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 cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


Every Cause of Death Matters

This piece continues from last week's Which Deaths Matter?, and contains discussion of death statistics some people may find distressing.

PangbornThe principle that every cause of death matters is not, and cannot be, a scientific concept. Indeed, the idea that any death matters cannot be a scientific claim, because from the point of view of the sciences, at least in terms of research communities striving for 'objectivity', nothing could strictly matter since it takes a being (not an object) for anything to matter. Assertions of a required detachment are prevalent in the contemporary sciences, but it would be implausible to assume that this detached point of view was necessary rather than merely traditional. Indeed, as this entire philosophy of science 'campaign' has served to stress, the risk of continuing to pretend that the sciences can be pursued in a 'value-neutral' stance is that this is a blatant self-deception, and one that leads directly or indirectly to the wilfully ignorant state of pseudoscience.

If we were to attempt to construct a scientific value for death, rather than a scientific understanding of a specific aspect of dying, it would surely have to be that we do not increase our understanding on any topic by ignoring any of the data. Thus, to scientifically explore causes of death, we must know what the key causes of death are. We may find it helpful to categorise these causes, and having done so we are then in a position to collect data and report upon those causes of death. This, in fact, is one of the primary functions of the World Health Organisation, and very nearly the sole purpose of providing shared diagnostic categories for disease (which the WHO facilitates) is that it permits us to build a global perspective on causes of death, so that, for instance, we can know (as discussed two weeks ago) that 3 million of us die globally each year from respiratory diseases.

We do not, as it happens, 'die of old age' in the eyes of conventional medical logic; rather, old age leaves us vulnerable to various causes of death of which heart failure and respiratory infection are by far the most common. We could approach this differently; it would not be unscientific to do so. But at the moment, 'disease' is the preferred framework for medical thinking, and that sets the agenda for scientific thinking about death. The landscape of death that the WHO reports upon annually would look radically different if we were to separate out these kinds of end-of-life diseases from other causes of death that affect young and old alike, and to do so would not be unscientific but merely require different values to be incorporated into the scientific communities, which is always permissible provided these assumptions are kept clearly in view.

Therefore, while 'every cause of death matters' cannot be scientific, since it is a principle based upon values that are not inherent to scientific practice, the sciences could incorporate this value, if that is what we wanted. Prior to 2020, I would have thought that this actually was a value that all scientists shared, indeed, that it was a value that could be inferred from the Hippocratic oath for doctors. One of the most revelatory aspects of the global debacle that was the response to SARS-CoV2 was that it revealed that there are many people working in the sciences who do not believe that every cause of death matters. I find this hard to understand in many respects, but it is also undeniable, since (for instance) UK scientific advisers could not have acted as they did if they did not reject the maxim that every cause of death matters, or (at the very least) were temporarily lured away from it.

This principle does not mean that we are wrong to care about some causes of death more than others - on the contrary, it would be reckless to replace it with a principle that 'every cause of death matters equally'. A man in New York state was killed in 2001 when an oxygen cylinder was magnetically pulled into an MRI machine, fracturing his skull. That's tragic, but it is not in anything like the same league as the 9.6 million global cancer deaths each year that the MRI can help in diagnosing. But even a freak occurrence leading to a fatality such as this matters, it matters in this case because a metallic oxygen tank must be kept away from a giant electromagnet like an MRI because otherwise someone might die.

However, what 'every cause of death matters' should mean, if it is accepted, is that we cannot dismiss a cause of death from consideration without any attempt to place it into a wider context - a world and a way of life where that cause of death takes on a meaning for either certain people, or for everyone. We violate the principle that ‘every cause of death matters’ whenever we exclude, by accident or design, certain ways of dying from holding any importance, or accept one cause of death as entirely dwarfing the significance of all others to the point that they can simply be ignored as trivial in comparison. In pushing back against this, I do not seek to impose some singular set of values on other people - this is the exact opposite of my purposes. Rather, I am merely making a call to resist the dismissal of those causes of death we are lured, fooled, or distracted into ignoring.

The Shield of Normalcy

The late Mary Midgley, who was the closest to a mentor I had in philosophy, made the point that we’re acutely aware of injustice ‘above us’ - billionaires, royalty etc. - but we barely notice injustice below us - sweat shops abroad making cheap clothes for us, immigrant poverty etc. This shield of invisibility conceals not only economic disparities where we are the beneficiaries, but also causes of death where we are just as likely to be the victim yet cannot imagine this actually happening. This is because exceptions are glaring as long as we can place ourselves into the comparison, but norms go unnoticed. Hence our dismissal of cars as an important cause of death, hence our ignoring the ongoing massacre of poor, non-white people in barely-noticed countries by a nation that was once the founder and standard bearer of human rights, both of which were explored last week.

For many years now, I have bit my tongue in shocked disbelief that self-proclaimed advocates of social justice felt their political voice and time was best spent complaining that their entertainments didn’t feature the right mix of approved diversity. Does representation matter? It certainly can. Was film, TV, and videogame representation the burning issue that needed immediate redress? That’s rather harder to believe, and I would love to know what assumed principle of action made this appear to be so. It is fashionable to talk of privilege... can there be any greater privilege imaginable than to be free to bitch about how we are entertained while others die from our nation’s action or inaction? I consider myself just as guilty as everyone else in this regard, and every excuse I have feels woefully inadequate.

Last week’s piece engaged with a number of different causes of death - the novel coronavirus, the killing of George Floyd, drone assassinations, civil war in Yemen - to try to demonstrate the that the principle 'every cause of death matters' is not only just, it is a requirement for justice. What COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death have in common was that both stories were picked up by journalists and reported as news. That’s fair, because they both warranted reporting. But it is also highly problematic because much less attention was given to drone assassinations, and almost none at all to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, both of which were directly or indirectly attributable to the actions of the US as a nation.

Given that ‘the news’ is the collection of stories with the apparent sole power of determining where political action might be taken, and given the penchant of journalists for doom propheteering, what are we to make of the millions dying each year as road fatalities, the seven million deaths attributable to air pollution, the grotesque transformation of warfare into grim extermination, and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen that we all share a collective responsibility for, but about which neither news nor political action intersects? If journalists excuse themselves from responsibility in this regard on the basis that their audience isn’t interested (and I have indeed heard this sincerely lamented by people who work at the BBC), what are we to make of the news except that it is merely another form of entertainment, another way of distracting ourselves from asking about what matters?

Every cause of death matters.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s also a revolutionary one, because it asks us to stop saying ‘this cause of death matters, but this one does not’. I do not believe this change requires political reform, but it does require either journalistic reform or the creation of a new avenue for the exchange of perspective that is neither news nor entertainment. This is unlikely to be our current academic systems, since these have also disastrously failed, although academics could be among the people to facilitate what is required. Perhaps all that is needed, as the piece on doom propheteering foreshadowed, is a different relationship between universities and news media. Or perhaps both need to be entirely reformed.

As one small example of what might help address this problem, consider a weekly, monthly, or even daily ‘death report’, akin to the weather forecast, that compares national and international causes of death. Such a report would be difficult to produce because statistics on causes of death are slow to propagate, and complicated by many deaths having multiple causes - as well as being open to political gerrymandering by redefining categories for counting deaths. But without some means of putting all causes of death into our consideration, we will continue to focus disproportionately upon small details, and consistently fail to see the big picture. Perhaps we are not even willing, or indeed able, to take it all in. But we could certainly try.

Most likely such a report would not be enough... It probably would not, for instance, help us to begin recognising automobiles as the major cause of death that in actuality they have been for more than half a century. We would simply see those deaths on the 'leaderboard' and continue to dismiss them as we always have. Neither would it be likely to illuminate how COVID-19 deaths compare to deaths from other respiratory diseases, and thus how stories that foreground these tragic deaths for dramatic, doom propheteering effect ignore comparable deaths from other, similar causes of death that we have traditionally chosen to entirely ignore despite causing a roughly similar number of deaths. According to a recent government report, 72,178 people in England died of "laboratory-confirmed COVID-19" in 2020; an alternative source reports 73,444 for England and Wales for 2020. This has been reported as a catastrophe. Yet the 71,674 English and Welsh deaths from respiratory diseases in 2019 raised zero headlines, caused no panic, no dramatic posturing by cowardly politicians about the "millions grieving", nor any attempt to seize unwarranted emergency powers to undermine liberty and criminalise protest.

It is true that there are millions grieving... this statement is heartbreakingly true every day of every year, and the majority of those loved ones were and are lost to heart disease and cancer, of which there were tragically even more deaths in 2020 owing to the disruptions and panic caused by long-term lockdowns. And it is becoming painfully clear that these extreme measures had limited effect on SARS-CoV2 mortality, which still killed roughly 0.1% of the population of every European country regardless of which interventions were deployed. This is not the same as saying we should have done nothing, but this should never have been permitted to become the nature of the dispute - 'do everything' versus 'do nothing' is about as far from sane thinking as could be imagined, and yet we not only made this the battlefield, we committed to it so fully that we became convinced that the specific insanity we chose was clearly the only reasonable choice. But neither of those choices was reasonable, because the important question was which actions could save lives when we consider all causes of death, and this discussion we have in fact refused to have, and continue to lie to ourselves about the ghastly things we have done as a consequence.

It is admirable that so many wanted to commit to the maxim 'we should do whatever it takes to save lives' - I truly wish we had been willing to engage with the scientific and political challenges in a way that made this laudable goal even remotely plausible to safely pursue. Instead, we politicised COVID-19 and dangerously nullified not only civil liberties, but the very ability of the sciences to investigate. Without these safety measures we were empowered to unleash rash cybernetic interventions that went on to destroy a great many lives and livelihoods, casualties not of a disease but of our collective madness in the face of a disease. Not to mention that for the first time in human history, our loved ones died without having a chance for us to say goodbye to them, making each and every one of those dreadful deaths far more anguished, desolate, and lonely than they needed to be. The disease was indeed terrible, but the catastrophe was not the disease but our response to it, a tragedy that happened because we were fooled into thinking that only one cause of death mattered.

Closed Minds

Over the last year, dreadful things were happening. Never one to turn a blind eye on anything, I committed to using my skills and experience to study the literature and ongoing research on the interventions being proposed or deployed in order to be able to provide advice and insight that I hoped might be helpful. But, as they say, "a prophet is never welcome in their home town", and during this time I have been pilloried, snidely dismissed, treated as "one of them", told that "you're wrong because I have a friend who's a scientist", told "that may be what some scientists say, but its not what the science says", and other things equally bizarre and nonsensical, all by well-educated, compassionate people who have been acting as if they were neither of these things. In short, despite the care I have taken in my scientific analysis, despite my judgements being informed by the medical debates I have followed closely, despite my claims aligning with those made by eminent epidemiologists, I (and indeed they) have been told that this well-informed, scientifically-grounded perspective doesn't count because it doesn't align with the beliefs of those who zealously committed to "saving lives".

You cannot claim I don't care about saving lives; I have spent seven years trying to save the lives of those who die because of our current automobile designs, and the lives of those killed as 'collateral damage' in drone attacks. During this time I have been almost unilaterally dismissed via dozens of excuses that I have accepted, albeit with great sadness, because I accept everyone's freedom of speech and belief, and place this value above all others as the necessary foundation of all other freedoms. I grieve for everyone who has died, but I weep hardest for this politically-fuelled breakdown in discourse, for it has plunged us into a state of pseudoscience that has not only resulted in unnecessary deaths, it has savaged civil society and removed any ambiguity over whether we are still committed to human rights. It is precisely because I am committed to saving lives that I must speak out about the harms caused by the interventions chosen... I could be mistaken in my claims, errors are a perpetual risk in all scientific work. But there is no such risk for those who are defending a position based on political commitments.

Political battlefields destroy the work of the sciences because they polarise discussions in ways that preclude the evaluation and re-evaluation of evidence that is required for the slow and careful work of legitimate scientific enquiry. Once there are two vehemently opposed sides, evidence can either be converted into ammunition or dismissed out of hand. Yet whatever rubbish your "opponents" have said will not make your position magically correct, it simply feels that way because you have made it about "fighting an enemy" instead of uncovering the truth, as happens with every politicised issue. Complex issues are always rendered poorly when presented solely in polar extremes. So it has been with the claim that "public health trumps human rights" - an incoherent maxim that entails there are no human rights, since the very purpose of declaring such rights was that they were supposed to be inalienable, as the US constitution memorably puts the matter. And while we are living in a state of pseudoscience there is no legitimate public health either, just a string of dreadful mistakes divorced from all responsibility for their horrific consequences.

If you are willing to accept the proposition that ‘every cause of death matters’, you can at least do this one small thing: stop dismissing deaths. Stop treating SARS-CoV2 as a more significant cause of death than the inadvertently fatal measures rashly deployed against it. Stop pretending guns are a bigger problem than cars, when the latter results in six times as many preventable deaths. Stop acting as if unjust deaths inside our country’s borders are more important than those that our nations inflict abroad, when both ought to be wholly preventable and worthy of protesting. In short, just stop pretending that only some causes of death matter. Even dying peacefully in old age matters because this, after all, is how many of us would prefer that we eventually die. Whatever your values, whatever your commitments, if you care about anything, you ought to care about how we die. We can die with dignity and respect, or we can die horrifically and unjustly. The more we recognise that every death matters, the closer we will creep to a world worth saving.

The opening image appears to be a detail from a Dominic Pangborn painting, but I have been unable to source the title. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

My Spring social media break begins tomorrow, so please accept my apologies in advance for the slowness of my replies. Only a Game returns later this year.


Which Deaths Matter?

Contains both death statistics and ideas that some people may find distressing. Please do not read it if you are of a sensitive disposition.

Death WingsWhich deaths matter? This is an odd question, because most of us have a sense that every death matters, at least to someone. But we do not act in ways that are consistent with the idea that we consider every death important. On the contrary, we are entirely accustomed to ignoring deaths - including a great many that we are partially responsible for.

To explore this strange situation, I want to draw against the ethical thought of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanual Kant. One of the most surprising aspects of his work in moral philosophy is the role he provides for maxims, that is, principles for acting or refraining from acting. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft and several other philosophers of the 18th century, Kant was responsible for helping to craft our thinking about what we now call ‘rights’ or ‘human rights’, and although his moral and political philosophy is far richer than this talk of maxims can do justice, when it comes to thinking about which causes of death matter, the question of the principles upon which we act might be crucial.

If, for example, we say we are acting on a precautionary principle - to take steps that might save lives - we may want to know more about when and how such a principle is to be applied, or if it is always to be applied, we want to know why it appears to be otherwise. Similarly, if we say that we act whenever human rights are violated, we may want to know whether this is for certain rights, or certain violations, and whether we mean in our country or by our government (which is not the same thing).

Now making precisely worded principles is not how we do our moral thinking - Kant knew this, but in his time, the concept of a maxim was a convenient shorthand for moral thought that his contemporaries readily understood, and he used this situation to help get across to his 18th century readership far more complex ethical ideas that helped transition us into thinking in terms of our shared rights. I believe it can still be useful to think about our principles of action in this way.

In the two thought experiments that follow, the idea is for you to attempt to formulate an approximation of the principles that underlie situations where I shall suggest that we are unreasonably focusing on some causes of deaths and not others. Unfortunately, the easiest way to get where we are going is to form crude pairs of death-causes - but to help defend against the risk of misunderstandings, I will in each case add at least one additional (unexplored) cause of death to show there are many others we could also have considered in each case.

Medical vs Environmental Deaths

The first thought experiment considers causes of death of two different kinds, and at first glance it may appear to be an entirely outrageous question to ask:

If the 1.8 million deaths globally attributed to the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus in 2020 required and continue to require extreme measures, why do the 1.4 million global road fatalities every year not require anything but tiny incremental actions? What principle of action warrants immediate extreme action with significant unpredictable side effects in the case of (say) lockdowns, but no action at all in the case of the most deadly environmental health risks? Or to put this another way, why do medical causes of death utterly overshadow environmental health causes of death? Should they? If so, what principle is it that informs us that environmental causes of death don’t matter, while medical causes of death require action, even in cases with severe health (and mental health) consequences?

Lung cancer could be substituted for the novel coronavirus, as it causes 2 million deaths annually and this prompts a variety of interventions in most nations; air pollution could be substituted for cars; it contributes to the deaths of some 7 million people... although cars are, of course, a major contributor to this.

Let us start with some of the less plausible choices. We cannot approach this via the scale of the deaths caused, obviously, as the roads were far deadlier than the pandemic at the time extreme measures were being advocated, but we could potentially use projected deaths. But in the case of COVID-19, the projected deaths were wildly higher than what actually happened in nearly every single case I can find, and this seems to have been true of every pandemic in recent years to varying degrees. Apparently, the computer models of viral spread that have been created thus far do not actually consider anything like the circumstances by which real viruses spread, nor indeed the conditions under which they are fatal. What's more, if we are to formulate a principle for action based on projected deaths, we still have to explain why we would take no action whatsoever in regard to so many actual deaths with environmental causes. Some kind of principle might be possible here, but it would likely be rife with compromises.

Alternatively, we could attempt to distinguish between disease and accident. ‘We ought to take steps to prevent deaths from disease’ and (perhaps unstated) ‘we should minimize accidents where we can’. This amounts to claiming that causes of death we call diseases matter in a way that accidents do not. But ‘disease’ is just a catch-all term for a health risk, and road fatalities are also a health risk, specifically an environmental health risk. All approaches of this kind are tantamount to claiming that accidents don’t matter because if we were using the tools correctly there would be no cause of death to consider. This is a macabre form of legerdemain that conceals the fact that our most deadly tools (cars and guns) are inherently at-risk of 'improper usage' because of their current designs. We could (I would go further and say should) redesign cars so that they cannot exceed 30 mph (we could do this solely in residential areas quite easily, in fact, using only existing technology) and eliminate more than a million global deaths each year. We do not act consistently in this regard.

More plausibly, the exponential (or rather, logistic) aspect of virus spread invites a different maxim: ‘we must act where the cause of death risks growing non-linearly’ or ‘we must act when the scale of potential deaths rise with inaction’. There is something psychologically plausible about this approach, but in the case of principles of this kind: do we really wish to say that the millions who die on the roads each year don’t matter because roughly the same amount die every year? Perhaps we want to say that it is precisely the greater infectiousness of this recent virus that marks it out for special treatment. I cannot agree with this principle personally, but at least it provides a plausible reason for acting in this case. But even so, would it not be a more reasonable to suggest ‘exponential or logistic threats of death require swifter action’, that is, that we should not ignore environmental causes of deaths, as we have done this year and every other, and instead act to minimise fatalities from all causes of death wherever possible?

A crucial problem in identifying a principle of action for SARS-CoV2 is that we must explain why any lives saved by measures such as long-term lockdowns matter so much more than those lives lost as a consequence of long-term lockdowns, whether to heart disease, untreated diabetes, undiagnosed cancer, suicide, or to the fact that depression doubles the risks to all cause mortality. The measurements available for these collateral fatalities will not match the tragic scale of all the deaths attributed to COVID-19 itself, but as the evidence accumulates it seems ever more probable that the unnecessary deaths and health harms of long-term lockdowns will exceed any plausible reduction in fatalities when compared to voluntary measures, which seem to have been almost as effective. Countries like the UK, which locked down for most of a year, caused horrific public health harms in the pursuit of saving lives: that the lives saved by lockdown-type measures were primarily white and wealthy, while fatalities have disproportionately afflicted the poor and non-white, only adds to the painful legacy of these ill-judged policies.

I realise that a great many are still resolute that lockdowns were entirely necessary, and I have all but given up trying to reason with people over non-pharmaceutical interventions, the most disturbingly politicised medical issue since abortion. But as long as we have not fatally undermined the capacities of the sciences to assemble the truth on any given research topic, a reckoning of some kind over what we have done will eventually come. Until then, the challenge of this thought experiment stands regardless: why do those 1.4 million road fatalities every year not matter in the way that COVID-19 deaths matter...? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a single cause of death was given much greater importance than all others.

National vs International Deaths

The second thought experiment considers deaths of citizens at home, versus deaths caused abroad, and may also seem outrageous at first glance:

Protesters in the United States both honourably and understandably went out in mostly-peaceful protest of the brutal killing of a black citizen, George Floyd. This is far from the only example of brutality by some police forces in the US, a problem which disproportionately affects black citizens - hence the ‘Black lives matters’ mantra, which I take as being broadly the same as claiming 'non-white lives matter' (although this is open to dispute). But which black or non-white lives are we claiming matter? I would like the answer to be ‘all of them’. Yet the United States has killed at the very least hundreds (more likely thousands) of civilians in middle-eastern nations for nothing more than being proximate to people added presumptively to a CIA kill list. How are we to reconcile the justifiable and necessary protests in the wake of one awful killing against the hundreds or thousands of other horrific deaths that spark no protest, that get no mention, and are ongoing?

In place of the killing of George Floyd we can substitute any situation where police officers in any nation used deadly force without any need or justification; in place of the civilian deaths tangential to drone assassinations we can substitute the US sale of armaments to Saudi Arabia and consequent contributions to a quarter of a million deaths in Yemen - although, to be fair, US drones have also directly killed civilians in Yemen.

Here we have many more options for how to respond, in part because our overriding intuition is that deaths that governments bring about against their own citizens deserve greater attention since a citizen is expected to be protected by their government and its agencies - and indeed, is supposed to be so in both national and international law for most (yet not all) nations. But let us never forget that during the Obama administration, a US citizen was executed abroad by drone strike for presumptive status as a terrorist, with no judicial due process. Not to be outdone by the Americans, the British Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, similarly disposed of an inconvenient British citizen by drone assassination. I made the point immediately - quite furiously - that our nations had withdrawn from their human rights agreements at that point, but mostly, nobody cared.

If citizenship does not provide a working basis for a principle of action in this case how about terrorism itself? Well, around the time I was first drafting this piece, President Trump declared Antifa a domestic terrorist group - I presume meaning that they can now be bombed by ‘precision strike’ like other terrorist groups. Ah, but there’s the rub, for doing so at home would not only provoke the same kind of justified outrage as the killing of George Floyd but also reveal the lie that ‘precision strike’ means something other than destroying entire buildings with automated missiles that are marginally more accurate than bombs dropped from airplanes.

I trust nobody is contemplating a principle that relies upon the claim that black lives are worth more than Muslim lives, or that the lives of US citizens are worth more than 'foreigners', although at times it does feel as if there is precisely this kind of grotesque pecking order at work. It is one thing to care for your own neighbours in preference to those people who live farther away, but it is quite another to condone the murder of strangers whose deaths we can not even be bothered to hear about, much less prevent.

When I raise my concerns about drone assassinations, a common retort is: "They were terrorists, so I have nothing to fear because I'm not a terrorist". Yet of course what made them a terrorist in both the above cases was merely the government deciding that they were terrorists. Literally no judicial process was involved at all, there was no possibility of appeal or review. Without enforcing human rights agreements, nothing prevents your government labelling you as a terrorist whenever you become sufficiently inconvenient. Thus any attempt to formulate a principle of action with respect to terrorism is going to risk permitting tyranny and state-sponsored murder to flourish. That many of the casualties of these attacks are people who have never been associated with terrorism, and who were merely the neighbours of those who were, makes it all the more despicable to hide behind the excuse that killing people accused of terrorism is permissible.

A more plausible approach might be to buy into the rhetoric of warfare; civilian deaths matter more than war deaths, even civilian war deaths. But I’m not at all convinced that all these expensive killings warrant the name ‘war’... We do not go to war against mice and cockroaches, we merely exterminate them as vermin - and the hateful rhetoric that justifies assassinating anyone presumed a terrorist without due process - along with every innocent bystander nearby - is all too akin to the logic of extermination. The law is not there solely to protect 'good people'. It protects everyone or else it protects no-one, and this is just as true in warfare as at any other time.

It has been said during the protests following the killing of George Floyd that if you stand by and do nothing you’re implicitly saying that this terrible event was acceptable - but this maxim would surely apply to the murder of people abroad as well as those at home. And except for a few immensely brave military veterans and their allies who have spoken out in the US against the replacement of soldiering with robotic assassination we have done nothing to protest the horrors that have been conducted against far poorer, far more marginalized, far ‘less white’ people slain in our name.

Unlike the first thought experiment, I am doubtful of any kind of plausible maxim in this case that explains to any reasonable degree why no mass protest against the murder of innocents and citizens-presumed-inconvenient ever occurred. The best hope might be to rely upon the distinction between home and away - but the idea that governments lose their obligations to their own citizens based on whether they are inside their borders or outside is not merely problematic, it is outright disgusting. More likely by far, journalists opted not to cover these stories because of the inherent (and readily understandable) bias of every news organisation, namely that what happens at home is news and that what happens abroad is filler, a maxim that at least seems to have the implicit endorsement of everyone consuming the news media.

But then, what if as well as the necessity of asserting that ‘black lives matter’ we ought also to be insisting that ‘non-white lives matter’, that ‘lives in other countries matter’, in short, that there are no lives that do not matter. I know all too well the scorn that meets those who say ‘all lives matter’, but that objection does not hinge upon this particular proposition being false, but rather upon the perception that this phrase is used as a denial of the ways the deck of justice is stacked against black citizens of the United States. It is indeed the case that these citizens suffer disproportionate degrees of injustice, and therefore it can be worth emphasising that ‘black lives matter’. But unfortunately, given the terrible actions of the United States and her allies around the world, even this simple attempt at justice runs a terrible risk of coming to mean something that ought to be false: that ‘American lives matter more than any other lives’.

The only just answer to the question ‘which deaths matter?’ must be ‘all of them’. But alas, we are so very far from accepting the moral implications of that principle that I can only weep at how far from the ideals of the Enlightenment we have already fallen.

Next week: Every Cause of Death Matters

This piece was originally drafted on 28th July 2020, in a longer form including material I have broken out into next week's post. However, I felt it was far too soon to run such a discussion. It may still be too soon. But it is also far too late. I could not in good conscience wait any longer to say what needed to be said.


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.