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Joshua Shepherd’s Posts

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).Read More »Free will beliefs and motivation to punish

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.Read More »Computer consciousness and ethics

Is it morally permissible for parents to encourage their children to play high-impact sports?

Concussions are prevalent in high-impact and much-beloved sports such as American and Australian football, rugby, and hockey. Concussions are harmful – recent studies link repeated concussions to degraded cognitive performance along a number of measures (Randolph et al. 2013), as well as an increased risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (McKee et al. 2013). Concussions are much in the news. Recent events such as the suicide of Dave Duerson and the suicide of Junior Seau have been linked to the long-term effects of repeated concussions, and the governing bodies of many high-impact sports have, of late, been scrambling to address the problems posed by growing awareness of the danger of concussions.

A number of ethical questions arise in connection with this growing awareness. (What should the governing bodies of sports leagues do to protect players? What do teams owe players in such sports? Is the decision to play such a sport, or to continue playing in spite of suffering a concussion, really autonomous? Should fans speak up about player protection, and if not, are they complicit in the harm done to players? And so on.) Here I want to consider one question that has received little attention. It involves the role of parents in fostering participation in high-impact sports.Read More »Is it morally permissible for parents to encourage their children to play high-impact sports?

Lifespan Enhancement and Punishment

At a recent Uehiro Centre work-in-progress meeting, Rebecca Roache, Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen discussed the potential impacts of transformative technologies on our punishment practices, and the moral significance of some of these impacts (link to the audio here).

It’s a rich area: in this comment I want to consider just one of the many issues raised by Roache, Sandberg and Maslen. The issue is lifespan enhancement. Although lifespan has been gradually increasing for several decades, it may soon be possible to radically enhance lifespan. This possibility raises questions about our sentencing practices, and their moral justification. Read More »Lifespan Enhancement and Punishment

The Morality of Sport-Hatred

It used to be the case that fans of Auburn University’s football team would gather after victories at Toomer’s corner in Auburn, Alabama, to throw rolls of toilet paper into the historic oak trees there. The trees have been removed. Not because Auburn University wanted it that way: Harvey Updyke, a fan of the University of Alabama’s football team – Auburn’s hated cross-state rival – poisoned the trees in 2010. Updyke was caught when he called in to a local sports radio show to brag about the deed. He was charged with criminal mischief, desecrating a venerated object and damaging agriculture. Although he initially pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, he later made a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to criminal damage of an agricultural facility. He served six months in jail, and was released in June of this year.

This is of course a bad situation. I’ve been to football games at Auburn, and though I sport-hate their football team, the celebration at Toomer’s corner was a great tradition and the trees, themselves, were beautiful. I don’t wish to pass more judgment on Updyke, but rather to reflection on an ethical question his action raises. Read More »The Morality of Sport-Hatred