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Chimp Riding Goat

Chimp Riding Goat In Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Hertzog asks in passing:

…why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of wild lice in order to milk them like slaves for droplets of sugar? And why is it that a chimp, clearly a superior creature, does not straddle a goat and ride into the sunset?

The questions are not intended for an answer, but to exemplify Hertzog’s attitude to enquiry when it comes to the natural world. Nonetheless, this question is both interesting and easy to answer.

Insects, by virtue of their simplicity, are incredibly malleable, adaptable creatures, and by virtue of their sheer numerousness they encounter and lock in advantages (both genetic and cultural) with comparative ease. Symbiotic relationships, such as farming lice or fungus, persist by mutual advantage. Behaviours like this with creatures like this are not really comparable to those of larger animals such as chimpanzees and goats. We frequently make mistakes by judging insects and vertebrates by similar standards: the world of invertebrates is older and nastier than anything that has evolved since. It is practically an alien world that happens to be here in our midst.

Mammals, birds and other such creatures are also able to form symbiotic relationships, but do so culturally as a product of their imaginative faculties. They understand that other animals are beings at least somewhat like they are, and can indeed display empathy and other cognitive faculties far more sophisticated than was believed just a few decades ago. Elephants, for instance have rescued captive antelope. But such animals lack sufficient powers of imagination to conceive of other animals as both another being and a tool. That said, it’s quite possible some do possess sufficient imagination – dolphins and elephants, say – but lack inclination or opportunity. Since we can’t yet ask them, a certain degree of mystery remains.

What marks out humanity as a species is not so much our intelligence, per se, as our imagination. We are wildly more imaginative than any other creature we know; if there is something our oversized brains are suited for, it’s imagining. We have the creative ingenuity not only to form a working relationship with a horse, but to mount and ride one, and to think through all the complexities involved in keeping them in the long term. A chimp can understand that a goat is another creature, but not imagine the nature of its differences sufficiently to relate to its on its on its own terms, let alone look after one in the long term. (I also baulk at the suggestion that a chimp is ‘clearly superior’ to a goat: on what criteria are we judging?)

Insects cannot imagine even themselves. Chimps can imagine both themselves and others. But only humans can imagine not only themselves and others, but how to forge new possibilities therein. That is what has allowed us to achieve our current position as first-among-vertebrates, even though the planet still belongs to the bacteria, which by any conceivable measure still dominate. What we sometimes lack, alas, is the insight to recognise that this amazing imaginative faculty does not make us Emperor of the World, but merely the latest gambler at Mother Earth’s casino… if we don’t play by her rules, she will have no problem kicking us out.

The opening image is by Bruce McCall, from Encounters at the End of the World. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

What is Game Aesthetics?

Over on ihobo today, my introduction to game aesthetics – not in the sense of just how a game looks or sounds, but also in the sense of how it plays. Here’s an extract:

What we call ‘gameplay’ concerns the aesthetic qualities of the function of games, and only those games which have sufficiently rich and intrusive functions can have an aesthetics of play worth talking about. However, these gameplay-rich games are not the only kinds of games, and there is no need to erect a boundary between them and other forms of play.

You can read the whole of What is Game Aesthetics? over on

Fox in a Steel Trap

Fox in Trap Are we a uniquely rational animal, or does some other capacity set us apart from other species?

Unable to escape a trap, a fox will panic when a human approaches - struggling even to the point of death. We tend to think this is not rational behaviour, especially if the approaching human has come to release the trapped animal, yet it is completely rational from the fox's perspective. Humans, as far as the fox is concerned, are deadly predators for whom they have no realistic expectation of aid. Equivalently, a soldier caught in a trap behind enemy lines may vainly struggle when their realistic expectation is that they can expect no mercy from their foes.

To prevent panic, vets and animal researchers will put a hood over the head of a horse, bear or seal. Unable to see what is going on, the animal is calmer and more amenable to examination or treatment. Someone wishing to free a fox from an animal trap might benefit from doing the same. Conversely, a hood placed over the head of a human is more likely to incite terror than suppress it. Blinded, we begin to imagine the terrible things that might be about to happen. Is this more rational than being calmed by the hood? We can construct scenarios to support such a claim, but it seems odd to believe that panic is a more rational response to uncertainty.

The idea that we are uniquely rational among animals is so familiar that it scarcely seems to require justification. Still, when it comes to stupidity it is evident that no species can possibly hold a candle to humanity's ridiculousness. Other distinguishing features might be more plausible than rationality: Heidegger singled out our capacity to think of ourselves in time (Dasein) – to conceptualise more than just the present – as unique to humans, but what allows us to do this is a faculty quite apart from rational thought.

The attempt to position rationality as a distinguishing feature of humanity flails helplessly against the patently irrational behaviour that is typical of our species. We routinely overeat, overburden our environment, and ‘solve’ problems by enlarging them – as when building more roads is offered as a solution to excessive traffic, or when collapsing financial institutions are treated as sensible recipients of large sums of money. Like the fox in a steel trap, our behaviour tends towards the self-destructive, and in ways far harder to defend as rational.

The analytic philosopher’s praise of rationality should be treated like a baker’s claim that cake is humanity’s greatest creation. Every sports fan believes their team is the greatest. All these assertions require, not rational thinking, but imagination. It is the extent of our imaginative faculty that distinguishes us from other animals, and this does not necessarily make us more rational than, say, a dolphin or a rook – if anything, it allows a tremendous capacity for irrationality, which is often a wonderful thing.

Faith in the goodness of humanity could not be rational, but it is certainly imaginative. Similarly, there is no more beautiful madness than dedication to a marriage that actually works – rational judgement could not possibly commit to such insanity. The immeasurable greatness of our species is found in the creative extremity of our imagination – art, entertainment and engineering all transcend the shackles of the sensible, which is in part why we laud their achievements. Do we really believe it was sane to travel to the moon?

The fox in a steel trap finds itself in a terrifying predicament that none of it's prior experiences prepared it for. Whenever we truly understand our situation, we may share with the fox a deep sense of helpless panic. Unlike the fox, we can invent ways out of the crises that we encounter. We are never helpless, never hopeless, always capable of imagining something other than what we face in life. This creative potential distinguishes us from other animals, which may otherwise be just as rational as we are.

Beyond Definitions of Game

Over on ihobo today, my probably ineffectual attempt to shift game studies into productive new territory where game aesthetics trump definitions:

The endless discussions about the plausible definitions of what constitutes a ‘game’ have ceased to be productive. It is time for a new game about games – to stop being concerned about the question “what is a game?” and instead focus our interest on the wider and deeper question of “what is a great game?”. And to do this, we have to replace our fixation with the definition of ‘game’ with an attempt to recognise the different aesthetic positions within game design and game criticism.

The full post of Beyond Definitions of Game is over on ihobo now.

The Ultimate Moral Computer?

deep_thought Deep Judge is the universe’s most advanced computer, tasked with solving every possible moral question and dilemma once and for all. The question is, could such a machine be built – and should we want to?

What I am calling moral law is the position that questions of ethics and morality have definite solutions. It may be the case that our understanding of these matters get better with time, and thus moral law is still compatible with ethical progress, but an adherent to this philosophical viewpoint holds that our dealings with one another depend ultimately upon reason, and that morality is not chimerical or mutable. Derek Parfit, whose gigantic On What Matters I am steadily chipping away at, is one contemporary moral philosopher who qualifies as a Law ethicist in my terms, and Immanuel Kant would be another example.

Kant and Parfit are unlikely bedfellows in many respects. Kant was a seventeenth century Prussian Christian, while Parfit is a twenty-and-twenty-first century positivist whose early philosophical work is drenched in science fiction thought experiments involving brain fission and teletransporters. However, they share in common a faith in reason and logic – in the reliability of mathematics, and the applicability of such systems to the world around them. When I first discovered that the later Parfit had turned Kantian, it came as something of a shock, since he had been so dedicated to outcome-focussed ethics (such as Utilitarianism) in his younger days, but in fact the ‘alliance’ is perfectly sensible. Both have a measured commitment to reason to solve problems.  Kant’s faith in God supported his belief that ethical matters – while left to humanity to address – would converge on a single solution. Presumably Parfit has sufficient faith in  empiricism, mathematics and objectivity to believe similarly. He writes: “Like answers to mathematical problems, moral judgements can be objective in the sense that they can be right and wrong, by being true or false.”

Supposing the moral law approach is correct, it would hypothetically be possible for future civilizations to build a mighty artificial intelligence that, given access to all the facts or the means to uncover them, could resolve every moral dilemma as a simple matter of computation. After Deep Thought, Douglas Adam’s famous mega-computer tasked with determining the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, I suggest we call this hypothetical ethics machine ‘Deep Judge’. Deep Judge would not be a law-giver, although law-makers might certainly adjust statutes based on its conclusions, but simply an ethical problem solver. State all the morally relevant facts of a situation, and it would calculate what was the right or correct course of action.

On the basis of the way Parfit writes about ethics, I believe he would accept the idea of Deep Judge quite willingly, while recognising that it is also a flight of fancy. He might be keen to point out that what constitutes ‘morally relevant facts’ would leave some situations undetermined, and also that the premises Deep Judge would be given might be subject to revision as the moral philosophy of its creators solved new problems. Conversely, I suspect Kant (after a primer in contemporary technology!) would consider Deep Judge something of an abomination – God, he might say, may know the answers to all matters ethical, but man should not presume the same breadth of vision. As a Christian, Deep Judge might well seem to be idolatry in Kant’s eyes.

Without an appeal to any form of theism, I too would consider Deep Judge a horror rather than a blessing. What appals me in this concept is the idea that moral matters are ultimately calculations to be computed, an attitude that predicates outcome-focussed ethics (consequentialism) over the alternative approaches of agent-focussed (virtue ethics) or duty-focussed (deontology) ethics. This bias is extremely contemporary – the majority of philosophers working in ethics today seem to lean towards utilitarianism or other consequentialist approaches, although this is by no means a consensus view. Since philosophers, like scientists, are at heart nerds, this preference for mathematical solutions to ethical problems is perhaps inevitable.

Outcome-focussed ethical views from their very outset were based upon faith in mathematics. Eighteenth and nineteenth century social reformer Jeremy Bentham, considered the founding father of utilitarianism, appealed to a concept of ‘felicific calculus’ in expounding his ideas. This algorithm purported to measure the quality expressed in the utilitarian aphorism “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, which depended upon the idea that pleasure and pain would somehow be measurable. Oddly, even though our understanding of neurobiology has advanced to the point that it is clear that this kind of measuring of happiness is patent nonsense, there has been little or no revision to prevailing approaches to utilitarian assumptions. Ethics, on this view, is still a form of algebra in disguise.

In Reasons and Persons, published in 1984, Parfit explored the felicific calculus concept and gave a name to one of its most questionable consequences – the Repugnant Conclusion. The idea is simple to grasp: if we can calculate ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ as a product of enumerated quality of life and population, we can raise the overall felicity of a society by lowering the quality of life but increasing the size of the population. This leads to an optimal state with the highest conceivable population that is experiencing only marginally positive quality of life – Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion. Parfit rejects the conclusion as unacceptable, but could not at the time provide a viable ethical theory that avoids it. His problem, which he and other outcome-focussed philosophers never seem to want to deal with, is that ethics is not at heart a mathematical exercise.

Kant, I believe, would argue against this entire approach to moral philosophy since it fails to recognise the dignity of humanity in its individual persons. As Allen Wood (the reigning expert on Kant’s moral thought) has cogently argued, the essence of Kant’s approach lies in his Formula of Humanity, which states that we should act in such a way as to treat other people always as ends and never merely as means (that is, to recognise people have their own goals, and thus to avoid treating them merely as tools). This kind of approach to ethics, which amounts to an attitude of mutual respect towards other people, is simply not compatible with resolving ethical quandaries as a matter of pure calculation. To do so is an attempt to abstract away from people as living, autonomous entities, and instead to deal with them simply as quantities to be maximised. This may appeal to introverted maths nerds, but it is not acceptable as an ultimate moral theory.

Deep Judge represents a way for an imaginary future society to cede the difficult task of working out how to live together. Rather than having the discussions and arguments, and facing down the conflicts and collisions, Deep Judge is the reclusive Law ethicist’s fantasy of solving human problems without having to deal with all the messy business of real human relations. Kant, for all his commitment to moral law and his borderline autistic introversion, would not have accepted this as a reasonable solution to the problems of ethics. Morality occurs within and around those interactions that occur between imaginative beings, and no computer program is capable of replacing that experience.

Chaos Ethicists vs Law Ethicists

Order vs Chaos Who are the Chaos ethicists, and who are the defenders of Law ethics?

Those moral thinkers who expound an ethical (or meta-ethical) theory in which it is necessary to prefer one moral perspective over another are what I am calling here Law ethicists. The strongest example of a contemporary figure in this space is Derek Parfit, who vigorously defends a kind of Kantian consequentialism based on his strong beliefs about reason. Parfit recognises that ethics changes over time, and can indeed be improved, but believes that there can be (indeed, must be) a true account of moral judgements. This is the hallmark of Law ethics.

Conversely, what I am calling here Chaos ethicists either do not recognise, deploy, or prefer a single system of moral thought (e.g. Nietzsche) or propose a form of ethics which is inherently non-systematic in nature (e.g. Kierkegaard). The subtle difference between these two positions rests between a denial of any kind of absolute ethics, and the resistance of the negative consequences of faith in an absolute ethics, both of which can be found in the moral philosophy of Alain Badiou, who typifies the contemporary exponent of Chaos ethics with his ‘ethic of truths’.

I actively encourage discussion and assistance in my attempt to crudely divide this list of historical figures from moral thought into these two caricatural camps. A question that divides the two in each case could be imagined to be: “Is there in principle one correct answer to every moral question?" or, equivalently, “Can all moral questions be resolved by appealing to reason?”


Law Ethicists

Jeremy Bentham?
Philippa Foot
Shelly Kagan
Immanuel Kant
Christine Korsgaard?
John Locke
Muhammad? (except on Sufi accounts)
Thomas Nagel
Derek Parfit
John Rawls?
Thomas Scanlon
Friedrich Schiller
Arthur Schopenhauer?
Henry Sidgwick
Peter Singer
Baruch Spinoza
Paul of Tarsus
Judith Jarvis Thomson
Allen Wood?


Chaos Ethicists

Alain Badiou
Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha
Albert Camus?
David Hume
Jesus of Nazareth
Søren Kierkegaard
Emmanuel Levinas
Alasdair MacIntyre?
J.L. Mackie
G.E. Moore
Friedrich Nietzsche
Robert Nozick


All help and discussion welcome!


It’s rare these days that I get a look at something interesting before it comes out, so when a fortuitous set of circumstances landed me a copy of thatgamecompany’s Journey before it’s official release day, I decided to rise to the challenge of writing a critique of the game for the week of its launch. It begins:

What happens when you fund a small, ambitious and creative development team for a few years of experimentation? They come back with something beautifully unforgettable like Journey.

I really didn’t have time to do this justice, alas, but my aim was to try and put this title into some sort of wider aesthetic context.

You can read my thoughts on Journey over on today.

Vikings vs Murderers

Viking Helmet Who would we judge more moral – a historical Viking or a contemporary murderer?

In June 793 AD, Viking raiders landed at the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England and came ashore to ravage the monastery that had been sited there for over a century, killing many of the monks, burning the buildings to the ground and making off with both slaves and loot. It caused an outrage in Christian Europe at the time that was to tarnish the reputation of the Vikings, and Norse civilization in general, for a millennium. From almost any account of this attack, it seems that a Viking was nothing more than a murderer and a thief operating on a scale that makes a contemporary murder seem frankly small potatoes by comparison. What case could we possibly mount that a Viking could be deemed more moral than a murderer?

Our impression that a Viking must be judged either as bad as, or worse than, a contemporary murderer, rests on using our own moral standards as the judge of their conduct – a misleading way to look at any historical era (or indeed, any foreign culture). Obviously if we have faith that our ethical beliefs are right, whatever earlier system we examine will be found wanting, yet the measure of just or ethical behaviour by international law today is the standard of the society in question. We judge a murderer in our time by our moral and legal standards because that is the world they live in, but if we want to judge the ethics of a Viking raider, we have to ask about the moral beliefs of Norse society at the time that dispatching Vikings abroad occurred.

Vikings were not a people, but rather a temporary occupation undertaken by individuals from various Norse and Sami territories (i.e. what is now called Scandinavia) that involved sea travel. Not all of these voyages ended in pillaging: at least as many, if not more, resulted in trade or colonisation, and the term ‘viking’ descends from an Old Norse word meaning ‘overseas expedition’. The motives for Vikings setting out is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate, but may have resulted in part because their home communities had outgrown their ability to expand by farming at home, and also in part because the despotic Christian monarch Charlemagne had set about converting pagan communities by violence. This could have created a desire for revenge that may indeed have been the reason for the Lindisfarne attack.

Vengeance was an important aspect to Norse life, since their moral philosophy was based on what we would now consider a virtue ethics of honour. All virtue ethical approaches are agent-focussed, and therefore praise the qualities of certain people while condemning others. For Norse people, there was one particular range of behaviours that dominated their conception of ethics. As Icelandic poet-historian Snorri Sturluson wrote: “Valiant men who exert a good influence are called drengr,” The associated virtue was called drengskapr, which entailed the qualities of bravery, magnanimity, respect for others, fairness and commitment to personal honour. Self control was perhaps more important than bravery, since this trait was rather taken for granted: a drengr remained composed when facing danger not out of recklessness but because to show fear was counterproductive. Risking death was irrelevant next to maintaining the respect of the community.

At the opposite end of this scale of honour, a níðingr (ny’thing’r) was a reviled outcast and the vice of níðr (ny’th’r) was despised. The term is sometimes translated ‘shame’, and entails treachery, cowardice, oath-breaking or other dishonourable actions, such as killing one’s own kinsfolk or defenceless people. This last point is interesting in the case of Lindisfarne – the monks would not have used violence against the Viking raiders, so wouldn’t slaying them have been níðr since they were defenceless? On the one hand, this speaks highly in favour of the idea that this raid was motivated by vengeance, but conversely the fact that the monks would not defend themselves may have made them appear to be níðingr, at which point they would have been beneath contempt. Alternatively, since the monks were outside of the Norse culture these issues might not have applied.

We will never know the truth about this particular matter, but if Lindisfarne was an avenging raid its goal would have been the reparation of the honour of a community that was wronged, not in meting out punishment. Matters of Norse honour could be quite subtle: a thief was considered far worse than a robber, since breaking into someone else’s house was a cowardly act, whereas challenging a traveller still allowed for an honourable clash of arms. A killing that occurred at night or in secret would be viewed as murder, but if conducted openly it would be considered manslaughter – a state of affairs attained by declaring it immediately to the next person encountered (with some small deference allowed if that person happened to be a relative of the person killed!).

These descriptions of the positive and negative qualities admired and despised by Norse peoples goes a long way towards answering the question before us. Vikings were honourable people – certainly within their own communities – and their occasional attacks on outsiders represent a moral grey area, equivalent to questions concerning animal treatment today. (Since animals are not, by default, part of our moral community, they do not automatically accrue the rights we afford other humans). Furthermore, while Viking raiders did take slaves – as they did from Lindisfarne – archaeologist William Fitzhugh notes that “slaves became part of their families… They weren't out to kill everyone in the countryside but rather to find a way to live, to set up shop, and I think they just readily mixed in.”

A contemporary murderer transgresses the moral standards of the society they live in, and are thus immoral, and since murder is considered one of the worst offenses imaginable they are vilified. Conversely, Vikings have been denigrated largely because of a reputation that typically misrepresents a complex pagan society in which moral respect for oneself and one’s community was absolutely central. Vikings may have been away from home, but they were still with their kinsfolk and deeply concerned with matters of honour and shame: they were acting ethically, according to the standards of their own communities. As a result, the moral case of the Viking versus the murderer must find for the Viking – even though for many of the monks at Lindisfarne, there really wasn’t any difference at all. 

I am endebted to William R. Short’s discussion of Norse honour in the Icelandic sagas for the construction of this piece, as well as the Manaraefan Herred Viking Re-enactment Society’s discussion of Norse law.