Neil Levy’s Posts

Is it rational to have children?

Laurie Paul’s fascinating paper on the rationality of choosing to have children has already received a great deal of attention in the blogosphere. Perhaps everything worth saying has already been said. But I wanted to point to some evidence that we ought not place the kind of weight on people’s experiences, in the context of assessing how their choices have gone, that Paul suggests we should.

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Ableist Language

Recently we have seen the stirrings in the philosophical blogosphere of a campaign, spearheaded by Shelley Tremain, to highlight and increase sensitivity to the use of ‘ableist’ language. Ableist language stands to disability in the way that sexist language stands to gender. Just as we now avoid certain kinds of language because it suggests – and may inadvertently reinforce – the inferiority of women, so (Professor Tremain suggests) we ought to avoid certain kinds of language because it demeans the disabled.

I first came across the campaign in the context of a call to avois the phrase ‘blind review’, on the ground that “ it associates blindness with lack of knowledge and implies that blind people cannot be knowers”. Professor Tremain suggests that we replace ‘blind review’ with ‘anonymous review’. I must admit my first response was to regard the whole thing as silly. But I had second thoughts. I no longer think it is silly (to be clear: I think that the campaign against ‘blind review’ is silly, but the campaign against ableist language is not). Here’s one reason to be suspicious of this initial reaction: when women (and a few men) began to question the unthinking use of sexist language, I think lots of well-meaning people reacted by thinking that the notion was silly. The people I had in mind may not have been sexist, in their explicit commitments. Rather, they thought that words do not harm, that we should save our energies for fighting for equal rights, that the movement brought feminism into ridicule, and so on. But gradually people became sensitized to the use of sexist language and we now avoid it. Moreover, research in psychology backs up the contention that the existence of – independently of belief in – stereotypes has real world effects, both on the behavior of those who are stereotyped and on others too. Those who are stereotyped may suffer stereotype threat, where their performance on tasks suffers because the task is stereotype atypical, while others may judge in ways consistent with the stereotype even when they don’t accept it.

I remain unconvinced that the phrase ‘blind review’ is problematic. Still, it seems easy and costless to avoid, so why not avoid it (as Mohan Mathen suggests in comments on the post linked to above)? More obviously problematic is the rich language of mental illness as insult: ‘crazy’, ‘hysterical’, ‘schizophrenic’ (to mean two-faced), and so on.

However, I want to note that there are potential costs to sensitizing ourselves to ableist language in the manner suggested. Some metaphors are so dead that I doubt that they do any harm. ‘Sinister’, for instance, does not seem to me to be remotely harmful to left-handed people. But the problem with sensitization is that it spreads: it makes metaphors live, and increases the cognitive load.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There have been several recent controversies in the United States over the word ‘niggardly’. ‘Niggardly’ is a synonym for ‘stingy’. It is etymologically unrelated to the word ‘nigger’. However, a number of people have taken offense at the word, because they took them to be related. As a result of these controversies, the following situation has arisen: niggardly is, considered in itself, a perfectly harmless word, but because of the association that has arisen, it is a word that is now best avoided. The Wikipedia entry on the controversies surrounding the use notes that people now sometimes use it to have dig at others: they ask black people not to be niggardly, for instance (thus allowing themselves to be offensive while establishing a bit of plausible deniability). ‘Niggardly’ is etymologically and semantically unrelated to ‘nigger’, but it is now guilty by association.

The problem is once you are sensitized to possible associations and suggestions, it is difficult to stop. Double entendres are a classic example: make one inadvertently in a classroom and from then one everyone will hear one in every sentence you say. John Derbshire – not normally a fount of wisdom – notes how the ‘niggardly’ controversy might cause further words to be become suspect: he gives the example of ‘snigger’.

There is a cost to the raising of sensitivities. Linguistic self-censorship is time and resource consuming. It may make dead metaphors live once more, and thus lead to some of the very harms it aims to avoid. It may nevertheless be a cost worth paying – it was in the case of sexist, racist and homophobic language.

Should we breed smarter children?

Last Sunday’s Melbourne Herald-Sun published an article reporting Julian Savulescu’s argument for enhancing the intelligence of babies through genetic modification. The argument turns on the social benefits of enhancement. Economic modeling has mounted a powerful case that widespread enhancement of IQ would produce a broad range of benefits. The work builds on previous research demonstrating the effects of reduced exposure to environmental lead. Public health measures aimed at reducing lead exposure caused a small but significant rise in IQ across the population, and brought social benefits including less welfare dependency, less imprisonment, fewer orphaned children, and so on. Continue reading

Free speech in the marketplace of ideas.

In a couple of weeks, the verdict in the case against Geert Wilder’s for inciting hatred will be announced. Wilders is charged under laws that have been enacted in many jurisdictions, but which are controversial. I don’t know whether these laws are good or bad. Here I just want to address one argument in favour of unfettered free speech.

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Democracy and false information: some bad news

A recent study by Nyhan and Reifler has received quite a bit of attention recently. The study
aimed to assess how people’s beliefs change in response to evidence.  The researchers gave participants mock news
stories which contained mistakes (for example, they claimed that WMDs had been
found in Iraq). They also included in some versions of the story a correction.
They found that subjects who received false information followed by a
correction actually believed the false information more than those who received
no correction. Given that we want people to be able to make informed decisions
when they vote, this study is bad news. It suggests that people tend to believe
what they want to believe, without much regard to the facts. The effect was
greatest on those most partisan: those who wanted to believe that WMDs were
found were left with a stronger belief than ever.

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Sex and the minimally conscious state

An interesting case is reported in the most recent issue of the Hastings Center Report.  Mrs Z, is a 29 year-old woman who was released into her husband’s carefollowing a traumatic brain injury. She is in a minimally conscious state (MCI), a state of severely impaired consciousness. MCI cases cover a range of cognitive deficits; Mrs Z seems to be at the lower end of cognitive functioning. She is unable to speak and requires 24 hour care, provided by her husband (who is also the guardian of their 4 year-old twins).

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Arguing about moral responsibility

Outside applied ethics and neuroethics, I work in philosophy of agency, specifically on the interlinked topics of free will and moral responsibility (interlinked because I, like most participants in the debate, understand free will, if it exists, to be the power we have to act in a way that makes us morally responsible for our actions). I defend a very unusual position in the free will debate, which I won’t get into now. But one feature it shares with some others (a relatively small minority) is that it holds that we don’t have free will, in the sense defined, and therefore we are not morally responsible for our actions (or for anything else). In this post, I want to address a common criticism of my argument, and of other arguments for the same conclusion. The criticism, roughly, is this: you are arguing for a radical revision of our beliefs and our practices: the overturning of a central component of our conception of ourselves and one another. But arguments for radical revisions of common sense must meet higher standards than arguments for less radical conclusions. As the stakes go up, so do the argumentative standards.

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Coma Confusion Resolved

Back in November, I blogged about the case of Rom Houben, a man who after more than two decades in what was apparently a persistent vegetative state was found to be conscious. Following the newspaper reports of the time – as I noted at the time, I had nothing to go on except newspaper reports – I described it as a case in which the locked-in state was misdiagnosed as vegetative state. These mistakes do, tragically, occur. But we now know that Rom Houben is not in the locked-in state at all. The diagnosis of locked-in state was made on the basis of the use of facilitated communication, a technique in which someone is supposedly helped to communicate. Usually the facilitator guides the hand of the person they aim to help; the idea being that they can compensate for the muscular weakness by sensitively interpreting the person’s movements. Facilitated communication became notorious in the 1990s, when it was found that in most cases in which it was used (mainly to communicate with severely autistic individuals) the facilitators were producing the message. The test is simple: put headphones in both the facilitator and the person they are trying to help, and ask them questions simultaneously. Sometimes both receive the same questions, sometimes they receive different questions. The finding is that answers are always to the questions asked of the facilitator (obviously the fact that the facilitators have gladly participated in this research is good evidence of their sincerity. How we can mistake our own movements for someone else’s is a fascinating question, explored interestingly by Daniel Wegner in The Illusion of Conscious Will).

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Brain imaging and PVS: How excited should we be?

How exciting is the new research on the consciousness of patients diagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state (discussed here)? From a scientific point of view, this is an important piece of research. The ability to respond to yes/no questions is surely a reliable indicator of consciousness; once we have identified patients who can pass this test, we can begin to conduct other tests, to see whether the results correlate. We can begin to see whether the evidence of electrical activity in the brain in response to words or to physical discomfort reflect consciousness or are merely indicators of unconscious activity.  The new research also might have great diagnostic value. But we must be careful not to overinterpret the results.

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Belgian coma confusion

By now most readers will have heard about the case of the Belgian man, Rom Houben, apparently misdiagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state for 23 years. Rather than being unconscious, as persistent vegetative state patients are thought to be, he was apparently in the ‘locked-in state’. The locked-in state is not a disorder of consciousness at all; instead it is a state of paralysis. Because the patient is unable to give the behavioral manifestations of consciousness, they are often misdiagnosed. Genuine disorders of consciousness are notoriously hard to tell apart; the possibility of locked-in syndrome makes the diagnostic task even more difficult.

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