This essay received an Honourable Mention in the graduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
Written by University of Oxford, Oriel College student Benjamin Koons
Contemporary just war theory has largely abandoned punishment as one of the just causes for war, but I intend to show that if one accepts the justice of defensive wars then punitive wars are plausibly justified. I defend this thesis:
Punishment as Just Cause (PJC): It is a just cause for international treaty organization X to initiate a war with member-state Y so as to punish Y for an injustice against state Z. Continue reading
Written by Richard Ngo , an undergraduate student in Computer Science and Philosophy at the University of Oxford.
Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures start from the admirable position of integrating psychological results and philosophical arguments, with the goal of answering two questions:
(1) are we (those of us with egalitarian explicit beliefs but conflicting implicit attitudes) racist?
(2) when those implicit attitudes cause actions which seem appropriately to be characterised as racist (sexist, homophobic…), are we morally responsible for these actions? Continue reading
Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Is Graffiti Ever Morally Permissible? written by Areti Theofilopoulou
This essay received an Honourable Mention in the graduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics
Written by University of Oxford Dphil candidate Areti Theofilopoulou
On March 4th 2015, the graffiti team “Icos & Case” covered the National Technical University of Athens with an enormous black and white mural[i]. The graffiti was viewed as a political statement regarding the country’s socioeconomic crisis. In fact, the University was chosen due to its history as a centre of resistance during Greece’s dictatorship. Although public opinion over the permissibility of the graffiti was divided, the media and the state overwhelmingly opposed it. Eventually, the state decided to remove it, claiming it was an act of vandalism.
This recent example gives rise to the following question: is graffiti ever morally permissible? In other words, are the actions of graffiti artists always blameworthy? Taking “graffiti” to mean writing or drawings created on a public building or other public surface, I will argue that, under certain circumstances, it is morally permissible. If we grant that all morally permissible actions should be legal, we may further conclude that governments should not prosecute graffiti artists. Even if one does not accept this corollary, however, the argument regarding permissibility still stands.
As addressing the issue of private property is not possible on this occasion, the discussion will be limited to graffiti on public buildings. Moreover, an abstract commitment to equality and liberty will be assumed. Continue reading
Naughty words What makes swear words so offensive? It’s not their meaning or even their sound. Is language itself a red herring here?
Dr Rebecca Roache, former Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics staff member, and lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, has recently published an essay on swearing in the online Aeon Magazine. To read the full article and join in the conversation please follow this link: https://aeon.co/essays/where-does-swearing-get-its-power-and-how-should-we-use-it. Dr Roache has previously spoken on this topic, as reported by Prof Roger Crisp on this blog.
Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Should We Take Moral Advice From Our Computers? written by Mahmoud Ghanem
This essay received an Honourable Mention in the undergraduate category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.
Written by University of Oxford student, Mahmoud Ghanem
The Case For Computer Assisted Ethics
In the interest of rigour, I will avoid use of the phrase “Artificial Intelligence”, though many of the techniques I will discuss, namely statistical inference and automated theorem proving underpin most of what is described as “AI” today.
Whether we believe that the goal of moral actions ought to be to form good habits, to maximise some quality in the world, to follow the example of certain role models, or to adhere to some set of rules or guiding principles, a good case for consulting a well designed computer program in the process of making our moral decisions can be made. After all, the process of carrying out each of the above successfully at least requires:
(1) Access to relevant and accurate data, and
(2) The ability to draw accurate conclusions by analysing such data.
Both of which are things that computers are very good at. Continue reading
The 2nd Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics was announced on this blog on the 11th November 2015. By the 25th January 2016 a large number of high quality essays had been submitted and the judges had a difficult time narrowing the field down to 5 finalists and 6 Honourable Mentions, which are now listed here. We are very pleased to announce that over the next few weeks we will be publishing the essays listed below in our Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics series. Continue reading
Author: Neil Levy, Leverhulme Visiting Professor
Podcasts of Prof Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures can be found here:
Fergus Peace’s responses to my lecturers are interesting and challenging. As he notes, in my lectures I focused on two questions:
(1) are we (those of us with egalitarian explicit beliefs but conflicting implicit attitudes) racist?
(2) When those attitudes cause actions which seem appropriately to be characterized as racist (sexist, homophobic…), are we morally responsible for these actions (more precisely, for the fact that they can be classified in these morally laden terms)?
He suggests that these questions simply are not important ones to ask. Getting clear on how we ought to respond to implicit biases (what steps we ought to take to mitigate their effects or to eliminate them) matters, but asking whether a certain label attaches to us does not. Nor does it matter whether we are morally responsible for the actions these attitudes cause.
The first challenge seems to me to be a good one. I will discuss that challenge after I have discussed the question concerning our moral responsibility. This challenge seems very much weaker.
Author: Fergus Peace, BPhil student, University of Oxford
Podcasts of Prof. Levy’s Leverhulme lectures are available here:
It’s only a little more than forty years ago that George Wallace won the contest for Governor of Alabama by running ads with slogans like “Wake up Alabama! Blacks vow to take over Alabama” and “Do you want the black bloc electing your governor?” That year, 1970, 50% of people surveyed in the American South said they would never – under any circumstances – vote for a black President. By 2012, that number was down by 8%, and it’s hard to deny that open, avowed racism has been in steep decline for most of the last forty years. But even as people’s overt commitment to racism declines, experiments still show that black candidates are less likely to be given job interviews than equally qualified white candidates; African-Americans are still disproportionately likely to be imprisoned, or shot by police.
So what’s going on? That is the motivating puzzle of Professor Neil Levy’s Leverhulme Lectures, and his answer centres on an increasingly well-known but still very disturbing psychological phenomenon: implicit bias. There are a range of tests which have uncovered evidence of implicit negative attitudes held – by a majority of white Americans, but a sizeable number of black Americans too – against black people. Harvard University’s ‘Project Implicit’ has a series of Implicit Association Tests (IATs); Keith Payne, among others, has developed tests of what he calls the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP). IATs ask us to sort faces and words according to their race and ‘valence’, and we find that task much easier when we have to associate black faces with negative words than we do otherwise. Tests of the AMP ask subjects to rate the pleasantness of an image which is entirely meaningless to them – a Chinese character, for people who don’t speak Chinese – and find that they rate it less pleasant if they’re shown an image of a black face immediately beforehand.
There’s no doubt these results are unsettling. (If you want to do an IAT online, as you should, you have to agree to receiving results you might disagree or be uncomfortable with before you proceed.) And they’re not just subconscious attitudes which are uncomfortable but insignificant; implicit bias as measured by these various tests is correlated with being less likely to vote for Barack Obama, and more likely to blame the black community for violence in protests against police brutality. Tests in virtual shooting ranges also reveal that it correlates with being more likely to shoot unarmed black men when given the task of shooting only those carrying weapons. Implicit biases certainly seem to cause, at least partly, racist actions and patterns of behaviour, like being quicker to shoot at unarmed black people and less likely to invite them for job interviews.
Professor Levy’s lectures grappled with two questions about these attitudes: first, do they make you a racist; and second, are you morally responsible for actions caused by your implicit biases? If you, like me, abhor racism and make that abhorrence at least some part of your political and social identity, but nonetheless come away with a “moderate automatic preference for European … compared to African” on the race IAT, then are you – protestations to the contrary – a racist? His answer to this question in the first lecture, based on the current state of conceptual investigation of what racism is and empirical evidence about the character of implicit biases, was a qualified no: they don’t clearly count as beliefs, or even as feelings, in a way that could let us confidently call people racist just because they possess them.
The second question is similarly complex. When interviewers prefer white applicants over equally qualified black ones, due to their implicit attitudes, are they responsible for the racist character of that action? Levy focused largely on the ‘control theory’ of moral responsibility, which says that you’re responsible for an action only if you exercise sufficient control over it. Levy’s answer to this question is a pretty clear no: implicit attitudes don’t have the right sort of attributes (in particular, reliable responsiveness to reasons and evidence) to count as giving you control over the actions they cause.
I find it very hard to disagree with the core of Professor Levy’s arguments on his two questions. The points I want to make in response come from a different direction, because after listening to the two lectures I’m not convinced that these are the important questions to be asking about implicit bias.
Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke University and Oxford Martin Visiting Fellow) plans to develop a computer system (and a phone app) that will help us gain knowledge about human moral judgment and that will make moral judgment better. But will this moral AI make us morally lazy? Will it be abused? Could this moral AI take over the world? Professor Armstrong explains…
Professor Neil Levy, visiting Leverhulme Lecturer, University of Oxford, has recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:
Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who ‘free-ride’, taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices – ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society.
Our moral emotions fuel our impulses toward retribution. Retributivists believe that people should be punished because that’s what they deserve. Retributivism is not the only justification for punishment, of course. We also punish to deter others, to prevent the person offending again, and perhaps to rehabilitate the offender. But these consequentialist grounds alone cannot justify our current system of criminal justice. We want punishments to ‘fit the crime’ – the worse the crime, the worse the punishment – without regard for the evidence of whether it ‘works’, that is, without thinking about punishment in consequentialist terms.
See here for the full article, and to join in the conversation.
Professor Levy has also written on this topic in the Journal of Practical Ethics; Less Blame, Less Crime? The Practical Implications of Moral Responsibility Skepticism.