The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!

Beyond Futile Outrage

Sarah Goodyear.RageWhy does our world suddenly seem to be filled with outrage, yet nothing changes? When our moral intuitions provoke anger, we voice our hatred or cynicism online and somehow feel that is enough. Nothing changes, since we have lost a common ethical backdrop against which we can adequately even discuss our ethics, let alone bring about any kind of change. Of the three ways of conducting moral thought, we have abandoned one of them, and corrupted the other two, thus our moral intuitions have lost their force, since the context that gave them meaning has broken down. The result is anger against other people who do not share our values, with no possibility of a productive dialogue that can bring about a new state of affairs. This is the paralysis brought on by outrage culture.

To bring about changes requires a common standard, and the problem with contemporary ethical thought is that we do not understand our moral mythos well enough to maintain a shared basis for judgement. As moral psychologists have reported, the tendency is for us to have an emotional response to a situation (e.g. outrage), then afterwards to dress it up in justifications (e.g. demonisation of a particular identity) – what Jonathan Haidt waggishly dubbed ‘the emotional dog and his rational tail’. However, I break with the psychologists who advance this theory at the conclusions they draw from it, which amount to perilous assumption that moral philosophy has no role, as well as questioning their research methods, which are in adequate to most of the conclusions being drawn. 

Haidt’s idea that our moral intuitions are embedded in our social connections is substantially correct, but it is not significantly contra to the views of any philosopher, as J.W. Gray and others have argued. What’s missing in Haidt’s social intuitionist model is how the social intuitions became set up: he has forgotten the role of history in establishing common standards of moral judgement, and once this is taken into account it becomes clear that contemporary morality is intimately connected to moral philosophy. Indeed, as Alasdair MacIntyre outlined in After Virtue thirty five years ago, the nature of this moral catastrophe is the lack of connection between our habits of judgement and their philosophical roots, which can be traced across the span of European history. Attempting to remove philosophy from consideration, as key moral psychologists such as Haidt argue, is to deepen the crisis, not resolve it, and Haidt ultimately ends up advancing an impotent argument for the status quo. We will get nowhere if we fail to situate the ethical crisis within its cultural history. 

The three key approaches to morality are concerned with the qualities of agents (virtue), the nature of actions (duty), and the consequences that result (outcomes). I contend that all three forms of moral thinking are vital, but it is important to remember that for the majority of the recorded history of our species, the concept of virtue has been the primary vehicle of morality. Whatever grasp individuals may or may not have had of their wider situation, the idea that it is a good thing to be brave, polite, patient, generous, or kind was easy to grasp – even if it was not always so easy to put into practice. MacIntyre’s After Virtue traces the history of virtues up to their contemporary near-demise, supplanted by two new moral systems devised in the Enlightenment. Fistly, Kant’s duty-based philosophy that leads to human rights, but then inexplicably devolves into posturing about ‘having a right’ in situations where nothing of the kind applies. (Here, Haidt is right: moral philosophy is not entailed in people’s moral judgements: but in this case that is precisely the problem.) Secondly, John Stuart Mill’s outcome-based utilitarianism that begins by aiming at ‘maximising the good’ yet leads to contemporary corporate consequentialism that merely maximises profit. What’s more, these kind of consequentialism, which judge purely by outcome, are systems that no longer resembles morality at all, as the late Derek Parfit accused. 

Thus we are beset by moral disasters, as we have all but lost one key way of thinking about ethics and broken the others such that otherwise laudable moral systems have become corrupted distortions of themselves. This is the nature of the two major disasters of contemporary ethics – the moral disaster of individualism, which confuses selfishness or paternalism for collective responsibility, and the moral disaster of consequentialism, which boils down complex situations to the point that decisions are easy to make, and in the process destroys the essential context of every ethical challenge. In terms of the disaster of individualism, there is an urgent need to repair our broken concepts of rights now that nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom have abandoned them while individuals still angrily invoke ‘their rights’ without any understanding of what that claim implies. There is an even more vital requirement to reconfigure the kind of consequentialist thinking that leads both nations and corporations to act in appalling ways because their definitions of what is good is reduced to the merely calculable, substituting expediency for any concept of ethics. Neither of these recovery projects has much hope of success without a substantial reboot of moral thinking, and the academic community cannot achieve this – not without engaging with the wider populace it has been regrettably isolated from.

Reawakening an interest in the qualities of moral agents might be the best chance of reconfiguring our devastated moral mythologies, because we can have productive discussions concerning virtues without requiring much in the way of theoretical meanderings. What’s more, virtues are qualities that form a set that no-one would expect everyone to possess, making it easier to foster virtues in practice since the moral standard that they set is attainable by everyone in at least the minimal case of expressing at least one virtue. Rules and consequences suggest an absolute, all-or-nothing approach to morality that seems to require (when not approached with care) superhuman powers. Yet virtues sit firmly within human experience, and the key objection against virtue ethics is their failure to be absolute, which only serves to show how hypnotised by the Enlightenment’s moral systems we have become. Besides, if we can rescue virtues, we can rescue rights and outcome-focussed ethics too. One step at a time.

Outrage culture is the product of people who project morality against others, and rarely use it to judge themselves. There is a natural tendency to do this, one that has been well known by philosophers and indeed religious teachers for many centuries. What is conspicuously absent today is what in Chaos Ethics I call moral representation, which is to say, shared reflection on our ethical values and judgements, something also suggested as necessary by Haidt’s social intuitionist theory. We need to represent our moral positions to each other in part because once our anger is engaged, productive discussion is blocked by moral horror (what psychologists term cognitive dissonance), and so the reflective aspect of morality – which is far more important than we usually recognise – never occurs. If there is a lesson we should take from moral psychology it is not that we should abandon the study of our historically-embedded moral systems but that we have failed to adequately maintain the social basis of moral judgement. We are no longer conducting any viable form of morality, and we really have become the caricature that Haidt imagines, dressing up our emotional reactions in convenient justifications.

To overcome this impasse requires new discourses, and it is my suggestion that we start by talking about virtues since we can recognise what is good in a person – or a cyborg – without it setting off our moral horror, which closes us off from difficult to accept ideas. Too much of our ethical practice has become a sustained outpouring of vitriol against what we perceive as evil; often, what we judge as evil without ever stopping to consider the complexities of the situations. Whether we are talking about those who voted to leave the EU in the United Kingdom, or those who voted for a popularist demagogue in the United States it is not enough to angrily shout ‘racism! racism!’ and expect this to suffice for politics – or for ethics. Perhaps if we can recover some perspective on the good, we can stop being so ineffectually obsessed with raging at the evil we see everywhere around us. Outrage culture is either impotent or blindly vengeful – neither of which are terribly helpful. To get beyond this, we have to learn to talk about morality in ways that can cross easily between any religious or secular tradition, and virtues might just provide a way of doing this.

This post is a edited from sections of the piece run last week, What is Cybervirtue?, which I have edited and re-run (as What is Cybervirtue? Version 2.0) without this discussion within it. The opening image is Rage by Sarah Goodyear, which I found here on her Artdoxa page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Librarians on File-sharing

File Sharing Before It Was CoolWhen pirates make copies of music, television shows, movies, or books, they don’t just keep it for themselves, and they don’t sell them on for money – they share their files freely with their (illegal) community. That means file-sharing pirates are operating as underground librarians. Yet despite this, the most noise about piracy has come from musicians (whose album sales have fallen sharply because of it) and especially the media corporations who market them. But the people I most want to hear from about the ethics of file-sharing are the librarians themselves.

What do the librarians think about file-sharing? What do they think are appropriate penalties for operating an unauthorised library? Are there any librarians who would consider allying with pirates for legal distribution of material (e.g. out of copyright books)? Do you think the future of libraries and the future of file-sharing are related in any way?

If you are a librarian, I would love to hear from you, either in the comments here, or in a reply to the tweet that pointed to this post. And if not, please promote the discussion by retweeting the original tweet.

Towards Cyberethics

Daniel DeLuna.Geomteric-Maze-BlueThe question of how we act in the light of our technological situation has become, almost unnoticed, the central question in ethics. This transformation is rooted in the extent to which the networks underlying our purportedly neutral tools – cars, nuclear weapons, computers, armed drones, DNA analysers, anonymous communications, programmable agents – serve to make the moral impact of technology no longer a question of individual agency. It is not that any individual car is a problem, but that our networks of roads and cars kills millions of humans each year, and that the networks of metal and oil that manufacture and power them add to this a terrible contribution towards the on-going devastation of our planet that is far wider and deeper than the anxieties about climate change.

Descartes and Kant cleaved subject from object rather too well – giving all the ethical qualities to subjects alone. But free will, while far from an illusion, operates in a landscape of possibilities carved by objects, which were in turn shaped by design process driven by subjects, motivated by concerns that utterly straddled the divide. To create cars was to have a moral impact far beyond the imagined purpose of transportation; to continue to participate in the automotive network at all is to be complicit in extinctions and denudations we are aware of but still do not grasp – and yet despite our collective emphasis on ideals of  ‘freedom’, not participating in the reigning paradigm of transportation seems as if it is barely an option for most people. Things have their own ethical agency; their own trajectories within the moral perspective, even without conscious awareness of this. Thus ethics is not the exclusive domain of the human, and never was, for all that our powerful imagination shapes moral concerns like no other animal before us.

The twentieth century was the site of three tragic failures of moral thinking. Firstly, the imperialist mythos of a clockwork universe begotten by the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Enlightenment and made firm by Victorian scientists opened up a path of power and control that made technological progress seem not only desirable but inevitable, such that no matter what purportedly neutral tool was invented it never brought to question the process of researching new technology. Thus mechanized transport and flight give us the World Wars, ostensibly ended by the invention of a nuclear weapon that was far worse, and which led directly to the end of conventional warfare, such that now extermination, rather than (say) honourable conflict, is a primary activity of the United States military forces, dishonouring the country that did the most to usher in the era of human rights. So here we are suggesting, without a trace of irony, that our robot cars should kill pedestrians to save drivers, while designing our cars to be limited to 30 mph and thus saving millions of lives each year isn’t even on the table for discussion.

None of this could have happened without the second tragic failure of moral thinking, the reduction of moral philosophy to a contest between competing systems of thought. The rule-focussed systems that led to human rights and the outcome-focussed systems that are the de facto moral mythos of corporations set themselves up to fight one another, assured (for some reason) that one of them had to be right. Virtue ethics, meanwhile, was reduced to a small crowd of refugees on the moral stage, staring in horror at the calamities wrought by the two competing views of the moral ‘ought’. Kant’s faith that morality was expressible as a unity was based on the idea that all religions encoded a common core of moral truth; cleaved from ties to any tradition, however, and moral thought lost its secure footing at precisely the time it was most forcibly demanding adherence to singular views of ethical truth.

This is turn was the product of the third tragic failure of moral thinking, the breach with tradition opened – in radically different but intimately related ways – by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Nihilism is not the problem here, since it marks nothing more than a mere loss of faith, with merely pathetic consequences. The problem is that the crisis of the existentialists was rooted in the individual – the isolated subject handed to de Beauvoir, Sartre, and Camus could then be isolated from other subjects as well as objects (despite honourable attempts, especially by de Beauvoir, to prevent this). The successes of this newly empowered mythic individual has been consistently less than is claimed; de Beauvoir’s feminism, for instance, led paradoxically to feminist oppressions of the kind brought to brutal light by the long-overdue intersectionality critiques. Freedom does not mean isolation; indeed, we have very nearly lost any concept of autonomy worth having.

My own Chaos Ethics is an analysis of these and other problems, and a tentative step towards illuminating possible paths forward. Wikipedia Knows Nothing is a more positive response, sketching both a rescue of equality as an ideal and an understanding of knowledge as a practice that invites a repositioning of ‘expertise’ in order to better understand the diversity of knowledge. Both books build upon the idea of an ethical and phenomenal multiverse, which was always where we lived. In such a place, finding the correct moral system is the wrong grail to quest after, for moral truth can be translated only, as with all translation, through distortion. The question cannot be ‘which moral system must we impose?’ – that very proposition is self-defeating – but ‘which moral practices do we still have?’ and ‘how do we make them speak to one another?’

If the epistemology (i.e. view of knowledge) in Wikipedia Knows Nothing holds, and I contend that it does, the next step for me is applied ethics, practical reason as Kant puts it. If knowledge is indeed best understood as practices, then moral knowledge is also a practice, as Alasdair MacIntyre has more-or-less argued already. That doesn’t make virtue ethics the only game in town – far from it – but it does mean that any authentic moral knowledge must be at the very least expressible as virtues, and that eliminates from plausibility all attempts to calculate the good, as I already argued in Chaos Ethics. The notorious Trolley Problem, as Allen Wood has argued, all too successfully misleads us into accepting a mathematics of harm born from the horrors of battlefield logic as a surrogate for authentic ethical thought. Both States and corporations must therefore be challenged to adapt to new conditions of moral being where calculable consequences are at best only part of the process of reaching ethical decisions.

Cyberethics, or the moral craft of living within technological networks, is not exactly new (the Amish chose a particular kind of cyberethics, for instance) – but it does not yet exist in the form we need for our own peculiar situation. A craft in good order has to be embodied in a tradition in good order, as MacIntyre says, and this means if we lack the moral craft we need (and we do) we must either create or identify a suitable tradition that might be able to embody it, or to allow it to develop. Yet knowing we live in a multiverse makes this problem somewhat harder… a new tradition is not likely to be the best path forward, or even a plausible option for that matter, even though the existing traditions are so numerous the challenge of working with them all can seem intractable.

One way around the impasse of needing a tradition to carry the moral craft required might be to offer a kind of ‘cyberethics add on’, an ‘expansion pack’ for moral thinking that could be used to upgrade any any all existing traditions to take into account our new situation. Of the three ways of conducting ethical thought, outcome-focussed thought can only emphasise the extent of our problems, while rights-focussed thinking is (sadly) not currently a tradition in good order, leaving agent-focussed ethics to carry the day. This implies the need to imagine what a virtuous cyborg would be like, and thus to identify cybervirtues for humans, and cybervirtues for our robots too. It is this substantial challenge that I want to pursue, but I clearly cannot get there alone; my path from here must lead me away from the comfort of the philosopher’s armchair, and towards some authentic form of cyberethics practice.

The opening image is Geometric Blaze Blue by Daniel DeLuna, which I found here at Mutant Space. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

The Petty Evil of Timetabling

Galaxies CollideWe live at a time when there is not, despite how it may occasionally seem, a common moral paradigm we can draw against. Rather, as I discuss at length in Chaos Ethics, there are many different ethical methods colliding with each other. Some, facing the cacophony, feel a powerful need to justify one moral system as necessarily superior to others – but this, I’m afraid, is largely a waste of effort. What is needed is not ‘one ethic to rule them all’, but a sensitivity to the moral tensions that emerge from the unavoidable conflicts between different approaches.

I’d like to give an example from my life that illustrates this point. Every year since I began teaching, the timetabling has been horrific. In previous years, it has been horrific because resolving my restrictions (on account of being a parent) with the available teaching spaces and the logistics of the student intake has required tremendous time and effort – and considerable loss of hair! The person responsible for timetabling for the last two years quit his job rather than face it again. This year, someone new took over timetabling, and opted to ‘black box’ the process, meeting only with the line manager involved and not with the staff. I suspect this was a successful strategy for most staff, who are used to receiving the timetable as a circumstance delivered to them. For me, it was hell.

The problem stems from a mismatch of expectations. In my lived practice as a teacher, participating in timetabling was what I had learned, and what I expected. Doing so also allowed me some influence over how my teaching would proceed, which at an emotional level I need for my own sanity. (This is something I have in common with those marvelous folks on the autistic spectrum). Quite understandably, I proceeded with timetabling on the basis that I always had, without really taking on board the consequences of the change of circumstances, since pragmatically that change was invisible to me until it was too late.

The two people who were handling timetabling established new prudential values for the timetable process that were (when I eventually discovered them) perfectly sensible. Their decision to pursue these values was in itself a moral decision: it was the ethical choice to value outcomes over alternative moral approaches, such as virtues. But their pursuit of these values unleashed terrible stresses into my life, because I simply could not understand why my requests (motivated in part by my personal teaching values) were being ignored, when I could see that it was perfectly possible to implement the arrangements I was requesting.

Inevitably, it all came to a dramatic head and, with a little fury, and quite a bit of crying, I eventually came to understand the power relations that had been established and the reasons for their coming into existence. I could completely appreciate the prudential values that had been chosen, once they were made clear to me, and although I did not really agree that the outcome we were getting was better than my circumstances in previous years, I could at least make sense of the upsetting events of the previous few weeks once this perspective was revealed to me. It comes with considerable costs… I had to abandon my conceptual image for one of my classes – a very successful class – and I will have to develop a new image for it that, at the moment, is hard to see as better. But I have no doubt that I will do this.

In my particular case, I was lucky because the line manager involved was sufficiently sensitive to the situation to resolve it through ‘soft power’ rather than through playing the King. But we can see in this example a classic case of how contemporary bureaucracy becomes the enemy of the good through petty evil. Everyone involved in the timetabling process that affected me had laudable ethical values that motivated their actions – yet the tensions that were unleashed could not easily have been avoided, because there was no reason for anyone to suspect that the chosen approach could cause such unintended emotional damage. Furthermore, while some degree of consultation might have resolved my issue, it would have made the practical progression of this particular bureaucratic task untenable.

This is an example of the kind of problems we are all facing in our bureaucratically-arranged organisations at this time in history. At root is the conflict between our outcome-focussed ethics, all of which revolve around prudential values, and agent-focussed ethics, such as virtues, that are embedded in individuals and communities. We have somehow learned that we should let prudential considerations trump all others (an ethical approach that is usually termed Consequentialism), and many hold moral values that inform them this is what they should do, not just what happens. Personally, however, I cannot accept this situation as anything other than a colossal moral error.

The problem with using solely outcome-focussed ethics to judge situations is that we do not ever know all the outcomes when we make decisions, an objection originally raised by Nietzsche. We imagine what the outcomes will be, and these imagined consequences come to be what govern our decision process. If we choose imagined futures over the lived moral practices of the people around us, we will act in ways that are guaranteed to generate moral and emotional tensions. It will cause what I have called petty evil, the damage wrought by large organisations in their inability to understand the deleterious effects they cause through disempowering those affected by their centralised decision making.

Saying that solving this problem in the worlds we live in will not be easy is an understatement. The ideals that got us through the Enlightenment – of freedom, and what we have chosen to call democracy – are no longer capable of bearing the load placed upon them, in part because the prudential values of the marketplace (primarily that of efficiently generating money) supplant deeper moral practices, such as virtue, in ways that are impossible to oppose as long as ‘choice’ is seen as paradigmatic of freedom, rather than a shallow substitution for authentic autonomy. We need to see these problems with better eyes, but it is unclear that we have the will to do so.

The opening image is Galaxies Collide by Robert McNiel, which I found here on his Instagram page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Think for Yourself?

They LiveAn extremely common demand made by non-religious folks is that you ought to ‘think for yourself’. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable request – certainly, the people who make this claim believe it is morally exemplary to do so! But what does it mean to ‘think for yourself’ and what moral weight can this directive bear?

It is worth observing that the demand to ‘think for yourself’ is often made against the background assumption that if you are part of a religious tradition you do not think for yourself. This appears to be based on two separate but related assumptions: that religious folks do not think for themselves because a centralised autocratic institution dictates norms of behaviour, and that ‘thinking for yourself’ is necessarily a mode of freedom. The latter claim is largely the converse of first, based on the logical connection that says ‘either you think for yourself, or an institution thinks for you’, and the problem with this is that it is solely by drawing against traditions and institutions that any kind of thinking or language is possible. The trouble with the former assumption is that it doesn’t describe contemporary religious institutions outside of purely fictional narratives very accurately.

Of all the world religions, only Catholicism has a central bureaucracy and single leader, and yet Catholics (if you actually talk to a reasonable number of such people) are generally far more independently minded about their theology and religious practice than protestant Christians who – despite their branch of that religious tradition having expressly broken away for the purpose of ‘thinking for themselves’ – all too often align around congealed interpretations of their scriptures. (I personally find it fascinating that an education system that purportedly discourages independent thought creates so many independent thinkers, and suspect this says more about schools than religions). If we move away from Christianity, the situation is even less one of outsourced thinking: the norm for global religion is distributed religious practice, with no centralised elements whatsoever.

There is, however, at least one way that religious folks can be said to not ‘think for themselves’, which is that when they face moral crises they will turn to their co-religionaries or (local) community leaders for advice. This is, however, what is required in this situation, since the best philosophical and scientific evidence suggests that you can only operate in a moral context when you are embedded in a common moral community and can engage with others in what in Chaos Ethics I have termed moral representation. A person who solely ‘thinks for themselves’ i.e. who never checks their reasoning, ethics, or assumptions against another person cannot be relied upon to think reasonably, or to reason morally, because humans naturally skew their reasoning towards their own benefit.

This question of ‘thinking for yourself’ also takes a strange turn when we bring in psychologists and psychiatrists who provide life advice and moral representation to their patients. This relationship is parallel to that between a religious community leader and their congregation; only the framework of reason and morality is distinct, as it is when we move between religious traditions. Is a person who is extolled to ‘think for themselves’ prohibited from seeking psychological assistance? I doubt this is the intent of the phrase. Indeed, I suspect that this kind of secular (and allegedly scientifically grounded) advice-seeking is something that would normally be encouraged. Similarly, the advice to ‘think for yourself’ is turned on its head in the context of scientific consensus, which advocates of this phrase typically align with while opposing those (such as people who dispute the reports of climate scientists) who ‘think for themselves’ on empirical issues, and thus where independent thinking is both mocked and disdained. In this regard, ‘think and verify’ might be a better phrase to bandy about.

So the demand to ‘think for yourself’ transpires not to be advice to think independently – which anyway, would be both impossible (since our linguistic concepts are maintained collectively) and undesirable (since thought without cross-checks is self-serving and apt to mislead). Rather, it risks becoming a demand that you think within the same framework of reason and ethics that the person making the assertion holds. Which at this point means that it has become simply a non-religious version of the very complaint being levelled against the religious alternatives i.e. it is an insistence of adopting specific norms of reason and ethics, namely the secular descendant of the Enlightenment tradition of reason and ethics. This is a great tradition – one that both religious and non-religious people are participating in – but it cannot be elevated to the sole source of norms without transgressing its own values of freedom and autonomy.

The one good thing I can say about a demand to ‘think for yourself’ is that at least it is a positive claim. I would rather hear this than incoherent fantasies like ‘the world would be a better place without religion’, which is only a secular version of an all-too-familiar religious bigotry that insists everyone who isn’t like me is necessarily inferior. There are authentic moral values being espoused in the claim to ‘think for yourself’ – it is just that in its most basic form, ‘thinking for yourself’ is also likely to lead to terrible vices. In this, as in all ethical affairs, we need to be part of a community if we hope to live up to our chosen moral standards. Besides, we now have plenty of people who ‘think for themselves’ and it isn’t helping any more: what we need is not a greater supply of autonomous thinkers, but better forms of collective reasoning. And this requires co-operation between everyone, whether they ‘think for themselves’ or not.

The Broken Game of Peer Review

RejectedFor some time now, I've been complaining to anyone who will listen that double blind peer review of academic papers is a broken game. It’s broken, because reviewers are anonymous and unaccountable for their reviews, and anyone who has used the internet knows how dangerous it is to create anonymous and unaccountable people with the power to hurt others. Supposedly, we shouldn't worry about the potential abuse because academics are classy human beings. Except they're not, they’re all-too-human and everyone knows it – especially the academics! Indeed, if academics were virtuous people and not petty, narrow-minded, power-trip nerds, it wouldn’t be necessary for double blind peer review because we could trust virtuous academics to do their job well. But they don’t. And blind peer review helps them abuse their position.

In principle, a double blind review prevents bias by making the reviewers unaware of the people being reviewed, and protects the reviewers from potential backlash from the people they have reviewed. The result is that nobody is supposed to know whom anyone is, which is not a situation likely to bring out the best of humanity! In fact, as many have pointed out, it is usually easy to identify the authors of an anonymous paper, and certainly simple to separate research done at well-funded campuses from those at poorer (i.e. ‘foreign’ universities). This rather undermines the supposed benefits of blind peer review. Indeed, rather than eliminating bias, what double blind peer review does is allow reviewers full reign to exercise their personal biases by dismissing papers based solely upon their own prejudice or ignorance, without ever having to be held accountable for it. It is well documented that blind peer review blocks the publication of new research that runs against established dogmas, even when the new research is absolutely correct. (I wrote about this in The Mythology of Evolution).

I’d like to use a concrete example. I had a paper in review for two years at a fairly prestigious game studies periodical (if that isn’t an oxymoron...). When I eventually got the rejection, one reviewer had been dutiful in assessing the paper I had submitted. The other dismissed it out of hand based on his misreading of the paper, with a series of falsely construed judgements about its content. For instance, it was objected that Grand Theft Auto should not have its roots traced to Dungeons & Dragons, as I suggested. In such a situation where a peer review disagrees with an assertion, their obligation is to ask the author to back up the unsupported claim in revision. (The argument for this particular point, incidentally, appears in tomorrow’s post at ihobo, and only takes one sentence). You do not simply reject papers that you disagree with if you are a virtuous scholar. The trouble is – and this is the root of all evil here – there are too few virtuous scholars for blind peer review to be anything other than a nest of vipers. Anyone publishing outside of a small handful of close-knit disciplines will be able to share stories as bad as (or even worse than) what I am mentioning here. Just take a look at Rebecca Schuman’s Slate article from last year.

The fix is easy: make blind peer reviewers accountable. It’s very simple to do so. Each paper receives at least two peer reviews, so just make the other peer reviewer provide a rating for the quality of the second review. Then make aggregated reviewer scores publicly available every year via a central repository, like the ones already being used for reviews (e.g. easyChair for conferences). This means peer reviewers have an obligation to provide quality peer review, which at the moment they mostly do not do. I say this as a peer reviewer who has been frequently praised for the quality of my reviews. But then, the papers I am assigned are reviewed to a high standard because I review every paper in the expectation that I might have to face the author. Indeed, I attach to my peer reviews a statement that I consider blind peer review unethical, and will waive my anonymity if permitted. It never actually happens, but knowing that I am reviewing in a situation that even might put me face-to-face with those I am reviewing encourages me to be a virtuous scholar. Anonymous unaccountable reviewers, as anyone with even a passing experience of the internet can attest, will always be problematic.

In the absence of a change to the rules of blind peer review, it will remain fundamentally unethical and a broken game. We all deserve more than this. But who has the courage to turn against the status quo and help bring about the revolutionary changes to established academic practice that are desperately needed?

Prolegomena to Any Future Manifesto

Prolegomena (nicoroc) If dramatic change requires a brazen statement as its motivation, how can any movement avoid falling into dogmatic excess?

An arcane title such as this is off-putting; it reduces the chances of anyone deciding to look into it further. Yet on this occasion, I have nothing to gain by pulling in those nomads of the internet who click mindlessly through to 'fifty things you didn't know about whatever' or 'such-and-such is dead' or any of the other rhetorical traps I have set as honeypots to drive attention towards my own thoughts. Driving attention has become part of the problem: we have consented to be distracted, to be entertained. And part of my problem is that I do not think this is wrong so much as I think it is out of hand, and I do not yet know what a reasonable response would look like. I doubt anyone does.

The title is not, however, constructed at random: it is a very precise reference to our situation, combining as it does an archaic term used in Kant's précis of his Critique of Pure Reason – the very architecture of the 'modern' mythos, as Latour and others attest – and Alain Badiou's use of 'manifesto' in his short books that summarise his major works. I recently finished Badiou's Second Manifesto for Philosophy, and it has left me wondering more than anything: can I even conceive of a manifesto? To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I couldn't commit to a manifesto that had me as its author. The thought of getting my point of view across succinctly appeals; casting down anything authoritative, well, you can understand my hesitation!

The problem with manifestos, movements, and indeed with taking action in general, is that which Hannah Arendt beautifully appreciated: you can never be sure, when you commit to a course of action, what the outcome will ultimately be. Look at that other famous Marx, and his Communist Manifesto: setting off for laudable ideals of equality released the most horrific violence our planet has ever witnessed. The worst, that is, unless we count those extinctions that have left such a permanent mark upon our planet that even sober scientists deign to call them 'events'. We are going through one right now. If I were to commit to action at this time, would it not have to be towards a direction that minimized the eventual loss of life and diversity our catastrophic mishandling of the Enlightenment has unleashed?

Yet at the same time, my 'platform' (as they say in media circles) is in games – and increasingly invested within the aesthetics of play at that! There are many more people willing to talk to me in this context than any other, and here we are back at the problem of distraction: games have succeeded beyond anyone's dreams as a commercial medium, but they are still marginal as an art form. Do I feel – can I allow myself the luxury of feeling – that a movement in art is worthy of a manifesto at this time? And even if it was, would I be the one to pursue it? Here, I seem better suited to a role as intellectual cheerleader, which perhaps is more helpful than it might first appear.

Where then, to manifest a manifesto? I should look to my influences for guidance, and my first port of call (historically, at least) must be Kant. His original 1781 critique, and the 1783 Prolegemena to Any Future Metaphysics that summarized it, set up the presumed requirements for any scientific metaphysics (or mythology, if you will) and this approach eventually dominated thought, even until now. It spread, via the sciences, to every nation plausibly reading this. Kant had the most honourable reasons for establishing this perspective, but he could not have anticipated its consequences, as Arendt warned in more general terms. Nonetheless, his split into subjective and objective has led us into making measurement the foundation of reality, and creating an era that, as Einstein warned, perfects its means while muddling its ends.

The comforting idea of severing circumstances from general patterns that Kant skillfully reasoned has gone on to become the core principle of our age – the wellspring of the asserted authority of the sciences. Someone willing to speak in that name is always available as a portable expert, provided research funds are available. But this a sad substitute for democracy, let alone some equal form of governance, were something like that to prove both possible and desirable. We have mangled what is valuable in both politics and the sciences, and this part of our mythology needs substantial re-writing if we have any hope of living together for any significant further length of time.

But what, we must ask, could replace faith in the order of nature, that unacknowledged premise of contemporary 'rationality' quietly critiqued by Alfred North Whitehead at the dawn of the twentieth century? Human experience is not to be trusted, after all, we are tainted with dreaded subjectivity (so the story goes). Mind you, this neglects to mention that we must already have elevated measurement to our sacred value before this could possibly become our credo. As Nietzsche warned, it is the strongest faith we have, far beyond that professed within any religious tradition. Doubt in God, why of course – only a fool had never entertained the scepticism of the masses, even if only briefly. But doubt in the sciences, surely not, since they alone reveals reality – provided we constrain that contested phrase to measurement alone.

No, I cannot write a manifesto because I still lack faith: I cannot match the faith of the rational worshippers of technological saviours; or the servants of blood who can tell who belongs to a nation or who is unquestionably foreign; or the idolaters who place books or rules ahead of the God they claim to serve. But I can no longer rest content with furiously criticising them either. They are all my sisters and brothers, and I love them. But I cannot simply let them destroy all our cousins, those other animals neither cursed nor blessed with the 'divine madness' of mathematics, let alone our own wonderful, miserable kind.

I have to act somehow. But – for now, at least – it must be without a manifesto to guide me. Such a thing could too easily become objective – or worse, an objective! – and thus irretrievably static. What I need is isn't a manifesto, but a practice, a good practice like that found at the heart of impressionist painting, Islam, radio astronomy, tantric yoga, differential calculus - or myriad other things, many of which I haven't even heard of.

And I have one, I suppose – I still have this much faith, at least – one I call virtuous discourse, or the Republic of Bloggers, or letter writing. It is communicating with intelligence and civility, sometimes across metaphysical gulfs so vast it might seem as if we could never understand one another. Yet, nonetheless we do, at least when we make the effort to try. Many worlds trying to live as one, and many voices sharing in this very-old, very-new practice. Together, perhaps there are things we can do that we could not even conceive of alone. At the very least, it is worth the attempt. Any manifesto I might be unfortunate enough to author would have to be built first and foremost upon that.

The opening image is from the album cover for Prolegomena by nicoroc, which is available for free download on Bandcamp. No copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

Living in an Ethical Multiverse

Over on the website of the incomparably wonderful Institute of Art and Ideas right now is a piece I wrote for them back in December about multiculturalism, ethics, and imagination. Here’s an extract:

The mythos of ‘multiculturalism’ is something that liberally minded individuals – such as myself – tend to take for granted. In the United States, where my wife is from, liberals can become pathological in their defence of it. But if we take up the floorboards of this idea, as Mary Midgley suggests is a philosopher’s task, we’d have fewer reasons to celebrate our ‘tolerance’, since the unacknowledged baggage of a multicultural society is an arrogant faith in our own correctness. It is only because we have faith in rational truths that everyone is obligated to accept that we graciously allow others to have their own beliefs. Beneath the warm mask of compassion that multiculturalism likes to wear is a vast and condescending gulf. We are proud to share Britain with Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists – as long as they accept the rational restraints we put upon them.

The article serves as a nice summary of the themes of Chaos Ethics too. You can read the entirety of Living in an Ethical Multiverse over at IAI.

Can Players Have Rights?

1689 Bill of Rights Could there be a viable concept of ‘player rights’, and if not, are there any grounds for legally restricting games?

There have been several attempts to propose a ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ (e.g. Graham Nelson in 1994, Raph Koster in 2000, Peterb of Tea Leaves in 2004, Ernest Adams in 2005, and Brad Wardell in 2008), but the tendency of these has been to present wish lists of requirements game developers should adhere to, motivated partly by personal frustrations, and partly by professional expertise. Such statements can be exceptionally useful as proposals of best practices for game design or commercial game development, but the ‘bill of rights’ aspect of such manifestos is best understood as an imaginative framing. It certainly helps such claims get noticed, but it does not rise to the level of a genuine claim to rights.

There are two possible ways that we might get clear of this problem. Firstly, we could involve many different players in a discourse on their issues – which will prove intractable in the face of the immense diversity of players, and the vocal bloody-mindedness of certain factions among them. The alternative, which I take up here, is to pursue a concept of player rights from similar philosophical groundings to the US Bill of Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Kant’s concept of Recht (what I will call ‘the rightful state’ or ‘rightful conditions’). This idea has been a substantial influence in the emergence of what are now asserted as ‘rights’, although it should be noted that the very first Bill of Rights (pictured above) was written in 1689 and reflected the earlier philosophy of John Locke (although this was also an influence on Kant’s work).

It is worth observing that of the above mentioned bills of player rights, Raph Koster’s A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is closest in form to historical documents of this kind (being partly modelled upon them). But for these kinds of player rights claim to hold up, they must hold up on grounds parallel to historical rights legislature – and this is far from obviously the case, for reasons this enquiry will undertake to make clear.

Ethics vs. Rightful Conditions

Kant divided morals into ethics (which he saw as rational self-constraint) and the rightful state (which concerns civil law). Rightful conditions are distinct from ethics because Kant thought, as many of us do today, that freedom consists in setting your own ends (that is, your own life goals), without being unnecessarily constrained by others.

As Allen Wood explains, it was Kant’s proposal that the only justifiable role for coercion of any kind was to secure the external freedom of citizens – this and this alone is the rightful state for any nation. Kant did not consider it reasonable for anyone to be forced to adopt other people’s ends, since anyone who is constrained in this way is not free. But ensuring that everyone was able to set their own ends in a civil society means protecting against attempts to force other people to adopt ends that are not their own – and the only reasonable use of coercion would be to prevent this.

Such enforcement does not require anyone to adopt any specific end, it merely protects everyone against any such attempts to dominate their freedom. We are only free, the argument goes, if we are free to choose our own ends, our life goals, although we may be rightfully constrained in the pursuit of those ends because some things that we might intend to do would violate the rightful condition (e.g. murdering people who block your chosen end).

It is thus from the idea of a rightful condition that the authority of civil police arises, and also from the rightful state that concepts of human rights develop, to protect against external coercion. This sets the background to exploring the idea of player rights: if such an idea is valid, there must be a rightful condition for games.

The Ends of Games

To begin with we must ask: do we ever possess ends when we play? It is important to appreciate that an end is far more than just something you want. As I explain in Chaos Ethics, ends are imagined future states in your life that you actively commit to pursuing. You may heartily crave an ice cold beer but it cannot be one of your ends – although it could be one of your ends to own a brewery, say.

Either our gaming-ends – to reach Level 70, build a castle, 100% a game etc. – are truly ends in the sense that freedom implies, or else they are something akin to fictional-ends, hence (analogously to Walton’s quasi-emotions) quasi-ends i.e. imagined ends whose meaning occurs solely within fictional worlds and not in everyday life as such. This distinction is not that easy to settle, however. A player may genuinely want to 100% a game, but then lose interest and play something else – or may become so obsessed with World of Warcraft that they drop out of college.

Notice also that some kinds of game are difficult to imagine quasi-ends for – what I have called thin play games such as Dear Esther and Proteus do not afford much room for willing future states, as they are experiential, like other artworks. Similarly, you may want to win at Snakes & Ladders but it is not a plausible end to set, nor is becoming a master at this particular game a particularly plausible end, as it might be (potentially) for Chess or Tetris.

The safest answer is to provisionally treat ends within the fictional worlds of games as quasi-ends that nonetheless can affect the ends we set in life – such as the undergraduate who succumbs to the lure of Azeroth, and thus frustrates his original end to earn a degree. This approach helps us deal with ambiguities about the diversity of player responses to the very same games that should affect our assessment of whether and how players set ends in the games they (freely) choose to play.

Do Games Coerce Players?

For there to be a question of player rights in Kant’s philosophy there must be a possibility of coercion that should be excluded – so we must ask: can game developers force quasi-ends upon players against their will? It is not entirely clear that they can.

In the case of the MMO drop-out, it does not seem entirely reasonable to suggest the player was coerced by Blizzard so much as suffered a personal moral failure after playing their game (i.e. this is an ethical problem, not an issue with rightful conditions). Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and other players who know the drop-out are all implicated in the network of moral agency here, but implying coercion seems to massively overstate the level of responsibility of anyone involved. The same would appear to apply to scurrilous microtransactions that take advantage of frustrated players – they may be ethically questionable, but preying upon the impulses of players does not quite seem to be of the magnitude required to constitute coercion. After all, isn’t this more or less what casinos do?

What this suggests is that there cannot be any player rights based upon this idea of rightful conditions, which is where all our other uses of ‘rights’ descend from (even those older conceptions drawing against Locke). It may be immoral for developers to produce games that take advantage of compulsive tendencies, but it does not qualify as a breach of rightful condition. The developer, on the other hand, does have its ends unrightfully frustrated by players who acquire access to their game via piracy – namely their end of being compensated for their own work. But this was not the subject of this particular enquiry.

No Rights, Many Wrongs

The reason it sometimes feels as if there should be player rights is that some decisions developers make frustrate players and seem thoroughly unnecessary – not allowing cut scenes to be skipped being a classic example (included in both Ernest’s and Peterb’s bills of rights), or using inadequately specified puzzles (as Graham Nelson’s bill of rights argues against).

However, at best we can say that it is bad business sense not to appreciate the needs of players in this regard, and (on the other side of this coin) players ought to be aware that software development is expensive and time-consuming and even small features place significant burdens on developers if they are required to implement them. In this regard, ‘player rights’ as lists of bugbears are not something that can be justified as anything other than advice for best practices. (Of course, this doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t pay attention to such issues, only that they cannot be compelled to adhere to them!)

In other cases (such as with Brad Wardell’s bill of rights), certain specific demands concern the commercial relationship between a player and a supplier that do not actually relate to games at all. For instance, it might indeed be a breach of rightful condition to secretly install hidden software drivers in so much as the individual’s ends regarding being in control of their own computer are being thwarted. But this has nothing to do with playing games.

Issues like this do, however, suggest there might be software rights that could be pursued, depending in part upon the rather important question of whether users are effectively forced to use certain instances of software. Again, this idea lies beyond the scope of this enquiry.


On purely philosophical grounds, I can draw several conclusions:

  1. Games are not clearly coercive, and as such are not a suitable venue for protective rights.
  2. Software (including game software) can potentially be coercive and might qualify as breaching rightful condition.
  3. There is a moral distinction between games that do not cause players to set specific quasi-ends (some of which share kinship with other kinds of artworks) and those that do.

These latter games, where they are especially compulsive, might justifiably be subjected to legal limitations in so much as civil societies restrict narcotics and gambling for similar (moral) reasons – and it could be argued (although I will not do so here) that such things do breach rightful conditions, although this claim is certainly a matter of debate.

Along similar lines, game developers who prey upon players through manipulative microtransactions cannot necessarily be prevented from doing so as a question of rightful conditions – but this does not preclude them from being judged immoral, and as such communities might decide to institute laws to restrict access to such games by (say) age, or some other appropriate criterion.

Such laws would not necessarily be consistent with Kant’s concept of rightful conditions, except where in so doing they clearly protected external freedom. This might be justifiable when dealing with children, who we tend to treat as being more susceptible to external influences, but if we think an adult is sufficiently autonomous to get drunk, we should equally think them capable of being in control of their games. It is not that players have rights so much as it is that players have responsibilities – and not least of all, to themselves.