Parenting and the end of ethics

28 november 2010 | In Meta-ethics Meta-philosophy parenting Psychology Self-indulgence Uncategorized | Comments?

So ethics month(s) just ended. On Thursday, I sent around 50 critically acclaimed essays on applied, normative and meta-ethics back to their authors. Leaving me pondering the proposition that there is now a group of people, the sort of university educated people that invariably turn out ruling the world, the media, the arts and so on, that I taught ethics. For future readers of the web-archives: I’m sorry. Alternatively: You’re welcome.

Normatively, they are all over the place. Utilitarianism is probably the strongest contender, but not by a majority vote. Meta-ethically the interest has a clear tendency towards epistemology, and a weaker tendency towards coherentism. In general, they are very much able to relate their moral judgements in particular cases not only to the normative theory they favor, but also to other theories they know are held by other people. Let’s go out on a limb and call it a good thing.

Those propositions are now passed on to you, as I turn my attention to other things, assuming other perspectives. I’m on parental leave. My main objective for the next few months is play. There will be drumming, there will be crawling and toddling, there will be incomprehensible talk and the provision of feedback. There will, in all likelihood, be a sharp decline in vocabulary, grammar and level of abstraction in the blog posts to come.

The missing philosophy

21 oktober 2010 | In Meta-philosophy Self-indulgence Uncategorized | Comments?


How do you get to do philosophy? As a profession, I mean. How do you go from being genuinely interested in the stuff to doing it as a full time job? For an initiated look at the profession and some perfectly juicy gossip to boot, you would do well to turn to Leiter reports. If you happen to be female, or actually: no matter what you happen to be, you might want to look into the excellent but sometimes somewhat discouraging Being a woman in Philosophy. Talking to members of staff at your local, or any, department for philosophy is generally advisable. This being said, my academic advisor, when I asked about the prospect for a career in philosophy, said that it’s perfectly possible. If you’re independently wealthy.

Arriving at university very much a Man with Ideas, the question was mostly a practical one. How could I get to spend my days working on those ideas, ideally while getting paid and duly appreciated?

I find, and others have shared this experience, that it goes something like this. You read and you listen and you talk a lot. You are quite impressed, but not discouraged by the amount of excellent thinking that has already taken place. You’re not discouraged, either,  by the fact that the history of philosophy has an unfair advantage. Kant, the lucky s.o.b. had the good fortune of being born into a world where Kantian ideas had not already been developed and twisted and turned ever which way. You find something that’s particularly interesting. Your teacher, if you got one, has probably given you an assortment of topics to choose from, and you look around for stuff that treats the topic you find yourself drawn to.

And then it happens. You find that something is missing. Despite initial appearances, there are philosophical theories that have not been developed yet. This is the opening. If you are really lucky, the position is not only unoccupied, but also quite plausible.  And then you go about developing that missing theory, defending it’s merits over other, neighboring theories. More likely than not, you’re not going to convince anyone at this stage, but you may earn their respect, and the possibility to spend a couple of years making the best possible case for your theory.

Along the line, as you’re vacuuming of the field progresses, it is likely that you will find something that is awkwardly close to what you wanted to say to begin with. But then you’re already so von kopf bis fuss entrenched in it that you go on to develop an enhanced variation of it any way.

For me, the missing theory bit happened when I was dealing with preferentialism. The ongoing debate was between objective and subjective satisfaction versions of the theory:

Either it is good that what you want to be the case is the case no matter whether you know it or not, or the only thing that matters is that you think that your wish is satisfied: what is good is the conjunction of the desire and the belief that it is satisfied. Whereas the latter version struck me as more plausible, the mere conjunction of desire and belief did not seem to me to be close enough. It’s not enough that I have a desire that P while having the belief that P is the case. I may have those things, and fail to make the connection, so to speak. Neither would it be sufficient that I have the desire that P and the belief that this desire is satisfied. No, I thought there should be a more concrete relation between the two. Beliefs and desires being mental states, they had to actually meet up and a new mental state: the desire being satisfied as a result of the ingoing components meeting up was the real value-bearer here.

The ultimate result of that train of thought became part 1 of the dissertation, the theory of pleasure.

Stein on copying

16 oktober 2010 | In Books Moral Psychology Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?


There are many that I know and they know it. They are all
of them repeating and I hear it. I love it and I tell it. I love
it and now I will write it. This is now a history of my love
of it. I hear it and I love it and I write it. They repeat it.
They live it and I see it and I hear it. They live it and I hear
it and I see it and I love it and now and always I will write
it. There are many kinds of men and women and I know
it. They repeat it and I hear it and I love it. This is now a
history of the way they do it. This is now a history of the
way I love it

Gertrude Stein

Just to drive the point home, I copied that quote from the New Yorker book blog, which copied it from Marcus Boons book ”in praise of copying” which is available free of charge here. You really have to copy and paste Stein quotes because, with the possible exception of the really short ones, her sentences are impossible to remember. The style, however, isn’t.

One of my very few poems was a tribute to Gertrude Stein. It’s a rather bad poem, in particular as I’m pretty sure that should be ”contemporary with”, not ”contemporary to”.

Dear Gertrude.

How typical of you

to be contemporary to

so few of your contemporaries

On work and idleness

9 oktober 2010 | In Books Happiness research Hedonism Moral Psychology politics Psychology Self-indulgence TV | 1 Comment


I’m coming to you from (blogging is live, no?) a coffee shop in Gothenburg, where I’m spending this morning preparing next weeks lectures on applied ethics. (First out is animal ethics, which I have to weave together with the ethics of abortion, since we didn’t manage to conclude that subject on friday. Luckily, this is not a hard thing to do.)

It’s a good morning. It’s a very good morning. In fact, I’ve done more work in the past two hours than I did all day yesterday. Which is good for present me, but also a bit annoying for that curmudgeon I was most of yesterday.

What it means is that if I knew how to get to this point of effectiveness, even if it took some time (in fact, if it took less than six hours), it would have been rational to spend the main part of the day doing that, and just work for two hours, rather than working at a much slower rate for eight. It would be rational for another reason to: I’ve found that the way to get to this point is to do things that are nice. Talking to friends and family, reading fiction, taking walks,  listening to music or watching television. Good television, I hasten to qualify, because it seems the assigned function of being ”relaxing” is actually not truly attributable to all, or even the majority of, TV-watching. We just think it is, because it make us tired, and then we come to believe that we really needed the relaxation in the first place.

Ideally, of course, I would spend my free time doing the things that make me work like this for the full eight (or so) work hours. But things are not, entirely, ideal. Knowing that, its important to leave your work place occasionally and be idle. Do what you feel like doing, if your conscience and work-ethic will let you. Some companies, famously Google, seem to have grasped this idea and achieve great results for that reason. Of course, this is only true if your work is such that how effectively you can do it depends crucially on your mood and creativity.

Bertrand Russell’s wonderful little essay In praise of idleness is about precisely this. People should have more time to pursue and develop their interests not only because it make them happier – and happiness is, after all, what we want them to achieve – but also because they work better if they’re allowed to do that sort of thing. The worry that the working class would be up to no good if given free time to conspire was based on the fact that as things were, they took to drink, say, or fighting when off work. But in so far that’s true, it’s because they were unhappy, and hadn’t had the time to develop worthwhile pastimes.

Stress is not primarily a consequence of having a lot to do, but a of getting nothing done, or getting less done than you imagine that you should (and having a lot to do may cause that, but need not, and should not. Extremely few of your tasks, I think you’ll find, is done better under stress).

I’ll return to those lectures now. Because I actually really like to.

Science and Morals

7 oktober 2010 | In Meta-ethics Neuroscience Self-indulgence | Comments?

Can basic moral questions be answered by science? The, oh, how to put this nicely, vocal moral theorist Sam Harris believe so. And so, as I will keep reminding you, do I. But, hopefully unlike me, he seems not to make a very good case for it. The marvelous Kwame Anthony Appiah (whose book ”Experiments in Ethics” is a very good read indeed, if you’re interested in experimental moral philosophy. Good, but somehow non-commital) made that much clear in his review in the New York Times the other day (the equally marvelous Roger Crisp agreed).

I’m very much torn about this issue. First, it’s a good thing that the attempt to address fundamental ethical and metaethical questions with scientific means gets this much attention. But the key issue at this stage is in the justification of this project. If that’s lacking, the attention will just lead to people dismissing it and likewise dismissing any other, better thought through attempts which comes along later. This happens all the time, when something is claimed to be a cancerogen, and the study is shown to be flawed, next time around even if the study is better, people wont heed the warning.

So, while the meta-ethical framework required to justify the scientific approach to moral questions is highly controversial and far from settled, one wishes that Harris would have made at least some effort to provide us with such a framework. So what am I saying? ”Call me”, I guess.

Ethics month

7 oktober 2010 | In Meta-ethics Moral philosophy Self-indulgence | 4 Comments

I’m a big fan of october and november, and don’t care who knows it. September is nice to, and has that crispness of air which implies clarity of thought, If you’re into that sort of thing, but  then again, there’s all that fuss about the beginning of term and I’m no fan of fuss. October and november means business as usual. Things have achieved a state of being usual, enough for business to adjust accordingly. Oh, David. What are you on about?

Beginning today, we are into what I, assuming that the world pretty much revolve around me and my interests, am calling ethics month. It is the month during which I teach ethics at the department for philosophy, linguistics and theory of science. Today it’s ”introduction to ethics” or, informally: ”What’s all this, then?”. Tomorrow, it’s ”the meaning of life”. The course is very cleverly structured (I didn’t do it, but if I had, I still wouldn’t hesitate to call it clever. Try to keep up): It begins with applied ethics,  about selling organs, animal ethics, abortions and so on. When these questions turn difficult, we’ll turn to normative ethics, about what makes things right and wrong. The principles against which background applied questions may be answered. When this turns out difficult, we turn to meta-ethics, dealing with the meaning of moral terms and the nature of moral facts and moral knowledge, if such is to be found. When this turns difficult, which it does quite soon, the course is over and questions will have multiplied. If I’m any good, the students will have learned to cope with that fact.

Philosophy is often like that, as someone tweeted recently: climbing a very high tower, and then looking up.

Teaching this course here is fun for me, for personal reasons. I attended my first philosophy lecture here, at the age of 17 and got to talk to the professor who, merely by being nice, helped me decide to go into philosophy for my self. Secondly, it’s ten years since I first took this course which I’m now teaching. Having spent most of the time in between in metaethics, its great and very useful to become reaquainted with the applied and normative side of ethics. As a meta-ethicist, its often easy to forget that those things exist as well.

A rare venture into politics

21 september 2010 | In Moral Psychology parenting politics Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

I have little or no business pretending to be initiated about politics, but here is what seems to me to be at issue in this latest election of ours:

A party with a shady past (and present) characterized by their policy to restrict immigration just made it into the parliament, getting 5,7 % of the votes. Because we (probably, not all the votes are in yet) have a minority government, this party can influence what mixture of left- and right-wing decisions gets made (but not the budget, mind). The only way to get their own points across, however, is to strike some sort of deal with the other parties. And those parties probably won’t, or they will loose all credibility. On the issues on which it’s really important that this party doesn’t have a say, they face roughly 94,3% opposition. With a parenting-analogy: they may influence what pyjamas to wear, but not whether or not to go to bed.

The party in question seems to believe that a lot of people think like they do, and want what they want, but can’t, yet, bring them selves to vote for them. The campaigns that started around the time of the election (a bit to late) are mostly about this: stating in no uncertain terms that, no, we don’t think or want what they think and want. Emphatically so. It’s not just that their politics differ on certain issues from the policy we happen to habitually support. It’s not just that we disagree about the most effective route to some common political goal. We really, truly, disagree with their views. In particular, I think, we hold that the relevant factor is not what happens to our standard of living when immigrants arrive (some of us believe that this increases, when you count properly), but what happens to theirs.

Conservatives and Socialists in this country disagree to, of course. They disagree on how people (and, consequentially, the economy) basically work. The differences in social policies is the main expression of this. But the differences seem, here at least, to be one in degree, not in kind. We disagree a bit about about how motivation and incentive works, and how the unemployed, sick and needing should be helped. Most of these differences, then, seem to regard (psychological) facts and not, really, morals, and just barely that strange in-between-beast ideology. (While it does smack of morals when you say that someone should just ”snap out of it”, the underlying question of fact is whether they can). Few people hit the streets to tell the conservatives that, say, the schools should not start grading kids earlier, because that has little or destructive effect on performance and development, or that unemployed people shouldn’t be forced into demeaning jobs, but should be given the opportunity to develop worthwhile skills in pretty much their own time. One reason we don’t often hit the street with these messages and opinions is that we don’t know those things are really, unproblematically, true.

It’s often construed as a problem that our conservatives and our socialists agree on so much, but the thing is that they agree on things that usually seem right, and the things they disagree about are usually things that seems to be pretty undecided, fact-wise. With the new party, things are different. It’s not just that they seem morally and factually mistaken, but that they also seem to be ignorant. To borrow a term and an argument from Harry Frankfurt, their policy seems to be full of bullshit: It’s not just that it is based on falsehoods, it’s that it doesn’t care about what’s true.

One factor that doesn’t count (and probably shouldn’t) in the election is the degree to which we disagree with particular other parties. While 95% didn’t vote with the left-wing party, that’s not because 95% voted against them, but that 95% found a better alternative. This new party, however, 95% probably would vote against. If we voted with a ”Rate from best to worst” scale, the outcome of the swedish general election would probably look a lot less worrying.

Bright Ideas, Big City

20 maj 2010 | In Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Naturalism Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

Tomorrow, I’m giving a short presentation at a lab meeting with the sinisterly named MERG (Metro Experimental Research Group) at NYU. The title is ”Value-theory meets the affective sciences – and then what happens?”. For once, the question tucked on for effect at the end will be a proper one (normally when using this title, I just go ahead and tell the participants what happens). I really want to know what should happen, and how the ideas I’ve been exploring could be translated into a proper research program. I’m constantly finding experimental ”confirmation” of my pet ideas from every branch of psychology I dip my toes in, but there are obvious risk with this way of doing ”research”. The question is whether, and how, those ideas might actually help design new experiments and studies more suited to confirm (or disconfirm) them.

I believe meta-ethics could and should be naturalized, and I have certain ideas about what would happen if it were. Now, we prepare for the scary part.

Moral Babies

8 maj 2010 | In Books Emotion theory Moral Psychology Naturalism parenting Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?


The last few years have seen a number of different approaches to morality become trendy and arouse media interest. Evolutionary approaches, primatological, cognitive science, neuroscience. Next in line are developmental approaches. How, and when, does morality develop? From what origins can something like morality be construed?

Alison Gopnik devoted a chapter of her ”the philosophical baby” to this topic and called it ”Love and Law: the origins of morality”. And just the other day, Paul Bloom had an article in the New York Times reporting on the admirable and adorable work being done at the infant cognition center at Yale.

Basically, we used to think (under the influence of Piaget/Kohlberg) that babies where amoral, and in need of socialization in order to be proper, moral beings. But work at the lab shows that babies have preferences for kind characters over mean characters quite early, maybe as early as age 6 months, even when the kindness/meanness doesn’t effect the baby personally. The babies observe a scene in which a character (in some cases a puppet, in others, a triangel or square with eyes attached) either helps or hinders another. Afterwards, they are shown both characters, and they tend to choose the helping one. Slightly older babies, around the age of 1, even choose to punish the mean character. Bloom’s article begins:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

In a further twist on the scenario, babies (at 8 months) where asked to choose between still other characters who had either rewarded or punished the behavior displayed in the first scenario. In this experiment, the babies tended to go for the ”just” character. This is quite amazing, seeing how the last part of the exchange would have been a punishment (which is something bad happening, though to a deserving agent.) It takes quite extraordinary mental capacities to pick the ”right” alternative in this scenario.

If babies are born amoral, and are socialized into accepting moral standards, something like relativism would arguably be true, at least descriptively. Descriptively, too, relativism often seem to hold: we value different things and a lot of moral disagreement seems to be impossible to solve. In some moral disagreement, we reach rock-bottom, non-inferred moral opinions and the debate can go no further. This is what happens when we ask people for reasons: they come to an end somewhere, and if no commonality is found there, there is nothing less to do.

A common feature of the evolutionary, biological, neurological etc. approaches to morality is that they don’t want to leave it at that. If no commonality is found in what we value, or in the reasons we present for our values, we should look elsewhere, to other forms of explanations. We want to find the common origin of moral judgments, if nothing else in order to diagnose our seemingly relativistic moral world. But possibly, this project can be made ambitious, and claim to found an objective morality on what common origins occurs in those explanations.

If the earlier view on babies is false, if we actually start off with at least some moral views (which might then be modulated by culture to the extent that we seem to have no commonality at all), and these keep at least some of their hold on us, we do seem to have a kind of universal morality.

We start life, not as moral blank slates, but pre-set to the attitude that certain things matter. Some facts and actions are evaluatively marked for us by our emotional reactions, and can be revealed by our earliest preferences. Preferences can be conditioned into almost any kind of state (eventhough some types of objects will always be better at evoking them), so its often hard to find this mutual ground for reconsiliation in adults and that is precisely why it’s such a splendid idea to do this sort of research on babies.

Psychopath College

6 maj 2010 | In Emotion theory Meta-ethics Moral Psychology Neuroscience Psychology Self-indulgence | Comments?

What is wrong with psychopaths? Seriously? I’m not asking in a semi-mocking, Seinfield-esque ”what is the deal with X” kind of way. I’m seriously interested in finding out. Is there something they’re not getting, or something they don’t care about? And is caring about something really that different from understanding it? (In the Simpsons episode ”Lisa’s substitute” Homer, trying to comfort Lisa, memorably says ”Hey, just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand”).

As most people interested in philosophy, I’ve been accused of being ”too rational” and, by implication, deficient in the feelings department. And, like most people interested in philosophy would, I’ve dealt with this accusation, not by throwing a tantrum, but by taking the argument apart. To the accusers face, if he/she sticks around long enough to hear it. When people tell me I’m a know-it-all, I start off on a ”This is why you’re wrong” list.

So, when it happens that someone compliments me on some human insight or displayed emotional sensitivity, I tend to make the in-poor-taste-sort of-joke ”Psychopath College can’t have been a complete waste of time and money, then”.

Psychopath College, you see, is a fictional institution (Aren’t they all? No.) that I’ve made up. It refers to the things you do when you don’t have the instincts or the normal emotional and behavioral reactions, but still want to fit in. You learn about them by careful observation, you try to find a rationale for them, a mechanism that will help you understand it. In the end, you manage to mimic normal behavior and make the right predictions. (Like all intellectuals, led by the editors of le monde diplomatique, I learned to ”care” about football during the 1998 world cup, not in the ”normal” way, but for, you know, pretentious reasons.)

It’s commonly believed that psychopaths ability to manipulate people depends on precisely this fact: they don’t rely on non-inferred keen instinct and intuition but actually need to possess the knowledge of what makes people behave and react the way they do. And this knowledge can be transferred into power, especially as psychopaths are not as betrayed by unmeditated emotional reactions as the rest of us are.

A recent study reported in the journal ”Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” told that psychopathic and non-psychopathic offenders performed equally well on a task judging what someone whose intentions where fulfilled, or non-fulfilled would feel. But when they do, different parts of the brain are more activated. In psychopaths, the attribution of emotions is associated with activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be concerned with outcome monitoring and attention. (This said, the authors admit that the role of the OFC in psychopathy is highly debated) In non-psychopaths, on the other hand, the attribution is rather correlated with the ”mirror-neuron system”. In short, psychopath don’t do emotional simulation, but rational calculation, and the successful ones reach the right conclusions.

The task described in the paper (”In psychopathic patients emotion attribution modulates activity in outcome-related brain areas”) is a very simple one, and offers no information on which ”method” performs better when the task is complex, or whether they may be optimal under different conditions.

Since knowing and caring about the emotional state of others is, arguably, at the heart of morality, studies like these are of the great interest and importance. What, and how, does psychopaths know about the emotional state of others? And might the reason that they don’t seem to care about it be that they know about it in a non-standard way? Jackson and Pettit argued in their minor classic of a paper Moral functionalism and moral motivation” that moral beliefs are normally motivating because they are normally emotional states. You can have a belief with the same content, but in a non-emotional, ”off-line” way, and then is seems possible not to care about morality. Arguably, this is what psychopaths do, when they seem to understand, but not to care.

As Blair et all (The psychopath) argues, one of the deficiencies associated with psychopathy is emotional learning. This makes perfect sense: if you learn about the feelings of others in a non-emotional way, you don’t get the kind of emphasis on the relevant that emotions usually convey. Since moral learning is arguably based on a long socialization process in which emotional cues plays a central part, no wonder if psychopaths end up deficient in that area.

What can Psychopath College accomplish by way of moving from knowing to caring? It is not that psychopaths doesn’t care about anything; they are usually fairly concerned with their own well-being, for instance. So the architecture for caring is in place, why can’t we bring it to bear on moral issues? Perhaps we can. Due to the emphasis on the anti-social in the psychopathy checklists, we might miss out on a large group of people that actually ”copes” with psychopathy and construes morality with independent means.

One thing that interests me with psychopaths, who clearly care about themselves and, I believe, care about being treated fairly and with respect is this: Why can’t they generalize their emotional reactions? This is highly relevant, seeing how a classic argument for generalising moral values when there is no relevant difference, at least from Mill, Sidgwick and memorably by Peter Singer, is held to be a pure requirement of rationality. The thought is that you establish what’s good by emotional experiences, and then you realise that if it’s good for me, there is no reason why the same experience would not be good for others as well. So the justification of generalisation is a rational one. But the mechanism by which this generalisation gets its force is probably not, and depends on successfull emotional simulation, a direct, non-considered emotional reactivity (then again, whether you manage to ”simulate” animals like slugs or, pace Nagel, bats, might be a matter of imagination, not rationality or emotionality).

So what does this possibility say about the epistemic status of our moral convictions, eh?