Joshua Shepherd

Consciousness, memory and value

HBO’s new show Westworld has been getting a lot of attention. As the AV Club pointed out, it was HBO’s highest-rated premiere since ‘the good True Detective’ (i.e., since season one). The first episode involved a robot with human-like intelligence going through a truly horrible day to cater to the whims of actual humans, and then having her memory erased so she could do it again and again.

Among other (surely more interesting) properties of the show, there is this: the show functions as an extended philosophical thought experiment. Through philosophical thought experiments, experimenters probe our imagination and our intuitions to reveal the things and the ways that we think about important philosophical issues. One’s reactions to Westworld are philosophically illuminating. Continue reading

Alcohol, pregnancy, experts, and evidence

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control recently released a new advisory regarding the use of alcohol during or around pregnancy. According to the CDC, any drinking by women ‘who are pregnant or might be pregnant’ constitutes ‘drinking too much.’ The primary reason for the label is the risk of a fetus developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, although Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and miscarriage were listed as well. The range of the recommendation is rather wide – the CDC targeted any woman who might be or become pregnant (so, any sexually active woman capable of becoming pregnant). The recommendation has been widely criticized.
A number of commentators noted the shaky evidential basis for the advisory. Regarding Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, for example, there is a lot we do not know regarding the amounts of alcohol that are dangerous, and it has been suggested that genetics might play a role in propensity to develop the Syndrome. Regarding SIDS, some evidence suggests the link between alcohol and SIDS is moderated by parents co-sleeping with infants after abusing alcohol – but the advice offered by the CDC did not flag this indirect (potential causal) link.
Writing in the LA Times, the philosopher Rebecca Kukla also emphasized the contributions such messages make to creating a culture of shame surrounding women and pregnancy (here). Writing for Time, Darlena Cunha argued that the CDC advice is overly paternalistic, and discriminates against women (here).
I do not wish to justify the CDC. I rolled my eyes like many others when I first heard of the recommendations. But here’s a question: why might the CDC release such an advisory? I could imagine someone thinking like this. Well, there should be higher awareness of potential damages of alcohol on a developing fetus. The CDC has the function of alerting the US public to various health risks, and is something of a trusted source as it fulfills this function. But people will not base their decision on the CDC alone. They will be biased in their assessment of evidence, and they may also rely on the first bit of pseudoscience to pop up on Google. So we should come out forcefully, in the hopes that our voice will count for more than a more moderate recommendation might. This way, perhaps we will do more good. (Imagine trying to convince your kids not to run out into the road. You might scare them out of such a behavior by emphasizing the very unlikely but goriest possible outcome.)
Of course, I have no idea how the CDC reasoned nor what led to the nature of the advisory they released. What I want to ask is whether institutions we trust to deliver evidence-based advice ought to reason in this way.
Arguably, they should not. We want our experts to be experts, not to be another source of bloviating rhetoric in the public sphere. Evidence-based experts have the credibility they do because they know the evidence. It seems plausible, then, that our experts should fulfill their function in a certain way. They should pay attention to the way their messages are framed. Their messages should be framed in a way that respects people’s autonomy over their own health choices, and that treats decision-makers as reasonable individuals capable of weighing relevant evidence. Doing so would presumably lead to a more moderate message – one that, in this case, emphasized the potential links between alcohol use and fetal alcohol syndrome, that admitted just how much we do not know regarding this question, and that stressed potential reasonable responses to the existing evidence. Importantly, this can be done without overstating the case, without ignoring the nature of the risk (as seems to have happened regarding the alcohol-SIDS link), and without ignoring the amount of risk associated (as seems to have happened regarding the alcohol-Fetal Alcohol Syndrome link).

Are Corporations Moral Agents?

Joshua Shepherd

Misbehaving corporations are in the news again. In the New York Times, Jack Ewing and Graham Bowley provide an interesting look into the ‘corporate culture’ behind Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating scandal. As Ewing and Bowley note, Volkswagen has blamed “a small group of engineers.” But as their reporting suggests, any anatomy of blame in the Volkswagen case should consider a wide range of social influences – for example, Volkswagen’s institutionalized commitment to aggression, and more local factors such as fear of those in positions of power on engineering teams.

But who is really at fault? It is natural to think that some individuals are responsible, at least in part. Are any individuals responsible in whole? Or is it possible that the corporation – Volkswagen itself – bears some of the responsibility? This kind of idea is something a number of philosophers have recently suggested. These philosophers argue that above the level of individual agency, there is such a thing as group agency. Groups (like Volkswagen) can be constituted by individuals (and also by historical and socio-structural features). Groups can intend to act – even when no member of the group has a similar intention – and act intentionally. Two philosophers (Björnsson and Hess forthcoming) have even argued that corporations are full moral agents, capable of expressing emotions like guilt, and open to the same kinds of blaming and praising attitudes we typically direct at individuals.

I’m not sure whether that is right. Corporations may be less like full moral agents, and more like extremely dangerous psychopaths – capable of manipulating their own responses to achieve the ends they truly value (i.e., maintaining profit margins). Or, corporations may be capable of a kind of agency, but one very unlike our own – one that is masked by thinking of them by analogy with human agents. It is unclear whether all the features associated with human agency are appropriately applied to the issue of corporate agency.

Continue reading

Behavioral Science, Public Policy, Ethics

The President of the United States has issued an executive order (see here) – government agencies are to use ‘insights’ from behavioral sciences to better serve the American people.

In my view this is a good thing. Science is our friend. Obama’s heart is in the right place. Nonetheless, the order raises a number of ethical and practical issues. Continue reading

Is the NHS surcharge just?

Not long ago the UK implemented an NHS surcharge – an extra fee that non-EEA nationals (Australia and New Zealand are also exempt) applying for leave to remain in the UK must pay. It costs £200 per year, and must be paid up front. So, for example, if you are applying for a work visa for 3 years, and you have a family of three, you must pay £1800 to cover the surcharge for you and your family (on top of other visa costs).

It is difficult to find much public discussion in the UK regarding this surcharge, outside of a few articles that recently noted that the surcharge is unlikely to do what we were told it would do – namely, benefit the NHS. (See here)

Is the surcharge a just policy? Continue reading

Ethics of the Minimally Conscious State: It’s Complicated

Last week I attended a conference on the science of consciousness in Helsinki. While there, I attended a very interesting session on the Minimally Conscious State (MCS). This is a state that follows severe brain damage. Those diagnosed as MCS are thought to have some kind of conscious mental life, unlike those in Vegetative State. If that is right – so say many bioethicists and scientists – then the moral implications are profound. But what kind of conscious mental life is a minimally conscious mental life? What kind of evidence can we muster for an answer to this question? And what is the moral significance of whatever answer we favor? One takeaway from the session (for me, at least): it’s complicated.

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Sport hatred redux: Hating arch-rivals

I am a Tottenham fan. (I accept your condolences.) One duty of a Tottenham fan is to hate Arsenal. And I am nothing if not a dutiful lad. Is such hatred justified? Continue reading

Self-consciousness and moral status

Many share an intuition that self-consciousness is highly morally significant. Some hold that self-consciousness significantly enhances an entity’s moral status. Others hold self-consciousness underwrites the attribution of so-called personhood (or full moral status) to self-conscious entities. On such views, self-consciousness is highly morally significant: the fact that an entity is self-conscious generates strong moral reasons to treat that entity in certain ways (reasons that, for example, make killing such entities a very serious matter).

Why believe that? Continue reading

Neil Levy’s 2nd Leverhulme Lecture: “The Science of Self-Control”

Yesterday Neil Levy delivered the second of three Leverhulme lectures. The topic this time: “The Science of Self-Control.” In these lectures, Levy is setting two views against each other. The first is a view that emphasizes willpower – when tempted, one must grit it out. The second is a view that emphasizes self-management – the way to avoid temptation is to objectify ourselves, understand what triggers failures of self-control, and put ourselves in environments without temptation. Like Ulysses aware of the nearness of Sirens, we ought to find ways to tie ourselves to the mast.

What does science have to do with this? Levy argues that science is indicating the preferability of a self-management view. Continue reading

Consciousness and death’s badness

1. Many think that the wrongness of killing has at least partly to do with the harm and/or badness of death. I assume that is right.

2. Many think that the harm and/or badness of death has primarily to do with the deprivation of a future. In particular, many think that the future contains valuable experiences and states of affairs, and that death robs an entity of experiencing or otherwise attaining these valuable things. Although there are different ways of making explicit how a future is valuable, I assume that the general idea is right.

3. The value in the future is prima facie problematic for those who find abortion permissible. Fetuses seem to have valuable futures. If so, then at the very least there is a (potentially defeasible) moral reason against killing a fetus (cf. Marquis 1989). Continue reading


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