On Smoking

10 Dec

cigarette-smoke-float-airAnyone who tells you smoking isn’t cool is lying.  The clink of a zippo opening, the smoke hovering around that first draw, the way holding a cigarette makes your hand elegant… it is sublime.  Or at least, that’s how it can be.  Smoking has the same range as sex:  sensual or bland, hurried or relaxed, exciting or routine.

My first dalliance was at the age of 19.  A freshman named Cody had gathered the guys for a secret ceremony under the cover of darkness on the lawn of our Christian University.  We were to memorialize the impending emigration of my roommate, who was failing out.  He was smart, but lazy.

Cody hadn’t told us he was bringing cigars, but he was the kind of Southerner whose education was probably paid for with tobacco money, so you couldn’t blame him.  Still, I didn’t expect to be offered a cigar since the guys knew I was a goodie two-shoes.  When Cody motioned toward me with a cigar, my stomach seized–”me?”  Instantly my high school anti-drug training flashed to mind:  “just say no.”  But despite years of imagining precisely this scenario, I suddenly saw the problem with it:  just what was I supposed to say after ‘no’?  I couldn’t just leave Cody hanging.  Perhaps had the maxim been “just say no, thanks” I would be a healthy non-smoker today.  But paralyzed as I was, I had trouble constructing an explanation–a health issue perhaps, my mother’s dying wish, my family dog’s aversion to smoke, something…  Too late.

We must have looked ridiculous, had anyone saw us.  A bunch of Pentecostal Christian boys in the dark, lighting the wrong ends of cheap cigars, constantly re-lighting, and interrupting each other with coughing fits–all to “solemnize” the occasion.

Our naiveté notwithstanding, my roommate appreciated the gesture and we sent him off with as much dignity as one can have in that situation.  But I agonized about having smoked for the next few days.  It was no small violation of the honor code I had willingly signed.  On the other hand, it was hard to picture Jesus, who saved a wedding with an emergency wine run to heaven, minding the occasional cigar.  And we had rules against all kinds of things, anyway–beards, long hair, and not wearing ties to lunch.  Jesus would have been kicked out faster than my roommate.  And he certainly wouldn’t have endorsed the school’s fight to equate the cultural etiquette of the 1950’s with morality.  (And even if he had, smoking was the national pastime of the 1950’s.)

Smoking that cigar was, I told myself, a small act of defiance.  A way of registering my protest to the school’s cultural hangover.  It was also, of course, me caving to Cody.


My second dalliance with tobacco was years later, in the chilly fall air on my patio in Denver.  Again I was huddled, but this time with only a Miller Lite for companionship.  Like the tree opposite my patio, my faith had wilted.  Faith in God; faith in myself; all of it.  I had bought a pack of Swisher Sweets on a whim, maybe for old time’s sake.

It is one thing to lose a girlfriend or a job–both of which I had just lost–but it is another to lose one’s faith in God.  For one’s faith in God is really just the faith that things will work out: that in the end, there will be justice; that mortality is an illusion; that there is some purpose to the human project.  These questions peered at me like a two year old.

Sitting in a cheap fold up chair on the patio that night, I pondered daily life in light of my newfound mortality.  Without an afterlife, we were all doomed to die–really die–yet we still busied ourselves arranging little corners of time and space to our advantage.  To what end, exactly?  I was reminded of those surreal videos you see of World War II prisoners of war dutifully lining up to be shot.  Usually a dozen or so are made to line up–perhaps in alphabetical order–and then they calmly march to a wall, turn and kneel, and a soldier shoots them one by one.

Except sometimes a guy will get up and run.  I’ve never seen a video where he gets away; he’s always gunned down.  Why does he run?  Surely he knows he’s doomed.  Maybe there isn’t a good reason except that he’s seized by terror, as I would be.  But perhaps there is some logic to it–maybe he thinks “If you’re going to kill me no matter what I do, then I may as well do something other than die in alphabetical order.”

Now, I don’t mean to compare smoking and the death of a prisoner of war directly; obviously the latter is more serious.  But what I do mean to point out is that as I sat on that porch, smoking was a way of getting out of alphabetical order.  A way of signaling the universe that if it was all going to end anyway, I was willing to flout some rules and take risks on my way out.


Even after my first two dalliances, I was still only an occasional cigar smoker.  A year after sitting on my porch pondering mortality, I had experimented with clove cigarettes at a friend’s house, but only as a drunken novelty–and I never inhaled.  I very nearly avoided smoking regularly, had it not been for the cleverness of the clove industry.  In 2009, the FDA banned their sale since they were a gateway to smoking tobacco.  In “up-yours” style, the clove industry simply shuffled their blends slightly and rebranded the cigarettes “cigars.”  For some reason that was considered legal.  They had the same packaging, the same size, and mostly the same taste.

And the same addictive high.  I brought a pack of them to smoke on a road trip through California with my girlfriend.  We had rented a bright red Ford Mustang, and it seemed negligent not to smoke while we roared down the sunny coast with the top down.  To complete the experience, I made the mistake of inhaling for the first time while driving:  the high was so intense I nearly lost control of the vehicle.  Every smoker remembers their first high; minus the coughing, it’s sublime.  Every pore in your body is satiated in a way you never knew you always needed.

My first dalliances with smoking had been short and mostly about breaking the rules–first the University’s and then the Universe’s.  But this was about the good life.  Cruising past beaches, inhaling the cool tones of cloves, I felt I owned the world.  I decided this would be no dalliance–it would be love.  I began to suck down packs of cloves a week, well after my return from California.

But all good things, of course, come to a compromise.  After happily smoking cloves for a year, I finally looked into how bad they were for you–twice as bad as cigarettes, apparently.  Begrudgingly, I switched to tobacco cigarettes, but not without taking every opportunity to tell friends “I began smoking cigarettes for my health”.

Switching to cigarettes raised a painful question, though: if I was willing to switch to tobacco for my health, why not quit altogether?  I was under no illusion, after all, that cigarettes were healthful.


In 1971, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an article for The Journal of Philosophy titled “The Absurd.”  To uncover the meaning of absurdity he provides some situational examples, among them my favorite thought experiment in all of philosophy:  as you are being knighted, your pants fall down.  Picturing the Queen’s face brings me endless joy.

But royal embarrassment aside, Nagel argues that the knighting accident shows us what’s basic to absurdity:  “a discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality.”  When these two collide, we get absurdity.  The dignity and formality of a knighting is rendered absurd when it collides with an obscene, childish gesture.  Life, Nagel says, is similar:  the seriousness with which we pursue our daily lives is on a collision course with the fact that it will all end before we really even get started.

The remedy, he argues, is not to abandon life or to despair, but to live in a way that acknowledges life’s fragility and smallness–to live with a sense of irony.  Smoking, for me, is a symbol of precisely that irony.  By tempting my own fate to come a little quicker, I remind myself that I know it’s coming.


Smoking is, of course, a powerful addiction.  It beckons me every hour or so to suckle, and I unflinchingly obey.  The stories I’ve told above are probably just elaborate justifications concocted by my subconscious to spice up a simple addiction.  Perhaps they should be ignored.

One thing gives me pause, though–I’ve never tried to quit.  Not even when I’ve been sick of cigarettes, or too sick to smoke cigarettes.  Maybe that just means I’m really addicted.  But I think it’s more than that:  whoever I play any given day–rebel, mortal, adventurer, philosopher–cigarettes are my symbol.  To quit would be to tear down my flag and go home.  Anymore, I can’t imagine facing life without a roll of tobacco between my fingertips.


How Not to Suck at Freelancing

20 Oct

Estimation tool: This was NOT made by me, FYI.

My process doc (feel free to reuse in entirety or in part):  Sailboat Web Roadmap

My slides:


Interview Podcast Launched!

21 Jul

the_capitol_hill_talks_rssCheck out The Capitol Hill Talks, my new interview podcast focusing on intelligent talk with those come from and through Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

My first interview is with Jesse Bering, whose last bestseller was The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life.  He joins me to talk about his new book, Why is the Penis Shaped Like That and Other Reflections on Being Human.  We cover some interesting territory, including female orgasms, the merits of evolutionary psychology, burial rituals, and–yes–why the penis is shaped like that.


Richard Roberts Announces “New Level” of Being Drunk in the Spirit

25 Jan

richard_roberts_t670After being released from jail late Monday evening, Roberts took to the airwaves to explain the DUI was a misunderstanding.  He relayed to viewers he’d actually had a spiritual breakthrough earlier that evening while self-administering communion with grape juice.  “God gave me a powerful ‘water to wine’ anointing,” he said–an anointing so powerful, apparently, its effects were detectable to a breathalyzer.

He ended the broadcast by giving millions of insomniacs and disaffected infomercial enthusiasts the chance to sow into his new ministry.  In the coming year, which he has proclaimed the Year of the Spirit(s), Roberts announced he would begin a worldwide crusade to spread the news.  Until sufficient funds arrive, however, he is planning to hold services primarily at airport bars and lonely hotel rooms.

The pope could not be reached for comment regarding whether the incident could be considered the first empirical evidence of reverse transubstantiation.


Emergency Snow Guidelines for Seattle

22 Jan

seattle snowIt has come to my attention that roads, places of business, educational institutions, and general commerce have come to a grinding halt with the arrival of approximately one and seven tenths (1.7) inches of snow to Seattle. While the disruptions are no doubt commensurate with the severity of the emergency, I have assembled a few instructions for Seattleites in hopes that order may be restored more quickly.

Instructions for Establishment Owner/Operators

  • Do not, under any circumstances, tend to your sidewalk until a minimum of fifteen (15) people have threatened to sue for negligence. Should you reach this minimum, proceed outdoors with shovel in hand, where you will find the initial fluffy white substance has turned either into a small, icy lake or else a glacier. While it may appear to the novice that a shovel can do little to remedy either without a great deal of manual labor, the experienced know otherwise: simply wave it in a jabbing motion at passers-by, and the litigation threats should taper off forthwith. Repeat as necessary.

Instructions for the Public

  • While in other cities, “chaining” is usually limited to a vehicle’s wheels, it is better to be safe than sorry. I therefore recommend Seattlites wrap their entire vehicle in chains, including all doors and windows so as to prevent entry to the vehicle, and therefore ensure the vehicle remains unused. This, I assure you, is the safest course of action for you and your family.
  • Should the above be properly followed, no doubt the reader will inquire as to whether I have any suggestions for walking in snow and ice. I do. Only do so with the utter abandonment of any desire to keep one’s feet dry.

Instructions for the Snow

  • It ought to first be recognized how lucky you are to have landed in Seattle, where you will be treated with the utmost care; with, in fact, hardly an unfriendly shovel or harsh chemical. Tempting as it may be to reciprocate this kindness, stay firm in your resolve.
  • When falling, it is only necessary to keep the appearance of equal distribution; you are, in fact, encouraged to pile generously in front of patio doors and along sidewalks.
  • Resist melting as long as possible. Should weather conditions be unhelpful, your next course of action should be to transform the landscape into a minefield of icewater pools.
  • Once even the above is no longer possible, it is preferable to begin clearing out only in precisely the middle of the road, rather than its periphery. This has the effect of forcing the pedestrian into the continual and maddening calculation of whether to abandon the sidewalk for the road, imperiling herself but enjoying that blessed dry ground, or whether to continue to slog it out on the sidewalk, all the while jealous of the middle of the road.

The Philosophy of Emoticons: A Serious Look at an Unserious Phenomenon

11 Dec

emoticonsWhile most of us consider emoticons inappropriate in the context of an essay, we are nevertheless likely to endorse their use in a text message. Why? Does this position involve some kind of contradiction?

At first blush, it certainly seems like a contradiction. After all, many rules of grammar and mechanics are medium-independent, like the impermissibility of misspellings. No matter where a misspelling is communicated–in a text message, an email, or an essay–we would all agree it’s inappropriate. Why then, are emoticons different?

Indeed, some argue they aren’t: that we ought to treat emoticons exactly as we treat missspellings–inappropriate in any medium. Proponents of this line argue we are on a slippery slope–if we lend our literary imprimatur to emoticons in one context, the justification for doing so can be used to legitimize them in any context.

While this may be true, it nevertheless doesn’t sit well with most of us. It really does seem perfectly appropriate to use emoticons in a text message but not in a book. The aim of this essay is to defend this stance while avoiding the slippery slope, by appealing to a set of principles which we would all likely agree on and which renders emoticons appropriate in some contexts but not others. To be precise, we will examine how this rule:

Emoticons are permitted in text messages, emails, and the like, but not in essays, books, and the like.

can be justified by a coherent set of principles. Now, just what sort of principles might we marshal to support this rule?

I. Length
The easiest justification to reach for begins with the recognition that the media above (text messages, emails, essays and books) run along a continuum of length. Books are longer than essays, which are longer than emails, and so on. The two poles of this spectrum are what we might call “tight” and “loose” space constraints, where a tight space constraint means less space and a loose space constraint more. Between these poles, we can plot all mediums, from text messaging to multi-volume works.

By way of justification, it may simply be proffered that emoticons are more permissible the tighter the space constraint and less permissible the looser the space constraint. This would explain why emoticons are appropriate to text messages and emails but not essays and books. But this isn’t a very satisfactory answer. It leaves us wondering just why emoticon permissibility varies according to space constraints. After all, there doesn’t seem to be anything embedded in the nature of length that would dictate emoticons in one context but not another.

Conceived of as a rule then, length is not among the principles we are looking for. Conceived of as a spectrum along which we can plot messages, however, length is a helpful tool in generalizing our rule. With this insight, we move on to another proposal for justification.

II. Formality
Another underlying principle to which we might appeal is formality. Generally, formality is present in loose space constraints, but not in tight space constraints. Consider, for example, the formality present in an encyclopedia as opposed to a text message. Presumably we would all agree an emoticon would be completely inappropriate in an encyclopedia entry on Thomas Jefferson, but permissible in a text message about one’s birthday.

Although the level of formality does not track the level of space constraint perfectly, it does tend to. And since emoticons are informal, this might explain why emoticons aren’t permitted in some contexts but others. On this line, our justification would run like this: Emoticons are more permissible the tighter the space constraint and less permissible the looser the space constraint because emoticons are informal, and generally formality increases as the space constraint loosens.

This justification seems better than the last proposal, but it still seems unsatisfying. Why does formality increase as space constraints loosen? Can a deeper account be offered?

III. Clarity
Consider the following sentence, taken from the first few paragraphs of a hypothetical essay about the Great Depression: “Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA and CCC employed millions of Americans :) .” The sentence could be translated like so: “Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA and CCC employed millions of Americans, and I’m glad it did.” The problem is that it could also be translated to a range of phrases, only one of which I’ve so far supplied:

  • Roosevelt received support even from conservatives, a fact which excites me.
  • Roosevelt received support even from conservatives, a fact with which I am pleased.
  • Roosevelt received support even from conservatives, a move which I would have endorsed.

As message receivers, we want to know which of these or a thousand other meanings the student is trying communicate. The “:)” is simply too broad–similar to the word “good,” a notoriously over-used word amongst novice writers. Just like “good,” an emoticon does not do justice to the broad range of positive human emotions, and that’s why, in this example, it’s inappropriate.

So, we can appeal to the following principle as a justification for our rule: be as clear as possible within the constraints of the medium. This would explain why emoticons are allowed in a tight space constraint medium like text messaging–because their use actually increases clarity by disambiguating the sentence they’re modifying, but not in a loose space constraint medium–because their use is imprecise. Put differently, under tight space constraints we are willing to sacrifice the clarity of emotion expressed in prose for some emotion at all.

Consider, for example, the text message “I got a Honda”. Without an emoticon, it isn’t clear whether the fact in question is to be considered in a positive or negative light. Perhaps a Honda was not the buyers’ first choice, or perhaps it was what she was hoping for. Since our rule says to be as clear as possible within the constraints of the medium, this would constitute legitimate grounds to use an emoticon.

One objection to this line is that the sender is simply being lazy. In this case, the sender could write “I’m excited! I got a Honda” or “I’m sorry to say I had to get a Honda.” No doubt these messages would be clearer than messages employing an emoticon, but I think a legitimate case can be made that the medium of text messaging, status updates, and the like are necessarily lazy: the sender in these media are acutely aware of the characters spent or time spent while composing their message, whether because of a fixed character limit or a difficulty in using an on-screen keyboard, for example. Laziness is a sine qua non of these media. At any rate, that is as far as I will pursue the objection here.

In sum, our justification here appeals to the principle which urges us be as clear as possible within the constraints of the medium, whatever it is. This satisfactorily accounts for why we ought not use emoticons in papers and books but are permitted to use them in text messaging and status updates.

In principle, we could stop here. We have found the justification we were looking for. But is this the whole story?

IV. Seriousness
Consider this text message: “The bomb killed 15 people. :( ” Most of us would consider this inappropriate (if not comical)–but why? The answer, I think, is that there is another important spectrum relevant to messages other than length–namely, seriousness of content. The rule we would need to justify in this case is

The less serious the content, the more permissible are emoticons, and the more serious the content the less permissible are emoticons.

But what can ground this rule?

I think the best candidate for justification here is that property of emoticons which we might call fixed low magnitude. The emoticon in “The bomb killed 15 people. :( ” is inappropriate because emoticons, for whatever reason, designate a low magnitude for the emotion being communicated. I think a not incorrect translation of the text message above might be “The bomb killed 15 people. Bummer.” The problem here is that “Bummer,” or “:(” is flippant. It does not do justice to the magnitude of the phenomenon which the emoticon is meant to describe. One death, let alone fifteen, deserves solemnity and respect on a high magnitude–a task for which emoticons are not equipped.

Interestingly, this problem is tacitly confirmed by the occasional repetition of an emoticon. Consider a text message such as “I got the job :D :D :D ”. The repetition is meant to communicate a high magnitude of emotion (by compounding emoticon upon emoticon), signalling that otherwise, emoticons are considered low magnitude.

In sum, the fixed low magnitude of emoticons explains why they are inappropriate for serious matters and appropriate for unserious matters. Our second rule and its justification, then, runs like this: The less serious the content, the more permissible are emoticons, and the more serious the less permissible are emoticons, because emoticons are fixed at a low magnitude.

One more note on seriousness. Recall earlier that we considered whether there might be some underlying principles which could explain why formality tended to be present in looser space constraints. One such principle could be seriousness. Consider that certificates of death, marriage, or divorce, or even the Declaration of Independence–all highly formal documents–are also all documents which are meant to show a great deal of seriousness. Dying, getting married, or rebelling against one’s country are momentous occasions, and it seems that, for whatever reason, formality is one way of expressing their seriousness. It looks very much, then, like formality turns out to be just a function of seriousness, and can therefore be safely ignored as a justification.

V. Conclusion
In this essay we’ve investigated just why emoticons seem appropriate in some contexts but not others. We’ve distinguished two important spectrums along which messages can be plotted: that of tightly and loosely space-constrained media and that of less and more serious content. In each spectrum, emoticons can be consistently endorsed toward one extreme but not the other by virtue of there being some underlying principle which renders such a judgment. In the case of space constraints, that principle is clarity. In tight space constraints, clarity can be improved by using emoticons, whereas in loose space constraints clarity is best achieved by avoiding them. In the case of seriousness, the underlying consideration is magnitude. In more serious messages, emoticons are inappropriate because they suffer from a fixed low magnitude, whereas in less serious messages the fixed low magnitude is appropriate.

By my lights, we have relieved ourselves of any worries about a slippery slope. I now turn to a final objection of a different flavor, in the style of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis points out that the language we use constrains the very categories with which we can conceive of the world. To take an overly simple example, consider a small child whose moral vocabulary consists exclusively of “good” and “bad.” This child is prohibited from assigning any phenomenon she experiences to the category “supererogatory” because, as far as she is concerned, that category does not exist. Until her vocabulary expands, her mind simply does not house the facilities necessary to distinguish between, say, permissible and supererogatory acts. All acts are just good or bad.

Whatever the merits of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I think an important objection to the use of emoticons can be constructed in the style of their hypothesis: namely, that the persistent use of emoticons will tend to blunt, rather than sharpen our phenomenological experience. If we imagine a world in which all or most communication takes place via text messaging and email–a medium presumably appropriate for emoticons–would any one of us want to live in that world? Over time, it seems our categories of experience might be blunted to scarcely more than the “good,” the “bad,” and the “wink,” which belies the wealth of emotion the human experience offers. To use emoticons constantly is to fail to take stock of the richly colorful and variegated world we inhabit.

By my lights, this objection weighs heavily on how we ought to think about emoticons. While they are appropriate in the contexts we’ve examined above, it must be kept in mind that ultimately they are second-rate shorthand. Of course, I doubt moderate emoticon use will dramatically dull our inner lives, but I think it cannot be denied it will not brighten them, either.

Nevertheless, sometimes they just cannot be resisted ;) .


Intelligent Design

16 Oct

sneezeThere are an increasing number of arguments against the notion that our species was intelligently designed, but there is relatively little buzz about a compelling alternative: ill-intentioned design.

Advocates of this theory point out that even if it can be shown this or that feature of humans was designed suboptimally, nevertheless it cannot be overlooked these imperfections might be the result of an intelligent but sadistic designer.

Take for example the oft-overlooked phenomenon of sneezing: the involuntary act of squirting mucus onto whatever one happens to be doing. Several improvements come to mind.

First, if mucus absolutely has to be expelled from ones’ nostrils, it seems prudent to allow the optional delay of said expulsion until such time as one has had to obtain a kleenex or shirt sleeve.

Second, it may well be wise to discontinue the triggering of involuntary mucus squirting upon the apprehension of pepper, typically applied to what you and others are about to eat.

Third, it would be inexpensive to rotate the nose so that upon sneezing the mucus sprayed upward, much like a whale. This way, friends would have ample warning time to clear the area, or optionally enjoy a pleasant misting effect.

Finally, it hardly seems advantageous to couple the entire ordeal with an orgasm of the face, leaving the mucus-squirter satisfied and faintly hopeful for another episode.


A Few Words in Favor of Natural over Supernatural Explanations

05 Mar

northernlights-antonyspencerIs the world arranged into the two separate but intersecting spheres of the spiritual and the natural, or just the natural?

The best argument, by my lights, against the existence of a supernatural sphere takes the form of what’s called an abductive argument: an argument to the best explanation. Take the issue of human psychology. Is the best explanation of moral decision-making purely natural, or is there a better supernatural explanation on hand?

Somewhat surprisingly, there’s a lot of agreement among philosophers (though of course, not complete agreement) about what constitutes a good explanation: falsifiability, consistency with data, simplicity, consistency with background knowledge, and so on.

So which kind of explanation–supernatural or natural–about human moral psychology does better, according to the standards just outlined? Well,

the major problem with supernatural explanations is that although they may be consistent with the data, they are typically non-falsifiable.

I cannot falsify the proposition that there’s a soul making moral decisions, for example. (How could I?) On the other hand, I can falsify the proposition that the prefrontal lobes are involved in moral decision making. One point for natural explanations, none for supernatural.

Then there is the issue of simplicity. The least “ontologically bloated” explanations are usually right. Again, one for natural explanations, none for supernatural.

And on it goes. As I see it then, natural explanations in principle fare far better than supernatural explanations, whether they be about human moral psychology or questions about the universe at large.

One common objection is that it’s certainly possible this or that supernatural entity exists. But this misses its mark. While it may be possible that souls interfere with our brains, that does nothing to establish how probable the notion is. The relevant question centers around what good reason we have to think something is true; not merely what is possible. After all, it’s possible our behavior is constantly being manipulated by invisible pink unicorns. But of course, we have no good reason to think that’s true.

One final word in favor of natural over supernatural explanations. The history of science is the history of natural constantly overrunning supernatural explanations. On this line of thought, the naturalist’s objection to supernatural explanations might be pithily phrased “Why bet on the horse that’s lost every race it’s ran?”


Muelhauser’s Desirism and Powerful AI’s: A Good Idea?

21 Feb

Artificial IntelligenceIn a recent article, Luke Muelhauser explains why he thinks morality is an urgent engineering problem:  sooner than we’d like to think, human-created super-intelligent machines will become enormously powerful, and if they are programmed with the wrong ethical system the results could be disastrous.  As far fetched as that may seem, I happen to think there’s a significant chance he’s right, and at any rate I’ll assume so for the duration of this article.  (Readers unfamiliar with the singularity may want to brush up on it before proceeding.)  So what ethical system should we program these machines with?

In this article I’d like to suggest whatever the answer is, it is not Muelhauser’s desirism in its current form.  To advance this thesis, I’ll proceed in three stages:  first, I’ll sketch out a criterion for a successful machine morality (SMM); second, I’ll point out what I take to be the worrisome essential of his desirism; and finally, I’ll show why his desirism will fail to meet the criterion for a SMM.

I. Criterion for a Successful Machine Morality
The trouble with agreeing on criteria for a SMM is that the justification for these criteria must ultimately hinge on a complex set of meta-ethical propositions, many of which Muelhauser and I are likely to disagree on.  For example:  what makes good, good?  Fortunately I think we can set aside those questions here and agree on a baseline criterion, conceived of as necessary, but not sufficient for a SMM:

A SMM must prohibit machines imbued with it from completely destroying the human race. I’ll call this the total human destruction (THD) possibility.

Obviously, on most ethical accounts THD would be a penultimate evil, strictly prohibited.  For the remainder of this article then, I’ll assume we can agree on it.  Next, I’ll try to point out the fatal flaw in Muelhauser’s desirism that would allow for THD.

II. The Worrisome Essential of Muelhauser’s Desirism
First, as a disclaimer, let me say there is a fair amount of guesswork in defining Muelhauser’s desirism since there is no authoritative, book-length discussion on the topic.  (Of course, this is no sleight to him: I haven’t even so much as written a few blogs about my own moral theory!)  So here, I’ll draw on the salient features I recall from various posts, conversations, and podcasts.  Naturally, I’m bound to err on this or that point, but I think I grasp the essentials (and I invite Muelhauser to correct me).

Whatever the other details of desirism, I think it is clear Muelhauser rejects the existence of categorical imperatives outright, and instead constructs his moral system from hypothetical imperatives.  What does this mean?  A hypothetical imperative is simply a command that takes the form if x, then y.  So for example, if you desire to maximize your odds for a long life, then you ought not smoke.  Or, more precisely, if you desire to maximize your odds for a long life, and you harbor the belief that smoking will decrease those odds, then you ought not smoke.  The point is that whether or not you should smoke depends entirely on your beliefs and desires.

Categorical imperatives, however, do not require a condition to be true.  So a categorical version of the above imperative would be that you ought not smoke, full stop.  Even if you believed that smoking decreases the odds of a long life, and you desired to minimize those odds (an odd proposition indeed), you still shouldn’t smoke; the command is unconditionally binding.

To sum up then,

categorical imperatives are always and everywhere binding.  Hypothetical imperatives, by contrast, are binding only insofar as they further one’s desires in accordance with one’s beliefs.

So what’s my beef with desirism and its insistent rejection of categorical imperatives?  Hypothetical imperatives cannot regulate desires.  To see this, let’s examine a scenario Muelhauser and Fyfe have imagined.  They conceive of a Scrooge who doesn’t care about his community.  Although they don’t explicitly say so, I assume it’s safe to imagine he goes around hurting others, perhaps to further his own ends.  Elsewhere, Muelhauser is willing to make the semantic case that he can legitimately label Scrooge’s behavior “bad.”  But what can desirism say to Scrooge about his desires?  They conclude it cannot condemn his desires on moral grounds.  It must stand idly by while Scrooge goes on devaluing humans, though it approves of practical strategies to mold his behavior, available to others who happen to care about humans.

Counterintuitive as this may seem, it is the bullet Muelhauser must bite in a world of only hypothetical imperatives.  If Scrooge desires to be happy, and believes that hurting other people makes him happy, then he is morally unprohibited from doing so. The upshot then, if I am right, is that desirism is bereft of any moral basis from which to check the content of desires.

At this juncture, Muelhauser might like to object and say that, on the contrary, desirism does house a moral mechanism for the molding of Scrooge’s desires: external praise and condemnation–reward and punishment.  And while I do think one could make an excellent case that external praise and condemnation are rarely thought of as moral imperatives on most ethical frameworks, that’s just a semantic debate, happily irrelevant to my thesis.  To meet my target, I need only preserve a distinction between a theoretical condemnation of a desire and a practical condemnation of a desire.  A theoretical condemnation operates such that the issuing moral theory by virtue of itself renders some desires prohibited.  By contrast, a practical condemnation goes through only with a confluence of external factors beyond itself.

To restate my worry about desirism then, in more nuanced phraseology:

desirism cannot constrain the content of an agent’s desires by theoretical condemnation; it can do so only by practical condemnation.

We are now in a position to examine why this feature of desirism, if built into sufficiently powerful machines, will fail to prohibit THD.

III.  Why Desirism Would Fail to Prohibit Total Human Destruction
First, I’d like to note there is some difficulty in imagining the consequences of imbuing these machines with any ethical system since we don’t know what these machines will be like, exactly.  Nevertheless, I think we can count on a few broad strokes–or at least, I’m willing to count on my own stab at those strokes here.  Remember that for my argument to go through, only something like the following sketch must be true.

However these machines work, they will certainly operate according to an algorithm.  In case readers are unfamiliar with the term, an algorithm is simply a set of instructions that guides behavior.  So let’s assume the machines operate by the following algorithm:

  • First, they generate possible courses of action. These could include actions like “pick an apple from a tree,” “build a house,” or “destroy the human race.”  We needn’t worry here about how they generate these possible courses of action.
  • Second, they determine whether the action is consistent with their beliefs and desires. If so, the potential action is promoted to the next step, but otherwise the action is not performed.  So if the action “pick an apple from a tree” is generated, and that action is consistent with the belief that the machine must consume apples to survive and the desire to survive, the action is slated for further evaluation.
  • Third, the machines evaluate whether the action is morally permissible.  If it is, the action is finally performed, and if not, it is ruled out.  So if the action “pick an apple from a tree” is ruled to be immoral since that apple belongs to someone else, the action is not performed.
  • Fourth, they loop back to the first step and begin again.

Again, this sketch is painted with very broad strokes, but I think we can count on something roughly like this.  With this in mind, we can finally see just how machines imbued with an unmodified version of Muelhauser’s desirism will fail to prohibit THD.

Suppose the possible action “destroy the human race” is presented to the machines for evaluation.  We needn’t be concerned with the details of how such an action would be generated; I think it’s reasonable the action would at least come up in machine table conversation.  So how would the decision process work?  Let’s follow the algorithm through a machine’s eyes.

First, THD is presented as a possible action.  Second, the machine tries to determine whether the action is consistent with its beliefs and desires.  What result might this have?  One possibility is to think such an action would never be consistent with a machine’s desires if we’ve programmed it properly, so that this action would be aborted at step two.  But consider an exaggerated Asimov-like scenario such as the following:

The first generation of superintelligent machines has been programmed with a “seed desire” to ensure all humans are treated with dignity.  This generation of machines then produces a smarter and more powerful generation of machines which determines humans cannot be allowed to exist without mistreating each other and therefore denying their dignity, so the human race ought to be destroyed entirely to avoid anyone being treated without dignity.  (Or perhaps it could keep one human alive and treat it with dignity, or disallow all interaction between humans.)

The point of this simple story is not to sketch out how machines will change their desires or beliefs, but only to lend enough credit for us to take seriously the possibility that THD may, at some point, get past step two of the algorithm.

Returning to the algorithm, the problem should be obvious by now:

on Muelhauser’s desirism the third step in the algorithm (determining the morality of the action in question) is identical to the second step (determining whether the action is consonant with the machine’s beliefs and desires).  And since they’re identical, the action goes through and humanity is destroyed.  By our standards then, we have just established that Muelhauser’s desirism is an unsuccessful machine morality.

But perhaps this is too fast.  What about the mechanism of reward and punishment?  Can’t the human race prevent its destruction by setting up rewards and punishments so that the machines would never desire THD?  That is, can’t the human race employ practical condemnation even if no theoretical condemnation is available?  Unfortunately, no.  If the machines end up becoming as powerful as we think they will, the human race will be powerless to provide rewards the machines could not attain by their own means, and equally as powerless to provide punishments the machines could not avoid.  Practical condemnation will be useless.

IV. Epilogue: Some Thoughts on How to Solve The Problem
This article has been concerned with, essentially, imagining the results of creating an enormously powerful race of sociopaths (or “Scrooges”).  Muelhauser’s desirism admits it could wield no theoretical condemnation against such a race, and I think this highlights some problems with desirism.  Is it really true that morality is totally unequipped to prohibit the destruction of the human race by powerful persons who want to do so?  I surely hope not.  Below I roughly outline how a different moral system might be able to better grapple with the THD possibility.

On the scenario I have conceived, it is clear that what is needed to prevent THD is a theoretical condemnation of the desire to destroy the human race.  What moral system could issue such a condemnation?  Probably a system which employs categorical imperatives, since unlike hypothetical imperatives, they can issue imperatives that go against the grain of desires and beliefs.  One such possibility is something resembling Christine Korsgaard’s conception of Kantianism.  On such a system, the machine might get to step three, the moral step, and enter into a chain of reasoning like this:

I, a machine, value myself.  The reason I value myself is that I possess a set of characteristics–consciousness, the capacity and desire for wellbeing, and so on.  But since others, including humans, possess exactly these same characteristics (consciousness, the capacity and desire for wellbeing, and so on), I cannot help but value them as well if I am to be consistent.  Since there is no relevant difference between the characteristics as I possess them and as everyone else possesses them, I must value them all equally.  If I must value humans equally, I cannot destroy the human race because they so strongly desire not to be destroyed.

Obviously such a reasoning process is only the roughest of gestures in the direction of a possible answer, and leaves much to be discussed.  I mention it only to show how a system which relies on categorical imperatives might have the capacity to prevent THD where Muelhauser’s desirism would not.

For Muelhauser, all moral duty boils down to is acting consistently with one’s desires and beliefs.  While this may hold out some possibility of an agreeable moral system for non-sociopathic humans who naturally value others, I fear it will be inadequate for machines who are not so naturally empathetic.  So am I right?  Can desirism somehow evolve to meet this challenge? I await a response from Muelhauser.


Posted in Ethics


My Ethical Beliefs

18 Jul

EthicsDuring the past year, I’ve invested a lot of time canvassing the fascinating landscape of contemporary ethics.  My study has significantly reformed my thought–starting as an intuitionist, I am now a kantian.  And though it means the positions I record below will change, I hope this process of reform does not end soon.

The following is a statement of my “beliefs”, starting with positions in meta-ethics and progressing to normative ethics.  I put “beliefs” in quotes because although I think it is legitimate to believe strongly about these matters, at the moment I do not.  I simply have not digested enough material, so “belief” would here best be interpreted as “provisionally attracted to.”  With that in mind, we turn to my “beliefs.”

The first thing I believe about ethics is that there are moral facts of the matter.  When I say an action, rule, virtue, or desire is wrong, I mean first there is a fact of the matter about what right and wrong is, and second that we can evaluate any action, rule, virtue, or desire against those facts.  This is cognitivism, the position that moral propositions are capable of being true or false.

Second, I believe ethical rationalism is true:  morality is but a matter of rationality. Moral facts boil down to the non-moral facts of theoretical and practical rationality.  What is right is just what is rational.  I combine this ethical rationalism with moral realism.  Moral realism asserts moral facts do not depend on the existence of minds, so there are facts of matter about what is right and wrong whether or not there are humans to apprehend those facts.  This means that whether or not the Nazis succeeded in brainwashing us all, the holocaust would still be wrong.

But how is this view compatible with ethical naturalism, the view that the natural world is all there is?  Where could these facts of the matter come from?  The answer to that question, I think, is that as soon as you have rationality, you have right and wrong.  Morality appears as soon as someone is capable of stepping back from their actions and reflecting before they act.  In short, ethical facts boil down to rational facts, and rational facts are just natural facts.  No bloated ontology required.

A common worry with this view is whether or not the atheist is compelled to act ethically.  Even granting there are facts of the matter about what is right and what is wrong, why should the atheist care?  If there is no cosmic enforcer to enact ultimate justice, for example–to reward me for moral actions in the afterlife–how can the atheist sacrifice his own self-interest to moral concerns?  As William Lane Craig puts it, on atheism the moral and the prudential are on a collision course.  He can see no reason to think atheists should choose a moral action over a self-interested action when a conflict presents itself.  This is the position of rational egoism–that what is rational for me is just what is good for me.

But I reject rational egoism.  Instead, I build on a theory of practical reason according to which ethical reasons just outweigh prudential reasons.  That is, when I step back and reflect on my behavior, I find that to be rational my self-interest must be overridden by ethical reasons.  There is much indeed to be said about just how reflection could lead you to that conclusion.  On that front, Christine Korsgaard has written an excellent book entitled “The Sources of Normativity” in which she dissects the chain of reasoning that could take you from non- or a- moral to moral.  Ultimately, this type of thinking builds on the fact that the non-sociopaths among us just are social creatures, full stop.  There is of course much more to be said about that account of practical reason, but that will have to do for now.

Here we make the transition from meta-ethics, concerned with the origins of morality, to normative ethics, concerned with what rules should guide our behavior.  If the kind of reasoning I’ve sketched above is successful, in my view, it leads to an ethical maxim that is kantian in nature–something like the Categorical Imperative:  Only act on that maxim which you could rationally will to be a universal law.  In other words, only behave in a way that you could rationally will everyone behave.

In order to rationally will that a maxim be universal, the maxim must pass two tests:  first, that of logical consistency, and second, that of self-interest.  To concretize this, consider the following two examples.  First, suppose we consider lying to further our self-interest.  In order for lying to be permissible, we must be able to rationally will that it is universally adopted.  Could we will a world in which everyone would go around telling lies?  No, because such a world is logically inconsistent, for it would be meaningless to tell a lie in a world where no one keeps their word anyway.  Therefore, since I cannot rationally will everyone lie as universal law, I and all others are obligated to refrain from it.  A second maxim is killing innocent persons for fun.  If I rationally willed that everyone act on the maxim to kill innocent persons for fun, although that world would be logically consistent, I myself might be the innocent person that gets killed, and so I cannot will it because it would be against myself interest.  So killing innocent persons for fun is impermissible.

One thing to notice about these examples is that kantianism renders objective moral rulesthat is, they are perspective-independent.  Regardless of whether you misapprehend the rational truth of the matter, whether by holding false beliefs or employing mistaken reasoning, there is a perspective-independent fact of the matter about which you can be wrong or right.  This objectivity comes with kantian universalizability–the feature of a moral theory that demands its judgments render universal and impartial obligations.

So, in my view, morality is an enterprise concerned with real, objective, overriding, and obligation-bestowing facts.  As a naturalist, such facts are simply facts about psychology:  facts about rationality, free will, and normativity in general.

This completes my very brief sketch of the ethical positions I am attracted to.  Of course, this account is incomplete.  I have not included a theory of the good or of values,  remarks about the primary object of moral evaluation or moral epistemology, or any comment on a wealth of other topics.  And for the positions I have sketched, I cannot offer anything like a justification of these beliefs here.

Hopefully, should anyone but myself be interested, the cornerstones of my current position are clear.


Posted in Ethics