't). According to descriptive cultural moral relativism, what varies is what people in different cultures think is right and wrong (e.g., in some cultures people think slavery is fine, in others they don't; but the position is neutral on whether slavery really is fine in the cultures that think it is). A strong version of descriptive cultural moral relativism holds that cultures vary radically in what they regard as morally right and wrong.

A case can be made for strong descriptive cultural moral relativism. Some cultures appear to regard aggressive warfare and genocide as among the highest moral accomplishments (consider the book of Joshua in the Old Testament); others (ours) think aggressive warfare and genocide are possibly the greatest moral wrongs of all. Some cultures celebrate slavery and revenge killing; others reject those things. Some cultures think blasphemy punishable by death; others take a more liberal attitude. Cultures vary enormously on womens' rights and obligations.

However, I reject this view. My experience with ancient Chinese philosophy is the central reason.

Here are the first passages of the Analects of Confucius (Slingerland trans., 2003):

1.1. The Master said, "To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned -- is this not satisfying? To have friends arrive from afar -- is this not a joy? To be patient even when others do not understand -- is this not the mark of the gentleman?"
1.2. Master You said, "A young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors, and there has never been a case of one who is disinclined to defy his superiors stirring up rebellion. The gentleman applies himself to the roots. 'Once the roots are firmly established, the Way will grow.' Might we not say that filial piety and respect for elders constitute the root of Goodness?"
1.3. The Master said, "A clever tongue and fine appearance are rarely signs of Goodness."
1.4. Master Zeng said, "Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?"
No substantial written philosophical tradition is culturally farther from the 21st century United States than is ancient China. And yet, while we might not personally endorse these particular doctrines, they are not alien. It is not difficult to enter into the moral perspective of the Analects, finding it familiar, comprehensible, different in detail and emphasis, but at the same time homey. Some people react to the text as kind of "fortune cookie": full of boring and trite -- that is, familiar! -- moral advice. (I think this underestimates the text, but the commonness of the reaction is what interests me.) Confucius does not advocate the slaughter of babies for fun, nor being honest only when the wind is from the east, nor severing limbs based on the roll of dice. 21st century U.S. undergraduates might not understand the text's depths but they are not baffled by it as they would be by a moral system that was just a random assortment of recommendations and prohibitions.

You might think, "of course there would be some similarities!" The ancient Confucians were human beings, after all, with certain natural reactions and who needed to live in a not-totally-chaotic social system. Right! But then, of course, this is already to step away from the most radical form of descriptive cultural moral relativism.

Still, you might say, the Analects is pretty morally different -- the Confucian emphasis on being "filial", for example -- that's not really a big piece of U.S. culture. It's an important way in which the moral stance of the ancient Chinese differs from ours.

This response, I think, underestimates two things.

First, it underestimates the extent to which people in the U.S. do regard it as a moral ideal to care for and respect their parents. The word "filial" is not a prominent part of our vocabulary, but this doesn't imply that attachment to and concern for our parents is minor.

Second, and more importantly, it underestimates the diversity of opinion in ancient China. The Analects is generally regarded as the first full-length philosophical text. The second full-length text is the Mozi. Mozi argues vehemently against the Confucian ideal of treating one's parents with special concern. Mozi argues that we should have equal concern for all people, and no more concern for one's parents than for anyone else's parents. Loyalty to one's state and prince he also rejects, as objectionably "partial". One's moral emphasis should be on ensuring that everyone has their basic necessities met -- food, shelter, clothing, and the like. Whereas Confucius is a traditionalist who sees the social hierarchy as central to moral life, Mozi is a radical, cosmopolitan, populist consequentialist!

And of course, Daoism is another famous moral outlook that traces back to ancient China -- one that downplays social obligation to others and celebrates harmonious responsiveness to nature -- quite different again from Confucianism and Mohism.

Comparing ancient China and the 21st century U.S., I see greater differences in moral outlook within each culture than I see between the cultures. With some differences in emphasis and in culturally specific manifestations, a similar range of outlooks flourishes in both places. (This would probably be even more evident if we had more than seven full-length philosophical texts from ancient China.)

So what about slavery, aggressive warfare, women's rights, and the rest? Here's my wager: If you look closely at cultures that seem to differ from ours in those respects, you will see a variety of opinions on those issues, not a monolithic foreignness. Some slaves (and non-slaves) presumably abhor slavery; some women (and non-women) presumably reject traditional gender roles; every culture will have pacifists who despise military conquest; etc. And within the U.S., probably with the exception of slavery traditionally defined, there still is a pretty wide range of opinion about such matters, especially outside mainstream academic circles.

[image source]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Intrinsic Value of Self-Knowledge

April 2, I'll be a critic at a Pacific APA author-meets-critics session on Quassim Cassam's book Self-Knowledge for Humans. (Come!) In the last chapter of the book, Cassam argues that self-knowledge is not intrinsically valuable. It's only, he says, derivatively or instrumentally valuable -- valuable to the extent it helps deliver something else, like happiness.

I disagree. Self-knowledge is intrinsically valuable! It's valuable even if it doesn't advance some other project, valuable even if it doesn't increase our happiness. Cassam defends his view by objecting to three possible arguments for the intrinsic value of self-knowledge. I'll spot him those objections. Here are three other ways to argue for the intrinsic value of self-knowledge.

1. The Argument from Addition and Subtraction.

Here's what I want you to do: Imaginatively subtract our self-knowledge from the world while keeping everything else as constant as possible, especially our happiness or subjective sense of well-being. Now ask yourself: Is something valuable missing?

Now imaginatively add lots of self-knowledge to the world while keeping everything else as constant as possible. Now ask: Has something valuable been gained?

Okay, I see two big problems with this method of philosophical discovery. Both problems are real, but they can be partly addressed.

Problem 1: The subtraction and addition are too vague to imagine. To do it right, you need to get into details, and the details are going to be tricky.

Reply 1: Fair enough! But still: We can give it a try and take our best guess where it's leading. Suppose I suddenly knew more about why I'm drawn to philosophy. Wouldn't that be good, independent of further consequences? Or subtract: I think of myself as a middling extravert. Suppose I lose this knowledge. Stipulate again: To the extent possible, no practical consequences. Wouldn't something valuable be lost?

Alternatively, consider an alien culture on the far side of the galaxy. What would I wish for it? Would I wish for a culture of happy beings with no self-knowledge? Or, if I imaginatively added substantial self-knowledge to this culture, would I be imagining a better state of affairs in the universe? I think the latter.

Contrast with a case where addition and subtraction leave us cold: seas of iron in the planet's core. Unless there are effects on the planetary inhabitants, I don't care. Add or subtract away, whatever.

Problem 2: What these exercises reveal is only that I regard self-knowledge as something that has intrinsic value. You might differ. You might think: happy aliens, no self-knowledge, great! They're not missing anything important. You might think that unless some practical purpose is served by knowing your personality, you might as well not know.

Reply 2: This is just the methodological problem that's at the root of all value inquiries. I can't rationally compel you to share my view, if you start far enough away in value space. I can just invite you to consider how your own values fit together, suggest that if you think about it, you'll find you already do share these values with me, more or less.

2. The Argument from Nearby Cases.

Suppose you agree that knowledge in general is intrinsically valuable. A world of unreflective bliss would lack something important that a world of bliss plus knowledge would possess. I want my alien world to be a world with inhabitants who know things, not just a bunch of ecstatic oysters.

Might self-knowledge be an exception to the general rule? Here's one reason to think not: Knowledge of the motivations and values and attitudes of your friends and family, specifically, is intrinsically good. Set this up with an Argument from Subtraction: Subtracting from the world people's psychological knowledge of people intimate to them would make the world a worse place. Now do the Nearby Cases step: You yourself are one of those people intimate to you! It would be weird if psychological knowledge of your friends were valuable but psychological knowledge of yourself were not.

Unless you're a hedonist -- and few people, when they really think about it, are -- you probably thinks that there's some intrinsic value in the rich flourishing of human intellectual and artistic capacities. It seems natural to suppose that self-knowledge would be an important part of that general flourishing.

3. The Argument from Identity.

Another way to argue that something has intrinsic value is to argue that it is in fact identical to something that we already agree has intrinsic value.

So what is self-knowledge? On my dispositional view (see here and here), to know some psychological fact about yourself is to possess a suite of dispositions or capacities with respect to your own psychology. An example:

What is it to know you're an extravert? It's in part the capacity to say, truly and sincerely, "I'm an extravert". It's in part the capacity to respond appropriately to party invitations, by accepting them in anticipation of the good time you'll have. It's in part to be unsurprised to find yourself smiling and laughing in the crowd. It's in part to be disposed to conclude that someone in the room is an extravert. Etc.

My thought is: Those kinds of dispositions or capacities are intrinsically valuable, central to living a rich, meaningful life. If we subtract them away, we impoverish ourselves. Human life wouldn't be the same without this kind of self-attunement or structured responsiveness to psychological facts about ourselves, even if we might experience as much pleasure. And self-knowledge is not just some further thing floating free of those dispositional patterns that could be subtracted without taking them away too. Self-knowledge isn't some independent representational entity contingently connected to those patterns; it is those patterns.

You might notice that this third argument creates some problems for the straightforward application of the Argument from Addition and Subtraction. Maybe in trying to imagine subtracting self-knowledge from the world while holding all else constant to the extent possible, you were imagining or trying to imagine holding constant all those dispositions I just mentioned, like the capacity to say yes appropriately to party invitations. If my view of knowledge is correct, you can't do that. What this shows is that the Argument from Addition and Subtraction isn't as straightforward as it might at first seem. It needs careful handling. But that doesn't mean it's a bad argument.


I'd go so far as to say this: Self-knowledge, when we have it (which, I agree with Cassam, is less commonly than we tend to think), is one of the most intrinsically valuable things in human life. The world is a richer place because pieces of it can gaze knowledgeably upon themselves and the others around them.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

How Robots and Monsters Might Break Human Moral Systems

Human moral systems are designed, or evolve and grow, with human beings in mind. So maybe it shouldn't be too surprising if they would break apart into confusion and contradiction if radically different intelligences enter the scene.

This, I think, is the common element in Scott Bakker's and Peter Hankins's insightful responses to my January posts on robot or AI rights. (All the posts also contain interesting comments threads, e.g., by Sergio Graziosi.) Scott emphasizes that our sense of blameworthiness (and other intentional concepts) seems to depend on remaining ignorant of the physical operations that make our behavior inevitable; we, or AIs, might someday lose this ignorance. Peter emphasizes that moral blame requires moral agents to have a kind of personal identity over time which robots might not possess.

My own emphasis would be this: Our moral systems, whether deontological, consequentialist, virtue ethical, or relatively untheorized and intuitive, take as a background assumption that the moral community is composed of stably distinct individuals with roughly equal cognitive and emotional capacities (with special provisions for non-human animals, human infants, and people with severe mental disabilities). If this assumption is suspended, moral thinking goes haywire.

One problem case is Robert Nozick's utility monster, a being who experiences vastly more pleasure from eating cookies than we do. On pleasure-maximizing views of morality, it seems -- unintuitively -- that we should give all our cookies to the monster. If it someday becomes possible to produce robots capable of superhuman pleasure, some moral systems might recommend that we impoverish, or even torture, ourselves for their benefit. I suspect we will continue to find this unintuitive unless we radically revise our moral beliefs.

Systems of inviolable individual rights might offer an appealing answer to such cases. But they seem vulnerable to another set of problem cases: fission/fusion monsters. (Update Feb. 4: See also Briggs & Nolan forthcoming). Fission/fusion monsters can divide into separate individuals at will (or via some external trigger) and then merge back into a single individual later, with memories from all the previous lives. (David Brin's Kiln People is a science fiction example of this.) A monster might fission into a million individuals, claiming rights for each (one vote each, one cookie from the dole), then optionally reconvene into a single highly-benefited individual later. Again, I think, our theories and intuitions start to break. One presupposition behind principles of equal rights is that we can count up rights-deserving individuals who are stable over time. Challenges could also arise from semi-separate individuals: AI systems with overlapping parts.

If genuinely conscious human-grade artificial intelligence becomes possible, I don't see why a wide variety of strange "monsters" wouldn't also become possible; and I see no reason to suppose that our existing moral intuitions and moral theories could handle such cases without radical revision. All our moral theories are, I suggest, in this sense provincial.

I'm inclined to think -- with Sergio in his comments on Peter's post -- that we should view this as a challenge and occasion for perspective rather than as a catastrophe.

[HT Norman Nason; image source]

Monday, February 02, 2015

Brief Interview at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

... here, about my story "Out of the Jar", which features a philosophy professor who discovers he's a sim running in the computer of a sadistic teenager.