Abortion, Democracy, and Erring on the Side of Freedom

by Alberto Giubilini

(crosspost: this article appeared with a different title in iaiNews)

The leaked draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice’ Samuel Alito foreshadows the overturn of the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling. Roe vs Wade grounded women’s (limited) right to abortion in the US in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution and its implied right to privacy. Acknowledging the pervasive disagreement over the morality of abortion, the Supreme Court has now decided to “return the power to weigh those arguments to the people and their elected representatives”.

In this way, the Supreme Court is in fact democratizing the legal availability abortion. Which raises the ethical question about whether the legal availability of abortion should be a matter of democratic procedure, as opposed to a constitutional matter around fundamental rights. I side with the latter view. I do not think a decision over women’s right to abortion should be a matter of democratic procedure such as a State election or a referendum. And I am going to provide reasons for why I think people on either side of the abortion debate can share my view, assuming they accept some fundamental tenets of liberal democracy.

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Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster


I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before. Continue reading

2022 Uehiro Lectures : Ethics and AI, Peter Railton. In Person and Hybrid

Ethics and Artificial Intelligence
Professor Peter Railton, University of Michigan

May 9, 16, and 23 (In person and hybrid. booking links below)

Abstract: Recent, dramatic advancement in the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) raise a host of ethical questions about the development and deployment of AI systems.  Some of these are questions long recognized as of fundamental moral concern, and which may occur in particularly acute forms with AI—matters of distributive justice, discrimination, social control, political manipulation, the conduct of warfare, personal privacy, and the concentration of economic power.  Other questions, however, concern issues that are more specific to the distinctive kind of technological change AI represents.  For example, how to contend with the possibility that artificial agents might emerge with capabilities that go beyond human comprehension or control?  But whether or when the threat of such “superintelligence” becomes realistic, we are now facing a situation in which partially-intelligent AI systems are increasingly being deployed in roles that involve relatively autonomous decision-making that carries real risk of harm.  This urgently raises the question of how such partially-intelligent systems could become appropriately sensitive to moral considerations.

In these lectures I will attempt to take some first steps in answering that question, which often is put in terms of “programming ethics into AI”.  However, we don’t have an “ethical algorithm” that could be programmed into AI systems, and that would enable them to respond aptly to an open-ended array of situations where moral issues are stake.  Moreover, the current revolution in AI has provided ample evidence that system designs based upon the learning of complex representational structures and generative capacities have acquired higher levels of competence, situational sensitivity, and creativity in problem-solving than systems based upon pre-programmed expertise.  Might a learning-based approach to AI be extended to the competence needed to identify and respond appropriately to moral dimensions of situations?

I will begin by outlining a framework for understanding what “moral learning” might be, seeking compatibility with a range of conceptions of the normative content of morality.  I then will draw upon research on human cognitive and social development—research that itself is undergoing a “learning revolution”—to suggest how this research enables us to see at work components central to moral learning, and to ask what conditions are favorable to the development and working of these components.  The question then becomes whether artificial systems might be capable of similar cognitive and social development, and what conditions would be favorable to this.  Might the same learning-based approaches that have achieved such success in strategic game-playing, image identification and generation, and language recognition and translation also achieve success in cooperative game-playing, identifying moral issues in situations, and communicating and collaborating effectively on apt responses?  How far might such learning go, and what could this tell us about how we might engage with AI systems to foster their moral development, and perhaps ours as well?

Bio: Peter Railton is the Kavka Distinguished University Professor and Perrin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.  His research has included ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and political philosophy, and recently he has been engaged in joint projects with researchers in psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.  Among his writings are Facts, Values, and Norms (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Homo Prospectus (joint with Martin Seligman, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada, Oxford University Press, 2016).  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, has served as President of the American Philosophical Society (Central Division), and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He has been a visiting faculty member at Princeton and UC-Berkeley, and in the UK has given the John Locke Lectures while a visiting fellow at All Souls, Oxford.


Lecture 1.

Date: Monday 9 May 2022, 5.00 – 7.00 pm, followed by a drinks reception (for all)
Venue: Mathematical Institute (LT1), Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG.

In person:

Lecture 2.

Date: Monday 16 May 2022, 5.00 – 7.00 pm. Jointly organised with Oxford’s Moral Philosophy Seminars
Venue: Mathematical Institute (LT1), Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG.

In person:

 Lecture 3.

Date: Monday 23 May 2022, 5.00 – 7.00 pm
Venue: Mathematical Institute (LT1), Andrew Wiles Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG.

In person:

AI and the Transition Paradox

by Aksel Braanen Sterri

The most important development in human history will take place not too far in the future. Artificial intelligence, or AI for short, will become better (and cheaper) than humans at most tasks. This will generate enormous wealth that can be used to fill human needs.

However, since most humans will not be able to compete with AI, there will be little demand for ordinary people’s labour-power. The immediate effect of a world without work is that people will lose their primary source of income and whatever meaning, mastery, sense of belonging and status they get from their work. Our collective challenge is to find meaning and other ways to reliably get what we need in this new world.

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Rethinking ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ Pleasures

by Ben Davies

One of John Stuart Mill’s most well-known claims concerns the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Higher pleasures—which are, roughly, ‘mental’ pleasures—are, says Mill, always preferable to lower pleasures—the pleasures of the body.

In Mill’s rendering, competent judges—those who have experience of both higher and lower pleasures—will choose a higher pleasure over a lower pleasure “even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent” and “would not resign it for any quantity of the other [lower] pleasure which their nature is capable of”.

There are two ways we might interpret this claim:

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New Publication: ‘Overriding Adolescent Refusals of Treatment’

Written by Anthony Skelton, Lisa Forsberg, and Isra Black

Consider the following two cases:

Cynthia’s blood transfusion. Cynthia is 16 years of age. She is hit by a car on her way to school. She is rushed to hospital. She sustains serious, life-threatening injuries and loses a lot of blood. Her physicians conclude that she needs a blood transfusion in order to survive. Physicians ask for her consent to this course of treatment. Cynthia is intelligent and thoughtful. She considers, understands and appreciates her medical options. She is deemed to possess the capacity to decide on her medical treatment. She consents to the blood transfusion.

Nathan’s blood transfusion. Nathan is 16 years of age. He has Crohn’s disease. He is admitted to hospital with lower gastrointestinal bleeding. According to the physicians in charge of his care, the bleeding poses a significant threat to his health and to his life. His physicians conclude that a blood transfusion is his best medical option. Nathan is intelligent and thoughtful. He considers, understands and appreciates his medical options. He is deemed to possess the capacity to decide on his medical treatment. He refuses the blood transfusion.

Under English Law, Cynthia’s consent has the power to permit the blood transfusion offered by her physicians. Her consent is considered to be normatively (and legally) determinative. However, Nathan’s refusal is not normatively (or legally) determinative. Nathan’s refusal can be overridden by consent to the blood transfusion of either a parent or court. These parties share (with Nathan) the power to consent to his treatment and thereby make it lawful for his physicians to provide it.

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Robert Audi on Moral Creditworthiness and Moral Obligation

by Roger Crisp

On Tuesday 8 March, Professor Robert Audi, John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, gave a Public Lecture for the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. The event was held in the Lecture Room at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford and was hybrid, the audience numbering around 60 overall. Continue reading

The Aliens Are Coming

By Charles Foster

It’s said that 2022 is going to be a bumper year for UFO revelations. Secret archives are going to be opened and the skies are going to be probed as never before for signs of extraterrestrial life.

This afternoon we might be presented with irrefutable evidence not just of life beyond the Earth, but of intelligences comparable in power and subtlety to our own. What then? Would it change our view of ourselves and the universe we inhabit? If so, how? Would it change our behaviour? If so how?

Much would depend, no doubt, on what we knew or supposed about the nature and intentions of the alien intelligences. If they seemed hostile, intent on colonising Planet Earth and enslaving us, our reactions would be fairly predictable. But what if the reports simply disclosed the existence of other intelligences, together with the fact that those intelligences knew about and were interested in us? Continue reading

Three Observations about Justifying AI

Written by:  Anantharaman Muralidharan, G Owen Schaefer, Julian Savulescu
Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

Consider the following kind of medical AI. It consists of 2 parts. The first part consists of a core deep machine learning algorithm. These blackbox algorithms may be more accurate than human judgment or interpretable algorithms, but are notoriously opaque in terms of telling us on what basis the decision was made. The second part consists of an algorithm that generates a post-hoc medical justification for the core algorithm. Algorithms like this are already available for visual classification. When the primary algorithm identifies a given bird as a Western Grebe, the secondary algorithm provides a justification for this decision: “because the bird has a long white neck, pointy yellow beak and red eyes”. The justification goes beyond just a description of the provided image or a definition of the bird in question, and is able to provide a justification that links the information provided in the image to the features that distinguish the bird. The justification is also sufficiently fine grained as to account for why the bird in the picture is not a similar bird like the Laysan Albatross. It is not hard to imagine that such an algorithm would soon be available for medical decisions if not already so. Let us call this type of AI “justifying AI” to distinguish it from algorithms which try, to some degree or other, to wear their inner workings on their sleeves.

Possibly, it might turn out that the medical justification given by the justifying AI sounds like pure nonsense. Rich Caruana et al present a  case whereby asthmatics were deemed less at risk of dying by pneumonia. As a result, it prescribed less aggressive treatments for asthmatics who contracted pneumonia. The key mistake the primary algorithm made was that it failed to account for the fact that asthmatics who contracted pneumonia had better outcomes only because they tended to receive more aggressive treatment in the first place. Even though the algorithm was more accurate on average, it was systematically mistaken about one subgroup. When incidents like these occur, one option here is to disregard the primary AI’s recommendation. The rationale here is that we could hope to do better than by relying on the blackbox alone by intervening in cases where the blackbox gives an implausible recommendation/prediction. The aim of having justifying AI is to make it easier to identify when the primary AI is misfiring. After all, we can expect trained physicians to recognise a good medical justification when they see one and likewise recognise bad justifications. The thought here is that the secondary algorithm generating a bad justification is good evidence that the primary AI has misfired.

The worry here is that our existing medical knowledge is notoriously incomplete in places. It is to be expected that there will be cases where the optimal decision vis a vis patient welfare does not have a plausible medical justification at least based on our current medical knowledge. For instance, Lithium is used as a mood stabilizer but the reason why this works is poorly understood. This means that ignoring the blackbox whenever a plausible justification in terms of our current medical knowledge is unavailable will tend to lead to less optimal decisions. Below are three observations that we might make about this type of justifying AI.

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Your eyes will be discontinued: what are the long-term responsibilities for implants?

by Anders Sandberg

What do you do when your bionic eyes suddenly become unsupported and you go blind again? Eliza Strickland and Mark Harris have an excellent article in IEEE Spectrum about the problems caused when the bionics company Second Sight got into economic trouble. Patients with their Argus II eyes found that upgrades could not be made and broken devices not replaced. What kind of  responsibility does a company have for the continued function of devices that become part of people?

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