Joshua Shepherd

Situations and responsibility

I think this is true: my behavior, and your behavior, and all human behavior, is shaped in a wide range of ways by the environment. What do I mean by the environment? Here are some examples.

Being in an environment with loud noise levels might make you less likely to help strangers in need (Matthews and Cannon 1975).

Being in a pleasant smelling environment might make you more likely to help strangers in need (Baron 1997).

Wearing sunglasses might make you behave more selfishly (Zhong et al. 2010).

Should we be worried about these kinds of environmental influences? Continue reading

Dehumanization and terrorism

Most people would agree that terrorism is no good. The word itself is rich with moralized connotations. It is true that some have argued that terrorism might sometimes be justified, but in popular discourse, terrorism is typically deemed obviously horrible.

What are the consequences of branding some action an act of terrorism, or of branding some group a terrorist group? Note, in connection with this question, the ratcheting up of rhetoric surrounding ‘cyberterrorism,’ with many government officials now listing it as a major ongoing threat (e.g., here and here). Continue reading

What kind of internet ought we to have?

Happy internet slowdown day! Here are some apropos practical ethics questions for all to discuss as we sit patiently, waiting for the internet to load. What kind of internet ought we to have? Should sovereign nations decide for themselves what kind of internet they will have, or is this an international issue, requiring cooperation between nations? What do particular internet companies owe their competitors, and more vaguely, the internet? What right does an individual or social entity have to know about or to police the storage and usage of data about that individual or social entity? What right does an individual or corporation have to access data or restrict access to data at certain speeds?

These kinds of questions are of massive practical importance to big internet companies like Google, who finds itself embroiled in an ongoing antitrust dispute with various entities in Europe, and like American cable company Comcast, who might stand to profit from a change in current net neutrality regulations.

And yet interestingly – and unsurprisingly, I suppose, given the power of moral language – much of the debate surrounding this issue is cast in moral, rather than practical, terms. Continue reading

Reducing negative emotions towards out-group members

At present I am travelling with my immediate family, seeing less immediate family, back and forth across the US south. One thing I’ve remembered: it can be good to be a part of a close-knit group. One’s faults and mistakes are more readily understood and forgiven. One’s strengths are more readily celebrated. One’s identity is bolstered in all sorts of ways.

As we should know by now, of course, it can be bad to be a part of a close-knit group as well. In ways one’s freedom and identity can be constrained by group membership. But I’m not thinking of the effects on group members. Being a part of a close-knit group can more readily lead to immoral behaviour towards non-group members. The faults and mistakes of those outside the group are less readily understood and forgiven. The strengths of those outside the group are less readily celebrated. In general, it is easier to demonize and dehumanize out-group members.

An interesting recent paper – ‘Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses’ – sheds some light on these phenomena. Continue reading

What has Facebook (with some psychologists) done?

In my academic and musty corner of the universe, there has been a lot of talk in the past few days about this publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers tweaked a Facebook algorithm such that Facebook users would see a higher proportion of posts with negative or positive emotional content in their feed. They wanted to know whether a user seeing a different proportion would influence the emotional content content of that user’s posts in a positive or negative direction. The news: it did (a little bit).

People are less interested in that, however, and more interested in whether the researchers acted unethically. The BBC has a short round-up of some tweets here, and among other things the Guardian quotes Labour MP Jim Sheridan calling for an investigation here. Slate tagged its story on the issue with the headline ‘Facebook’s Unethical Experiment’ – a headline that shifts blame away from researchers and entirely to Facebook. There are many more news stories on this out by now: you get the picture. Continue reading

Public Sinners: Forgive or Forget?

If you haven’t heard anything about the ongoing saga of Donald Sterling, here is a quick run-down. Sterling owns an NBA team – the Los Angeles Clippers. By most accounts, Sterling is not a morally upstanding person (see here and here). But according to (at least) the court of public opinion, Sterling went too far recently when an audio recording emerged in which Sterling said several horribly racist things. Sponsors began withdrawing support, players threatened to boycott Clippers games, and the NBA reacting swiftly by banning Sterling for life from the NBA and fining him $2.5 million.

Since then things have gotten worse (at least in one sense) for Sterling. Consensus emerged that the NBA could, and would, force Sterling to sell his team – something Sterling said he would not do. But things appear to have been taken out of his hands. Before the NBA had to force Sterling to sell, Sterling was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and was declared mentally unfit to make decisions for his team. At that point his wife decided to sell the team, and is in the process of doing so, for a reported $2 billion.

There are many ‘ethics in the news’ issues here. I’m going to focus on just one. How ought we to think about blame and forgiveness in these kinds of very public cases? What does Sterling owe us (the public), and do we owe Sterling anything? It is easy to find on-line vitriol directed at Sterling, and his largely unapologetic reaction to the whole episode has if anything fanned the flames. Is there a point at which such vitriol is too much? Should the diagnosis – which Sterling challenges – that Sterling is ‘mentally unfit’ influence how we feel about his blameworthiness for this episode? Should his well-documented past behaviour? Continue reading

Cognitive science and threats to free will

It is often asserted that emerging cognitive science – especially work in psychology (e.g., that associated with work on automaticity, along with work on the power of situations to drive behavior) and cognitive neuroscience (e.g., that associated with unconscious influences on decision-making) – threatens free will in some way or other. What is not always clear is how this work threatens free will. As a result, it is a matter of some controversy whether this work actually threatens free will, as opposed to simply appearing to threaten free will. And it is a matter of some controversy how big the purported threat might be. Could work in cognitive science convince us that there is no free will? Or simply that we have less free will? And if it is the latter, how much less, and how important is this for our practices of holding one another morally responsible for our behavior? Continue reading

Brain training in schools?

Neurofeedback works like this: you are hooked up to instruments that measure your brain activity (usually via electroencephalography or functional magnetic resonance imaging) and feed it back to you via auditory or visual feedback. The feedback represents the brain activity, and gives you a chance to modulate it, much as you might modulate the movements of your hand given visual or haptic feedback about its activity. What is interesting about the use of neurofeedback is it appears to train people to exercise some control over brain activity related to cognitive and mood-related processes. In other words, neurofeedback might potentially allow agents to modify the activity in their brains such that mood, attentional capacity, and other mental functions improve. Continue reading

Free will beliefs and motivation to punish

In a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cory J. Clark and co-authors provide evidence that widespread belief in the existence of free will is bolstered by a fundamental desire to punish wrongdoers (see here). As Clark et al. put it, “There seems little doubt that the subjective experience of choosing and acting supports people’s belief in free will, but our findings suggest another powerful motivating factor: the human impulse to blame and punish. People believe in free will – at least in part – because they wish to affirm that people who do immoral things could have and should have acted differently” (Clark et al. forthcoming). Continue reading

Computer consciousness and ethics

Nature, the prestigious international science journal, often publishes short science fiction stories in a column called “Futures.” According to Nature, “Featuring short stories from established authors and those just beginning their writing career, Futures presents an eclectic view of what may come to pass.” (see here)

As many philosophers and ethicists have recognized, eclectic views of what may come to pass can be philosophically and ethically useful. They may, for example, suggest possible future scenarios that raise difficult ethical questions – questions we ought to begin to sort through now. They may also stimulate insight into important ethical and conceptual questions at the heart of current ethical debates. Consider, for example, a story recently published by Eric Schwitzgebel and R. Scott Bakker. I won’t spoil the story (do read it here), but I want to lift an element of the plot out of context, so I need to say something about it. It involves the creation of consciousness on a computer. More specifically, it involves the generation of a whole society of interacting conscious agents – people like you or me, living in a world they experience, pursuing goals and relationships and all the rest. Continue reading

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