From Wolf's "Asymmetrical Freedom" to animals as moral agents

Most people nowadays think non-human animals (henceforth abbreviated ‘animals’) cannot be moral agents (though they can be moral patients*).   Let’s borrow Mark Rowlands’ definition from Animals that Act for Moral Reasons:
X is a moral agent if and only if X can be morally evaluated -- praised or blamed (broadly understood) -- for its motives and actions.
(Rowlands himself agrees with the orthodoxy that animals are moral patients but not agents; however he argues that animals do fall under a third category, moral subjects, which he defines as anything that can be motivated to act by moral considerations.)

Some people believe that animals can be moral agents; Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce’s Wild Justice is a recent defense of this view, but several other people have defended it as well (see the references in section 2 of Rowlands’ linked article). I want to consider a different kind of argument that I have not seen before; if someone else has already made it, please let me know in the comments.

The argument I want to consider here combines a position one of my students recently suggested with Susan Wolf’s “Asymmetrical Freedom.”  (So none of it is original with me.)  The key part of Wolf’s view is: “it seems that an agent can be morally praiseworthy even though he is determined to perform the action he performs” (158).  She elaborates on this as follows:
“When we ask whether an agent’s action is deserving of praise, it seems we do not require that he could have done otherwise.  … ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ ‘He couldn’t hurt a fly’ are not exemptions from praiseworthiness but testimonies to it.    If one feels one ‘has no choice’ but to speak out against injustice, one ought not to be upset about the depth of one’s commitment.” (156)
Wolf’s paper is titled “Asymmetrical Freedom” because, if an agent’s action is morally blameworthy, then that agent cannot be determined to perform that action, and we require that he could have done otherwise.  That is, “The metaphysical conditions required for an agent’s responsibility will vary according to the value of the action he performs” (158).**

Now, one of the leading reasons people give nowadays for the view that animals can’t be moral agents is that it seems wrong to hold animals morally blameworthy for their actions; this rationale is often coupled with the imagined scenario of putting an animal on trial for a crime to heighten the sense of absurdity. 

But if Wolf is right,*** then we can avoid this absurd consequence: a being’s actions can be morally praiseworthy even if its actions are determined and the being couldn’t do otherwise, then the fact that an animal acts ‘purely instinctively’ or automatically, without deliberative control, does not rule out that animal’s being a moral agent. (I am assuming we accept Rowlands’ definition of ‘moral agent’ (notice ‘praised OR blamed’ – not ‘and’).)

So far, this merely eliminates one obstacle to animals being moral agents: it is possible for a being to be morally praiseworthy without the possibility of being morally blameworthy (so we don’t have to put lions on trial), because an action can be morally praiseworthy even if the actor had no choice but to perform that action.

But I think we can go further than this mere possibility.  The point my student stressed, and which is probably implicit in the long Wolf quotation above, is that lots of human actions that we consider morally praiseworthy are automatic, ‘system1’ actions, over which we do not exercise deliberative control.  In this respect, they more closely resemble animal actions than our actions that result from deliberation, future-oriented planning, and (perhaps linguistically-aided) reasoning.  I think there are at least two classes of these automatic actions in humans: (i) the several different little daily kindnesses we do for one another without thinking (e.g. you drop your pen, and before I’ve even thought about whether or not I should reach down, I’m handing it back to you), and (ii) massively heroic actions whose performers, when interviewed afterwards, report not even thinking about e.g. running into the burning building.  Now, if we are willing to give moral praise to such automatic, non-deliberative behaviors when done by humans, then prima facie we should be willing to give moral praise to such automatic, non-deliberative behaviors when performed by non-humans too.

Of course, this is only prima facie evidence, because there certainly could be some relevant, important difference between a human’s automatic behaviors and a non-human’s that would invalidate the inference.  But going through the entire list of all plausible candidates would require a much fuller treatment.  I just wanted to get the basic argument clear: if some automatic human actions are morally praiseworthy, then some automatic non-human actions are morally praiseworthy too.

* Here is Rowlands’ definition of a moral patient: “X is a moral patient iff X is a legitimate object of moral concern: that is, roughly, X is something whose interests should be taken into account when decisions are made concerning it or which otherwise impact on it.”
** This formulation made me wonder whether there might be an interesting connection with the Knobe effect, since in Knobe effect situtations ‘the conditions required for an agent’s intentionality/performing an action ‘on purpose’ will vary according to the value of the action he performs.’
*** Of course, someone who finds the conclusion that animals can be morally praiseworthy absurd should take what follows as a reductio of Wolf’s claim that determined acts can be praiseworthy.


Ethical Intuitions and the Data/Phenomena Distinction

I learned from Jennifer Zamzow and Shaun Nichols' enlightening "Variations in Ethical Intuitions" that our ethical intuitions vary, depending on various (apparently) non-moral factors, such as order effects, framing effects, and gender (of the responder, or of the characters described in the hypothetical scenario). (Ethical intuitions are, roughly, our knee-jerk reactions to the moral status of specific, concrete scenarios; intuitions do not depend on any "effortful, conscious deliberation.")

 One account of how ethical theorizing proceeds is the following analogy with scientific theorizing:
experimental results : scientific theories :: ethical intuitions : ethical theories
 (Zamzow & Nichols, p. 370).  If this is right, then the above types of variation in intuition seem seriously problematic: it would be like two people looking at the same thermometer, and the woman says "The mercury is at 57 degrees" and the man says "The mercury is at 48 degrees."  Or imagine a thermometer whose current reading depends on what its reading was 5 minutes ago.  In both these cases, we would say that we could not use such 'experimental results' as evidence to decide between competing scientific theories.

But the philosopher of science in me thought: maybe 'experimental results' is too general/ vague.  Bogen and Woodward's data-phenomena distinction might be useful here.  Their idea is roughly as follows: data are the observations scientists record, while phenomena are patterns in the world that scientists infer based on data.  Data can be shot through with experimental noise, and/or have artifacts of the experimental apparatus; the phenomena factor out these biases and noise in the data set.  And, importantly, the phenomena are what theories predict and explain -- not particular data points.

So I am wondering whether we should think about specific ethical intuitions as data.  And then these variations that Zamzow and Nichols list could be thought of as noise and/or bias.  On this view, what an ethical theory like utilitarianism needs to predict/ explain is not particular concrete intuitions, but rather something slightly more general or abstract.  I'm not exactly sure what that 'something' would be -- the moral pattern/feature, whatever it is, that underlies or generates a set of (reliable) intuitions.

I don't know the details and/or further developments of the data/phenomena discussion, and I am not completely up-to-date with debates about variations in ethical intuitions either.  But I thought I would float this idea (namely, ethical intuitions as data B&W's sense) to see if anyone has any reactions to it... or at least let me know whether someone has already pursued this line of thought.


Watch out, Dan Brown

A while ago, I wrote a book.  It has finally appeared; you can pick it up here or here.

A couple of things on the Amazon page for the book surprised me.  First, if you buy it from them and don't like it, you can trade it in for an Amazon gift card worth a whopping $0.75.  So really you can't lose.

Also, there are already 7 used copies you can buy... though the book only officially came out last week. (Strangely, one of the copies is over twice the price for a new copy.)  I don't understand the world of booksellers.


What is a 'generalist' journal?

There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere recently about some of sociologist Kieran Healy's really interesting preliminary findings about citations in the 'Top 4' philosophy journals (Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, Mind, and Nous).  The question he is trying to answer is: 'What conversations are leading philosophers having?'  The original post is here, and the follow-up (which I want to talk about) is here.  NewAPPS and Feminist Philosophers have both opened up interesting discussions of the data and what they mean -- and what we could/should do in light of them.  Go check them out, if you are at all interested: they're worth your time (first of each here and here).

I wanted to add an ego-centric point to the discussion.   These Top 4 journals are also called 'generalist' journals.  I am not sure exactly what philosophers who use the word 'generalist' to describe journals usually mean, but I (perhaps incorrectly) assumed that they meant that it's a journal where a variety of types and/or sub-fields of philosophy are well-represented.  The point I wanted to make is that Healy's results suggest that the Big 4 are NOT generalist journals in this sense, insofar as philosophy of science is pretty seriously under-represented.  (I would guess that this is true for certain other sub-fields as well, but I don't know enough about those other fields to be confident in my assessment.)

Now, I am NOT saying that these journals never publish philosophy of science.  There is no question that they do; some really great philosophy of science has appeared in these journals in the last two decades.  But there are two pieces of evidence that suggest that these four journals are not a place where conversations in philosophy of science are happening.

1. In the second post, Healy has a list of the 526 most-cited items in the Top 4 from the last two decades.  A grand total of 9 of them (by my count) are solidly, squarely in the philosophy of empirical science.  Now, if we open up the criteria a bit, and count e.g. philosophy of mathematics, we can add 3 more.  That's 1.7% and 2.3% of the total highly-cited items.  I'm guessing that more that 1.7% of professional philosophers are philosophers of science.  (Mere counting of course will be misleading, because many people will describe themselves as philosophers of science AND something else; but even after adjusting for that, 1.7% is going to be too low, I think.)

2. In the first post, Healy presents a chart with a bunch of connected nodes.  Recall that the basic motivating question was: what are the main conversations?  Each node represents an item cited in an article in one of the Top 4 journals.  A line is drawn between any two items that are cited together in any one (third) article in the Top 4.  Healy's rationale: "the more often any two papers are cited together, the more likely they are to be part of some research question or ongoing problem or conversation topic within the discipline." Healy then cleaned up the picture by 'erasing' any lines that connected items that had not both been cited at least 10 times.  In the resulting chart, there are 'clusters': these represent the conversations Healy was interested in finding.  Interestingly (and here's my point), there are no 'pure' philosophy of science clusters.  There IS a cluster where the metaphysics of causation borders philosophy of science (in the chart: it's green, about halfway down, on the left-hand side).  But other than that, there aren't really any 'big conversations' in philosophy of science happening in the Top 4 journals.

Bringing this together: looking at Healy's chart, I thought: maybe the so-called 'generalist' journals aren't really generalist in a strong sense.  Rather, they are the most prestigious journals for people working in metaphysics, epistemology, language, and mind (LEMM).  To put the point in an analogy: the Top 4 play the same role for LEMM philosophers that the journals Philosophy of Science and the British Journal for Philosophy of Science play for philosophers of science.  There is (in my limited impression) no absolutely top-prestige journal for the four LEMM components, though there are very, very good journals that specialize in one or the other of them (e.g. Episteme, Mind & Language).

If something like this is correct, the Top 4 journals are not generalist in the sense of being a forum for all the best conversations in professional philosophy as a whole.  But perhaps they could still be called 'generalist' insofar as specific LEMM topics are of general interest to all philosophers, even those not publishing on LEMM topics.

One qualification, however: the Top 4 journals DO occasionally publish pure philosophy of science pieces.  Philosophy of Science never publishes an article on e.g. Rawlsian justice.  So that is a clear and unequivocal disanalogy between the two cases.


Greg Restall's bite-sized advanced logic lectures

34 mini-lectures from Greg Restall: Advanced Logic (Kurt Gödel's Greatest Hits)

I have not looked at all of these, but the ones I've watched so far have been (of course) excellent.


numerals, and language with an infinite lexicon

Here is an idea that I've seen in several places: "it is plain that if a language is to be learnable, the number of basic significant elements (words) has to be finite" (Tim Crane, The Mechanical Mind, 2nd ed. p.140).  (Is the locus classicus for this Davidson's "Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages?")

But how does this square with numerals (words for numbers)?  There are an infinite number of numerals.  And arithmetical language is learnable. 

So how could/should Crane, Davidson, et al. deal with this apparent counterexample?  I'm not sure... perhaps (despite appearences) numerals are  not themselves genuine words; rather only the digits are genuine words, and the higher numerals are complex supra-word symbols. 


Neurath and Russell

So I'm reading Otto Neurath's "Universal Jargon and Terminology" (you know, like you do), and I see this on the first page:

"Bertrand Russell presented his classic thesaurus of symbolic tools;"

What text do you think Neurath has in mind?  (I didn't see any helpful/ illuminating context around this bit.)

If Neurath means the Principia, I think that would be hilarious; the last word I would use to describe that book is 'thesaurus'...


Bivalence: an urban myth?

Looking around on snopes.com for new examples beyond the same old Gödel-Schmidt and Jonah cases, I found this: