Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Epicureanism and the Problem of Premature Death


Philippe de Champaigne Vanitas - Life, Death, Time


[I dedicate this post to the memory of my beloved sister, Sarah Danaher Greene (1974-2018). Sarah was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March 2018 and died, suddenly and unexpectedly quickly, just three weeks later. I finished writing this post the day she died and I had been hoping to discuss it with her before I posted it. Sadly, I never got the chance. I appreciate that discussing the problem of premature death might seem like a very morbid thing to do to someone suffering from a terminal illness, but Sarah was always interested in similar things to me and she regularly read this blog. She was the most intelligent, curious and caring person I knew. She saw the good in everyone and everything, and rarely complained when things didn’t go her way. I will miss her always.]

Is it a tragedy to die young? Most people would say ‘yes’. When we hear of a 20 year-old dying in a car crash, we can’t help but be struck by the tremendous sense of loss. They were deprived of a future; they didn’t get a chance to do the things that make up an ordinary human life. When we hear of a 93 year-old dying, we are less perturbed. The death may still be deeply upsetting to their family and friends, but the sense of loss is less profound. They had a ‘good innings’; they had a chance to make something of their lives.

Although this is the standard view of premature death, there are those that dispute it. The ancient philosophical school of Epicureanism is probably the most famous example. Epicurus and his followers dedicated themselves to philosophically dismantling death-anxiety. They argued that the good life consisted in attaining a state of ataraxia (perfect contentment, free from all fear and anxiety) and that this could only be achieved once we rid ourselves of the fear of death. This, in turn, could only be done through correct philosophical training and reasoning.

I have covered the most famous Epicurean arguments before. I have looked at Epicurus’s claim that death is ‘nothing to us’ because it is an existential blank, i.e. a state of non-being in which we cannot experience either pain or pleasure. I have also looked at the Lucretian symmetry argument, which claims that the state of non-existence prior to birth should be viewed in the same light as the state of non-existence after death. Each of these arguments has its strengths and weaknesses, but one weakness they both share is that they don’t address the problem that I introduced in the opening paragraph: the problem of premature death. If the arguments are successful, they may give reason to feel more sanguine about death at the age of 93. But they give no reason not to lament death at the age of 20. Different arguments are needed for that.

The Epicureans were aware of this shortcoming and they did have different arguments for the problem of premature death. In this post, I want to review those arguments. I do so by following the excellent exposition of them in James Warren’s book Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics (side note: this is probably the best book I have read on the philosophy of death; I highly recommend it). I’ll start by considering the arguments that can be mustered in favour of the common view — that premature death is a tragedy — then I’ll look at the Epicurean alternative, considering criticisms and weaknesses as I go along. As will become clear, my sympathies lie with the Epicureans, though I recognise that embracing their position has costs.


1. Accumulationism and the Narrative View of Life
To appreciate the dialectic that follows you’ll need to bracket one commonly-held belief: that death is always and everywhere a bad thing. Nothing that is said in what follows addresses that concern. We’re focusing solely on whether premature death is a bad thing. The other Epicurean arguments address themselves to the more general concern about the badness of death. So you can read the following as an exercise in suppositional logic. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Epicureans are right that death is not, generally, a bad thing. Are they, nevertheless, wrong in thinking that premature death is not a bad thing?

The affirmative answer to that question can be defended in a number of different ways. One way — which I will call ‘accumulationism’ — holds that pleasure/well-being is something that accumulates over time. In other words, the more pleasurable experiences you have, the better your life is. Premature death is, thus, a tragedy because it prevents the accumulation of more pleasures. The problem with accumulationism, in the present context, is that it implies that death is always a bad thing because it always cuts off the possibility of accumulating more pleasures. It’s just as tragic for the 93 year-old as it is for the 20 year-old (though the balance of pleasure over pain may affect this to some extent). So we would have to modify the position to make it relevant to the debate about premature death, perhaps by arguing that there is some quota of pleasures that a ‘complete’ life would have. If someone dies before they meet their quota (before their life is ‘complete’) it is a tragedy. The problem with this modified view is that it is pretty difficult to determine what the quota is: it is, after all, notoriously difficult to quantify and measure pleasures. The best we could do is some rough and ready assessment, and that may not lead to the conclusion that death at a young age is always a tragedy. A 20 year-old could live a life of intense and continual pleasure, while a 93 year-old could live one of perpetual misery. In that case the 20 year-old has the more complete life and their death is less tragic.

This is an important insight and it is worth dwelling on it for a moment. It suggests that the debate about the badness of premature death is less about the number of years lived and more about how they have been lived. Has the person lived a full life? Adding more years, in and of itself, is not necessarily a good thing; it’s the quality and content of the lived experience that matters.

This insight is taken up by another way of defending the tragedy of premature death. This one focuses on the typical pattern of life, on what we might call its ‘narrative arc’. The complete life, we are told, passes through a number of stages. Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech, from As You Like It is probably the pre-eminent expression of this view in Western literature (although it contains a good degree of cynicism and pessimism). It tells us that the typical narrative arc of life passes through seven distinct stages, from puking and mewling in your mother’s arms, to sitting in a slippered pantaloon waiting for oblivion. Other stuff happens in between. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare, we might hold that the typical narrative arc to life includes an educational/training phase, a mastery/success phase, a relationship/family-building phase and, eventually, a retirement/relaxation phase (some phases may overlap and run in parallel). The tragedy of premature death arises from the fact that it prevents someone from passing through all the stages of the typical narrative arc.



To express this in more formal terms:


  • (1) Death is only a tragedy if it occurs before a life is complete.
  • (2) A life is complete if it passes through the right narrative arc.
  • (3) A premature death is one that prevents a life from passing through the right narrative arc.
  • (4) Therefore, a premature death is a tragedy.



Premise (1) derives from the Epicurean supposition (i.e. that death is not always bad) and from the preceding discussion of accumulationism. As you’ll recall, the conclusion reached at the end of that discussion was that the total number of years was not really what mattered but rather the quality and content of lived experience. I’m using ‘completeness’ as the concept that captures this idea. I do so largely because it is the concept that Warren refers to in his discussion, and is something that appears to have preoccupied the ancient schools of philosophy. Indeed, as we will see below, the Epicureans themselves accepted this premise: they just had a very different notion of what made for a complete life.

Premises (2) and (3) are the ones that are critical to this particular argument about narrative arc. What can be said about them? Well, premise (3) is, in a sense, true by definition. Since we have abandoned the notion that prematurity is necessarily a question of age, it is now effectively being defined in terms of the incompleteness of a narrative arc, which is all that premise (3) says. This means that premise (2) is carrying all the weight in this argument, and I have two critical observations to make about it.

The first is that the concept of the ‘right narrative arc’ is incredibly fuzzy. I mentioned the Shakespearean view as an illustration, but given the pessimism and cynicism implicit in that view, we might question whether it really presents a compelling vision of the ‘right’ narrative arc. If the idea is that one’s life should ‘tell a good story’, then we run into the problem that there are many different conceptions of what a good story is. Tragedies can be good stories. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s biography has always struck me as being a good story. He packed a lot into his short life, even though it contained a degree of deprivation and struggle, and he left quite a legacy too. Was his life narratively complete, even though he died at the age of 35? I have heard some philosophers who really seem to think that narrative arcs that tell a good story are what ultimately matter, and that you should work on making your life story as entertaining and interesting as possible. It’s not necessarily bad advice (provided one bears in mind other moral duties) but it doesn’t provide much guidance on determining when and whether a death is tragic. It allows for quite a lot of pluralism and individualism. We cannot easily say that the death of the 20 year-old is tragic on this view. We would have to carefully examine the narrative arc of their life and consider the story it tells.

A second observation follows on from this. Someone who was worried about excessive pluralism and individualism might try to impose a more objective, standardised view of what the narrative should be. The right narrative arc, we might be told, is a life of ‘three score and ten’ years, which consists in a childhood of play and education, an adulthood of careers, relationships and child-rearing, and a retirement of relaxation, travel and family. The problem is that any imposition of a standard narrative will risk seeming incredibly parochial and historically arbitrary. The narrative I just sketched, for instance, is a relatively recent model of the ‘typical’ life and is something that is challenged and resisted by many (e.g. why postpone retirement until old age? why not take mini-retirements when you are younger? why not look for more years?). Furthermore, there may be people who can cram most of what we expect in a life of ‘three score and ten’ into a shorter period. Imposing a standard narrative arc seems, consequently, like an unpromising way to shore up the argument.

These strike me as being significant problems for the narrative arc view of life. I’m not saying that it provides no guidance whatsoever on what the complete life consists in; but I am saying that the guidance it provides is fairly limited. Furthermore, it doesn’t enable the kind of resiliency in the face of death that the Epicureans wanted to inculcate among their followers. If your own preferred narrative arc demands of lot of years — if you want to ‘fade away’ in old age rather than ‘burn out’ at the age of 27 — a premature death will indeed be tragic for you. Epicureans wanted you to be prepared for death whenever it might come.


2. The Epicurean View of Premature Death
How did Epicureans do this? As mentioned above, Epicureans effectively accepted premise (1) of the narrative arc argument. In other words, they agreed that death could be a tragedy if life was not ‘complete’ (I won’t try to prove this by reference to Epicurean texts; Warren does this in his book). Where they differed from the preceding view was in how they understood ‘completeness’. For them, it had nothing to do with tracing out the right narrative arc or accumulating a sufficient quota of pleasures; it had do with achieving the right kind of contentment (pleasure) in life. Once you achieved that state of mind, your life would be complete and there would no reason to lament its cessation. Lucretius used some nice metaphors to explain the idea:

For if you have enjoyed the life you have led up to now and you have not allowed all those benefits to flow away and be lost without enjoyment as if poured into a broken pot, then why do you not leave like a diner fed full of life and find secure rest with an untroubled mind? 
(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura)

Why indeed? Why can we not be ‘fed full of life’ and leave the feast with ‘untroubled mind[s]’?

There is a lot going on in this quote — a lot of philosophical commitments not fully stated — and it is important to bring them to the surface. Here’s my best attempt to set out the logical structure of the Epicurean view implicit in the quote from Lucretius. This reconstruction has been supplemented by other Epicurean writings:


  • (5) The sole dimension of value in life is pleasure; or, to put it another way, the completeness of life is to be determined by its pleasurableness.
  • (6) True pleasure is katastematic, not kinetic, in nature.
  • (7) Katastematic pleasure does not accumulate over time; it only varies.
  • (8) Therefore, once katastematic pleasure has been achieved, a life cannot be improved by adding more years to it.
  • (9) Therefore, a life of katastematic pleasure is complete.
  • (10) Therefore, death, after katastematic pleasure has been achieved, is not a tragedy (from (9) and (1) from the previous argument).


Premise (5) is a strong claim but it is a key commitment of the Epicurean view. You might dispute it. It certainly feels a bit off to me. I think that there is more to life than pleasure alone, i.e. that there are more dimensions of value at stake. For example, I think there are moral and scientific values that have nothing to do with pleasure, per se. It is important, for example, to discharge one’s moral duties to others, to care about their well-being and welfare. This is a dimension of value that seems to be obscured to the Epicureans. On the face of it, they seem to tie themselves to a crass form of egoistic hedonism. It becomes less crass when we consider their definition of pleasure (premise 6), but the egoism doesn’t go away. This is something that gets Epicureans into trouble at other times. For example, in the last chapter of his book, Warren discusses whether it makes sense for Epicureans to write wills (Epicurus himself famously did) and argues that it doesn’t if they remain committed to egoistic hedonism. I tend to agree with this critique and think a revised form of Epicureanism, shorn of its staunch egoism, would be preferable.

All that said, I don’t think the debate about egoism vs non-egoism should detract from the more important aspect of the Epicurean argument, namely: that achieving the right kind of pleasure could be critical when it comes to addressing the fear of premature death. I think the strength of that claim is relatively undisturbed by the debate over egoism. It’s also where premise (6) comes in. The language used in this premise will be unfamiliar to most. The distinction between the two forms of pleasure mentioned in it can be characterised in the following manner:

Katastematic pleasure: The pleasure that arises from the absence of pain, want, need in life; i.e. a feeling of contentment/equanimity.

Kinetic pleasure: The pleasure that arises from removing pain or satisfying a need; i.e. the pleasure that arises from filling the ‘broken pot’ (to use Lucretius’s metaphor)

The distinction is subtle but significant. Katastematic pleasure is enduring and is akin to an ongoing feeling of satiation. Kinetic pleasure waxes and wanes. You remove some pain or satisfy some need and you feel pleasure for awhile, but this feeling quickly dissipates. A new pain or need arises that has to be addressed. You get trapped in a ‘kinetic’ loop: constantly seeking out new ‘highs’. This means you can never be truly happy or satisfied with what you have. True pleasure requires greater stability of contentment. What’s more, if you do get trapped in a kinetic loop, death will always be a tragedy for you, whether you are 20 or 93. Again, Lucretius described the problem pretty well:

…because what you want is always at a distance you shun what is at hand, your life has slipped away incomplete and unenjoyed, and death stands by your head unexpected, before you can leave things satisfied and full.
(Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

How do we get out of the loop? Epicureans aren’t too helpful on this. They seem to think that proper study and familiarity with their philosophical teachings — as opposed to some meditative or ritual practice — will suffice (at least, that’s the impression I get from Warren’s book). This is something that differentiates them from the Buddhists and Stoics, who have a very similar attitude toward death and the good life (I covered the Stoic view on a previous occasion), but include meditative and ritual practices as a key part of the effort to attain equanimity.

But we’re not looking for practical guidance here; we’re trying to investigate the logic of the Epicurean argument. Assuming that the distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasure is accepted we can move on to the next crucial premise. Premise (7) claims that katastematic pleasure does not accumulate over time. In other words, it claims that your life doesn’t get more pleasurable by having more moments of katastematic pleasure. This might look like an odd thing to say. Surely someone who lived for 10 years in a state of katastematic pleasure would be better off than someone who only did so for a few hours? But it does make a certain amount sense. The state of katastematic pleasure is defined by the absence of certain qualities (pain, want, need) not by the presence of certain others (intense joy, mirth, laughter). It is, in a sense, a ‘zero state’: one in which harmony and balance is achieved. As such, it makes sense to say that katastematic its not something that gets better the more of it that you have. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of katastematic pleasure is the absence of the desire for more. That said, Epicureans acknowledged that katastematic pleasure could vary over time, i.e. you could experience slightly different forms of it in different contexts. This variation, however, did not make life better.

Warren thinks that there are certain problems with the idea that katastematic pleasure does not accumulate. The obvious one is this: if you achieve a state of katastematic pleasure, does that really mean that death, no matter how soon after the state has been achieved, is never a tragedy? What if it comes two seconds after such a state is achieved? To say that death at this point is not bad or premature seems logically obtuse and, indeed, was something that some Epicureans resisted. As Warren notes, many of them appear to have adopted a moderate stance, according to which some reasonable period of time in a state of katastematic pleasure was required (perhaps just enough to show that it was a stable state, not a fleeting one). If you include such a requirement, the argument outlined above would need to be modified to talk about ‘stable’ katastematic pleasure or ‘reasonable periods’ of katastematic pleasure.

If you accept that katastematic pleasure is true pleasure, and that once attained (for a reasonable period of time) it cannot accumulate, it is plausible to then infer that your life is complete: that it is not going to get any better by adding more years. The rest of the argument might then succeed. Death once katastematic pleasure had been achieved cannot be a tragedy. This gives us some guidance on how we should react to the death of a young person. We should ask: did they achieve katastematic pleasure? Were they content and free from want, need, anxiety? That will determine the tragedy.


3. Conclusion
As I mentioned in the introduction, I am sympathetic to the Epicurean view. But there is some wishful thinking embedded in this sympathy: there is a sense in which I want to believe it because it tries to prepare us for, and reassure us about, the inevitability of death. Given that we are all going to die (and it is worth noting that I think this is always going to true, even if we manage to greatly extend our lives through the use of science and technology) it makes sense to face its reality. Epicureanism is one of the few philosophies that (a) doesn’t deny or ignore death and (b) offers solace or consolation in its face. It would be nice if it were philosophically tenable. Furthermore, I think the Epicureans get something fundamentally right in their understanding of true pleasure. It is dangerous to be trapped on a hedonic treadmill, constantly seeking more and more pleasurable experiences. You will never be satisfied. Admittedly, Epicureans aren’t the only school of thought to make this point, but I appreciate their way of framing it.

That said, there are costs to accepting the Epicurean view. For one thing, an Epicurean life would not appear to be a recognisably human life. If we were all fully committed to achieving katastematic pleasure, and completely inured to the idea of our own deaths, it seems like we would have to become remarkably detached from the ordinary pleasures of life. The narrative arc view, outlined above, at least has the benefit of working with (not against) widely held beliefs about what makes for a good life: engagement with the world, with other people, with family and friends, with ambition and hope, and so on. The Epicurean life seems to warn us against these things. If we become too attached to worldly affairs, we risk losing the requisite equanimity and contentment we need to avoid death-anxiety. As an illustration of this, Epicurus famously urged his followers to withdraw from political life. At the very least, Epicureanism would appear to require a significant shift in our attitudes towards worldly affairs. Maybe we could still do some of the things that make up a recognisably human life, but we would have to do them with a little less vim and vigour, and a little more philosophical distance. This is a criticism that has often been targeted at similar philosophical positions, such as Buddhism.

Furthermore, there are paradoxes and tensions in the Epicurean view. As we have already seen, Epicureans actually do accept that premature death can be a tragedy. They just happen to have a very different understanding of prematurity. Their understanding makes sense, given their other beliefs, and is philosophically consistent, but it doesn’t completely eliminate all anxiety about premature death. There is still a tragedy of dying before katastematic pleasure has been attained. Warren thinks that this leads to something of a paradox for the Epicurean. On the one hand, they think that the key to living a pleasurable life is to rid oneself of death-anxiety; on the other hand, they seem to imply, through their analysis of premature death, that death-anxiety is rational before you have attained true pleasure. There is a chicken-and-egg quality to this: you need to rid yourself of X to have true pleasure but X is rational before attaining true pleasure. There may be ways to resolve this paradox. Perhaps some people are lucky enough to never experience death anxiety and so can achieve Epicurean equanimity before the problem arises. Also, perhaps you can rid yourself of death anxiety indirectly — i.e. not through rational philosophising but through meditative practice. This is, however, not something that Epicureans seem to have endorsed.

In any event, more work needs to be done on the implications of Epicureanism for the rest of one’s life. I will close by simply repeating that I find something attractive about it, despite the complex reevaluations it entails.




Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Intellectual Case for Manned Space Exploration



Scientists are sometimes dismissive of manned* spaced exploration. They think it is a waste of money and effort, often just an exercise in hubristic national chauvinism rather than a scientifically legitimate enterprise. I’ve heard several astronomers and astrophysicists complain about the public fascination with putting people into space. Much better to send the robots, they say. The robots will collect all the relevant data, perform the key experiments, and transmit the results back to Earth. We can interpret and understand from our the comfort of our homes.

Ian Crawford is an exception to this. He is a scientist and a passionate advocate of manned space exploration. What’s more, he is an advocate for largely intellectual, and specifically scientific reasons. He has written many papers over the years setting out his stall. In this post, I want to analyse just one of them, ‘Avoiding Intellectual Stagnation: The Starship as an Expander of Minds’, which appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 2014.

I am primarily interested in the structure of Crawford’s argument. I’ll start by clarifying this structure, particularly the motivating premise (his moral/axiological principle), and then I’ll describe the various sub-arguments he adduces to support his case for space exploration.


1. The Motivating Premise: The Need for Dynamic Stabilism
Arguments for manned space exploration typically have a simple, three-part structure. They start with a motivating premise. This will usually be axiological/deontological in nature. In other words, it will stipulate some duty or value that is important/worthwhile. They will then proceed to a minor premise stating that this duty/value can be satisfied through space exploration. In other words, they will draw some causal link between the project of space exploration and the satisfaction of the duty/value. How close a causal link is open to debate. The strongest case for space exploration will, obviously, suggest that there is some necessary and exclusive causal link between the two. Weaker cases will suggest that there is just some link between the two and thus that space exploration is one of perhaps a number of ways of satisfying the duty/value.

This suggests that the following captures the general structure of all arguments for space exploration:

Motivating Premise: It is important/valuable that we do X; or, it is obligatory that we do X

Causal Premise: Manned space exploration will enable us to do X (or is the only thing that will enable us to do X).

Conclusion: Therefore, it is important/obligatory for us to engage in manned space exploration.

I have looked at a versions of this argument that proceed from a deontological motivating premise previously. Crawford’s argument is different because it is axiological in nature. I don’t read him as saying that we have a duty to explore space, but, rather, that it would be a good thing if we did. It would make our lives go better, and fill them with more meaning and flourishing, if we were to proceed with an ambitious project of manned space exploration.

Why is this? Crawford appeals to the value of an ‘open’ future. In this, he takes his cue from the work of the political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Back in the late 1980s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before the imminent collapse of communism, Fukuyama wrote a famous essay titled ‘The End of History’. Inspired by Kant and Hegel, Fukuyama argued that the end of the conflict between liberal democratic capitalism and communism heralded a stabilisation point in history. There would be no more grand ideological conflicts over the best way to live. There would just be practical problems to sort through. This would be good insofar as it called a halt to costly conflicts, but Fukuyama was ambivalent about the ultimate effects of this stabilisation, suggesting that the absence of ideological conflict might sap our lives of meaning:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. 
(Fukuyama 1989)

As someone whose political philosophy is rooted more in the tradition of Hobbes than Hegel I find this quote somewhat ironic. If Hobbes is to be believed, an endless struggle or conflict is a ‘very sad’ thing too. In the extreme, it leads to the state of nature — the war of all against all — in which there is no place for beauty, art and other civilisational virtues. Caretaking the museum of history sounds like a relief after that. So there is presumably some desirable median, between the extreme of endless conflict and perpetual idleness, in which humans can flourish. Perhaps the key is to find the right mix of stability and struggle? If we could call a halt to conflicts over land and political ideology, and struggle instead towards some grand intellectual project, that would seem to be preferable.

And that’s exactly what Crawford urges. His motivating axiological premise holds that an ideal human society is one in which there is both stability and dynamism. More precisely, he argues that the ideal situation is one in which we have achieved relative peace between ourselves, but in which our future is still ‘open’ — i.e. we are not simply caretaking the museum of past achievements. His claim then is that an ambitious project of manned space exploration is the way to do this because of the intellectual challenges and virtues it will promote.

All of which means that Crawford’s case for manned space exploration can be set out like this:


  • (1) It is important/good for us to live in a stable and dynamic society, i.e. one in which our future remains open.

  • (2) Embarking upon an ambitious project of manned space exploration is one way (maybe the best way) in which to maintain an open future.

  • (3) Therefore, it is important/good for us to engage in an ambitious project of manned space exploration.



I’ll say no more about the motivating premise from here on out. I find it persuasive, but I admit that I’m not sure that I can explain why. I think some dynamism and unpredictability is a good thing, provided it is of the right type. Some forms of stability and repetition are good: I enjoy not having to struggle to find food, clothing and shelter. But some struggle is good too because it gives direction and purpose to life, and allows for a sense of achievement and fulfillment. On top of this, there are some intrinsic and instrumental goods associated with struggle. Curing cancer, for example, would involve a lot of struggle but would bring with it a number of intrinsic and instrumental goods, not least of which would be a massive reduction in suffering and hardship. The idea that struggle brings purpose does not have to be a mystical or religious notion, but beyond what I have said I am not convinced that I could say more to defend this idea that it plays an essential part in the good life.


2. The Intellectual Case for Space Exploration: Science, Art and Philosophy
If we set premise (1) to the side, premise (2) becomes the obvious focus of attention. There are a couple of preliminary things to be said about this premise. First, note how, in my formulation, it does not claim that there is a necessary and exclusive causal link between manned space exploration and the goal of maintaining an open future. This is consistent with something that I previously wrote about ‘frontierism’ and space exploration, in which I claimed that there are other ‘spaces’ to explore that could help us to maintain an open future. I also think it is consistent with what Crawford writes, but I do get the impression that he thinks manned space exploration might be the best way in which to maintain an open future, hence why I have added the brackets. The second preliminary comment is simply to note that the goal of maintaining an ‘open future’ is to be understood as shorthand for maintaining some kind of desirable struggle into the future, i.e. avoiding excessive predictability and listlessness. Crawford thinks that an intellectual struggle is the thing we should try to maintain. He does this partly for instrumental reasons but, more importantly, for intrinsic reasons: he thinks there are goods directly associated with and constituted by intellectual progress that are worth achieving.

So how does space exploration enable intellectual struggle and progress? Crawford makes three arguments. The first is that it will enable new forms of scientific investigation and progress. This is probably Crawford’s most famous argument, and he has defended it in a number of papers over the years. In the paper I’m looking at, he offers a brief precis of his position. His claim is partly based on history — space exploration has enabled scientific advances in the past — and partly based on plausible predictions of what would be possible if we did journey through space. He identifies four types of scientific inquiry that would be made possible by this: (i) physical and astrophysical studies conducted using spaceships as observing platforms; (ii) astrophysical studies of the wide variety of stars and their circumstellar environments; (iii) geological (etc) studies of planetary bodies and (iv) astrobiological and exobiological studies of habitable planets. In response to the ‘why not let the robots do all this?’- criticism, he argues that in situ observation and measurement is going to be far better in many cases, and essential in some, particularly in the search for life on other planets (we cannot penetrate the atmospheres of such planets from a distance). That said, one has to wonder whether this is, to some extent, contingent on current forms and understandings of robotic technology. I have argued elsewhere that creating ‘artificial’ robotic offspring might be the best way to realise the dream of interstellar exploration. This quibble to the side, I do think that Crawford is right in thinking that space exploration would give us a practically limitless frontier of for scientific investigation, which would surely stave off some of the stagnation that he fears.

Crawford’s intellectual case for space exploration doesn’t rest on science alone. His second argument for the intellectual vitality of space exploration looks at its impact on artistic expression. Crawford is a fan of Karl Popper’s ‘three-world’ theory. According to this theory, humans sit at the intersection of three worlds: (a) World One, which is the world of physical objects and events; (b) World Two, which is the world of mental states and events and (c) World Three, which is the world of human knowledge (i.e. theories, concepts, models of reality etc). The ‘worlds’ interact with and relate to one another through a series of feedback loops. Crawford argues that art belongs to World Three (the world of human representations) but is an expression of human subjectivity (World Two) that results from human observations/responses to the physical world (World One) and their place within it. What’s more, artistic expression is made possible when human subjectivity (World Two) speaks through the manipulation of physical objects and materials (World One) to create new artefacts and representations (World Three).

Now, you may of course be wondering: where does space exploration fit into this complex web of feedback loops? The argument that Crawford makes is that space exploration will position humans within new physical ‘landscapes’, which will prompt new observations and subjective reactions, which will in turn prompt new forms of artistic expression. He also argues that it will lead to a ‘cosmicizing’ of the human mind — i.e. an enlargement of perspective — which will add a new dimension to our artistic endeavours. Even without Popper’s theoretical overlay, this argument makes a certain amount of sense. Art has always been, at least in part, a response to the world that we inhabit (though it can also be an anticipation of new worlds), and if space exploration brings us into contact with new experiences and new realities, we can expect our artistic endeavours to respond appropriately. This might help to stave off some stagnation in art, which could arise if we end up ‘caretaking the museum of human history’.

Crawford’s final argument is that space exploration will prompt new developments in philosophy, particularly moral and political philosophy. Why so? Because interstellar exploration will prompt new forms of human association — e.g. interstellar economies and colonies — that will require their own political rules and institutions. Establishing those institutions are working out their operations will provide lots of opportunities for philosophers and lawyers. It may also allow for more experiments in living. Similarly, interstellar exploration will throw open new ethical challenges and questions, such as the ethics of terraforming, multi-generational starships, planetary colonisation, the relationship between humans and machines, the duty to continue and diversify ‘life’, and the relationship between humans and other, potential, moral subjects such as alien life. Philosophers are already starting to explore these issues (see, for example, my recent interview with James Schwartz on this very topic) but one can imagine that the intellectual excitement would increase greatly if we embarked on an ambitious programme of space exploration. All that said, and as noted in my interview with James Schwartz, you could question how ‘new’ the philosophical inquiries being proposed here really are. As with much of philosophy, it often seems like we end up re-deploying old concepts and analyses to new problems. Perhaps that is enough novelty to stave off the threat of intellectual stagnation, but if you are looking for something radically new, you might be disappointed.



3. Conclusion
To sum up, Crawford defends manned space exploration on the grounds that it will help to maintain a desirable balance between stability and dynamism. It will do so by staving off intellectual stagnation and providing some direction/purpose to human endeavours. In particular, Crawford argues that manned space exploration will stave off stagnation in science, art and philosophy by giving us new frontier to explore, new experiences to express, and new ethical and political challenges to overcome.

I don’t have too much to say by way of conclusion. The purpose of this post was not to critique Crawford’s argument but to understand it. Hopefully I have succeeded in this. The only thing I will say to conclude is to reiterate the point I made above: that space exploration is one way in which to stave off intellectual stagnation. It may not be the only way. If you take a more abstract interpretation of what an intellectual ‘frontier’ is, you see that there are other ‘spaces’ that humans could explore to similar effect. For example, I presume there are frontiers of mental and physical experience that we are yet to fully explore (through drugs and enhancement technologies); and ‘virtual’ reality could give rise to new frontiers too. Perhaps pursuing progress on all these fronts would be most desirable.


* Is this unnecessarily sexist language? Probably, but I’m not sure if there is an alternative term. ‘Peopled’ or ‘personned’ don’t sound right to me.





Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Trouble with Instrumentalism: On the Quest for Ultimate Purpose




The Trap Door Spiders was a literary dining club that met in New York in the middle part of the 20th century. It was home to a number of luminaries, but its best-known members were probably the science fiction authors (and publishers) Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague DeCamp and Lester Del-Rey. Indeed, the club was immortalised and parodied by Asimov in his series of short stories about the ‘Black Widowers’ dining club.

The Trap Door Spiders met once a month for dinner. One member of the club would invite a guest and, once the meal was over, the other members of the club would ‘interrogate’ the guest. The interrogations would invariably start with the following question:

How do you justify your existence?

Polite, post-prandial chit-chat this was not. The question was an ominous, intimidating one. The guest was being held to account for how they spent their time — to think of their life as fitting into some larger scheme of value (social, political, economic, scientific) and to justify it by explaining how it contributed to that larger scheme.

While this is not the typical, after-dinner fare, the question itself speaks to something deep within the human condition. We often do feel that, in order for our lives to have meaning, they have to be situated relative to some larger scheme of value. In other words, we feel that the day-to-day activities that make up the mundane details of existence have to be justified in terms of something else. Some people are highly self-conscious about this, often feeling anxious because they don’t think their lives measure up. The audacity of the Trap Door Spiders’ question was in bringing these anxieties to the surface.

In this post, I want to consider the merits of such anxieties. Should we really think about our lives in this way? Should we worry if they cannot be justified in terms of their contribution to a larger scheme of value? I’m going to argue that we shouldn’t. To be more precise, I’m going to argue that it is a mistake to always value our activities in terms of their contribution to something else, partly because this is not how value works in all cases, and partly because doing so gets us into a misguided quest for ultimate purpose.


1. Chains of Value and the Infinite Regress
To start out, it will help if we have a clear sense of the problem that arises when we value our actions in terms of their contribution to something else. As noted above, it is very common for us to do this. You could almost say it is natural, though doing so would raise all sorts of unnecessary questions about what is meant by ‘natural’. But think about any actions you performed today. Why did you do them? In many cases the answer that first springs to mind will be an instrumental one, i.e. you did them because they helped you to achieve something else. Why did you eat? To avoid starvation and to keep going for another few hours. Why did you get up and go to work? To earn an income that you can use to support your lavish lifestyle. And so on. In each of these cases, the value of your actions seems to lie in their contribution to something else.

For ease of analysis, let’s introduce some notation to depict what is going on here. Let’s denote actions with the letter ‘A’ and the goals to which they contribute with the letter ‘G’. According to the instrumentalist account outlined in the previous paragraph, A derives its value from G:

A ← G

Now let’s think about G in a little more detail. Where does it derive its value from? Again, it is natural to think about this in terms of some other goals to which it contributes. Why did you want to stave off starvation? So you could continue to work and earn an income; so you could be a more pleasant companion to your spouse and children; so you could butter-up some client for work; so you could avoid death; and so on. The G we originally identified fits within a larger chain of Gs from which it too derives its value.

G1 ← G2 ← G3;….
Once you go down this route, you get into trouble. An infinite regress seems to arise. If each individual Gn derives its value from another Gn+1, you have to ask where does that Gn+1 derive its value from? Gn+2? Surely this cannot go on forever (lives are finite after all). So what is holding up the entire ‘chain of value’? Is there some final G, some ultimate G, that holds everything together?
You could argue that there must be, that our lives have to have some overarching purpose in order for them to have value. But what might that purpose be? We could, arbitrarily, pick one. For example, I could decide that the ultimate goal of my life is to leave as many offspring as possible. That might provide some measure of purpose and meaning to my day-to-day activities, but I think my choice of ultimate goal could be rightly criticised. What is so valuable about leaving as many offspring as possible? How does that justify my existence? I’m sure the Trap Door Spiders would be sceptical if I offered that as my response to their after-dinner interrogation.

So we need something else. If we are to follow the instrumentalist paradigm, we need some ultimate goal that is more intuitively satisfying and less open to sceptical doubts. We need something that provides a rock solid sense of purpose to our lives. Are we ever going to find this? Should we even try? I offer two responses: ‘no’ and ‘no’.


2. The Case Against Ultimate Goals/Purposes
The first response is justified on the basis that the quest for ultimate purpose is, ultimately, forlorn. We will never find what we are looking for. I take this response from the work of Stephen Maitzen.

To see why the quest is forlorn, we need first to get a clearer understanding of what is meant by an ‘ultimate purpose’. Philosophers append the word ‘ultimate’ to different things. Some philosophers talk about ultimate ontological entities. These are entities that lie at the foundations of reality and from which all other entities derive their essence. Some talk about ultimate causes. These are causes the kick-start the entire chain of causation we observe within the universe. In both of these cases, the word ‘ultimate’ means something like ‘foundational’ or ‘primary’.

When appended to the word ‘purpose’, ‘ultimate’ carries a similar connotation, but it also seems to mean something else. In order to truly count, an ultimate value must be, in some sense, incorrigible or unquestionable. That’s the only way it is going to avoid the problem of apparent arbitrariness that we identified above. That problem arose when we ‘stepped back’ from a suggested final end and considered it from another perspective: maybe having lots of children makes my life meaningful but how valuable is it for the rest of my community, city, nation etc? The broader our perspective, the more trivial and insignificant any purpose we propose will start to seem. Indeed, from a cosmic perspective, everything we do looks pretty silly. We are, after all, just ‘motes of dust floating in sunbeam’, on an obscure planet, in an obscure solar system, in an otherwise hum-drum galaxy. It puts one in mind of the the total perspective vortex in Douglas Adams’s Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series: one you get an absolute perspective on everything, you lose the will to go on.

The most common solution to this problem is to turn to God. He is after all the ultimate being: the foundation of reality and the primary cause. His perspective is naturally cosmic since he created the cosmos. If He has some purpose in mind for us — e.g. to enter into the kingdom of Heaven and worship him forever — then surely it is an ultimate purpose?

Many people put their faith in God for this reason. But does God really help with this? If you don’t believe in God, and if you think there are good reasons not to, then there is little reassurance to be found in this solution to the problem. But even if you do believe in God, it’s not clear that he provides the satisfactory answer. For one thing, there is the problem of knowing what God’s final purpose actually is. More fundamentally, there is the problem that even God’s alleged final purposes are questionable. Maitzen pinpoints this in his critique:

Any purpose that we can begin to understand, we can step back from and question. Consider what theistic religions offer as God’s actual purpose for our lives: glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. Surely we can ask — I hereby do ask — “What’s so great about that?” What is it about such an activity that automatically answers the question “Why is this ultimately worthwhile?” We’re not asking a confused or senseless question like “What time is it on the Sun?” or “Why is here here?” It’s the same question that [a theist] would aim at any life purpose an atheist might offer. We can sensibly question any possible answer to it in just the same way. 
(Maitzen 2011, 36)

Theists will often resist this by offering us a promissory note: God’s ultimate purpose might seem questionable (or even opaque) to us right now, but it will all make sense in the end. You just have to have faith. But that doesn’t really provide any reassurance. It doesn’t provide us with the rock solid, incorrigible and unquestionable foundation of value that we were hoping to find. But Maitzen’s point — which he himself derives from the work of Thomas Nagel — is that if that’s what we are hoping to find, we will forever be disappointed. Any allegedly ultimate goal or purpose we care to articulate will be questionable. There is always some perspective we can take on it that will challenge its true value and significance.

What does this mean for the quest for value in life?


3. Intrinsic Values and Fleeting Pleasures
It means that we should stop looking for ultimate ends. Forget about finding some overarching purpose that gives your life meaning at a cosmic scale. You are never going to get it. But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon all hope. There is still plenty of value out there. Iddo Landau, in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World has some useful advice in this regard.

He argues that we can, in many instances, abandon the instrumentalist paradigm that gives rises to the problem of ultimate purpose. Not all of our actions have to be justified in terms of their contribution to something else. Some actions are intrinsically valuable. It might seem like a trite point, but it is generally accepted that there are some activities that have this property. Watching an entertaining movie, playing a challenging sport/game, engaging in mutually pleasurable sexual congress. Each of these is an action that can be enjoyed for its own sake. It does not need to serve some other purpose. Such purposes could be found, of course — I could claim that I am watching the movie in order to unwind and recover in advance of tomorrow’s stresses and strains; I could argue that I am engaging in sexual congress in order to procreate — but those purposes are not strictly necessary. In answer to the question ‘why are you doing that?’, I need say no more than ‘because’. There is a potential model for a meaningful life in this:

We need not feel that our life is meaningless just because we cannot name an ulterior goal or end for it, since the supposition that in order to be meaningful a life must have an external goal or purpose is incorrect. The assertion, “I have no general goal or purpose to my life, I just live a life that includes a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value” can be a good reply to questions such as “What do you live for?” or “What is the goal of your life?” 
(Landau 2017, 139)

In other words, forget about larger goals and purposes: just fill your life with lots of intrinsically valuable moments.

That might not be enough for some people. They might be so deeply wedded to the instrumentalist paradigm that they cannot imagine living without some larger goals. That’s fine too. Such people will simply need to accept that the goals they serve may not have ultimate value. The goals could have some intrinsic value (e.g. making great art or advancing human knowledge), that may be questionable from a particular perspective, but you cannot hope to eliminate all such questions. Some valuable ends may just be brute facts of reality.

Furthermore, there may be a basic logical error underlying the quest for ultimate purpose, that could provides some reassurance for the avowed instrumentalist. As I noted above, the quest for ultimate purpose derives, in part, from a fear about infinite regresses: the chain of instrumentalist justification cannot go on forever. But why not? If each and every link in the chain is justified by a prior or subsequent link, why do we need an overarching justification for the entire chain? There is nothing logically contradictory or absurd about a chain of justification that lacks some final link or some external justification. Your life may simply sit within an infinite chain of justification. You can rest assured that what you do is fully justified in terms of the links within this chain without having some external, cosmic justification. Of course, there are problems with this insofar as we do not know whether our universe is going to be infinite in either duration (as best we can tell it is not past-infinite, but it might be future-infinite) or in chains of justification (maybe the heat death of the universe will bring an end to all valuable activity even if the universe is future-infinite), but there are uncertainties regarding the ultimate fate of the universe that might provide some hope that we (potentially) sit within an infinite chain of justification.


4. Conclusion
In sum, although it is tempting to justify our activities in terms of their contribution to some larger scheme of value, it is a temptation that can lead to some tangled thinking. Once you get into this habit of mind, it is easy to look for some ultimate purpose/end that your life can serve. This is dangerous because it is unlikely that any purpose you find will satisfy the demands of ultimacy. This doesn’t mean that life is devoid of purpose or value. Activities can be self-justifying and we can make do with temporary, fleeting purposes too.





Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Running to Stay Still: The Vice of Delayed Gratification



We’ve all heard of the Marshmallow Test. Put a kid in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Tell them that they can eat that marshmallow now, if they want, but if they can refrain from eating it for ten minutes, you’ll give them three. Then leave the room and see what happens. Invented by Walter Mischel and his colleagues back in the 1960s, the Marshmallow Test was intended to be a test for self control. Could children delay gratification for that long? What strategies would they use to resist temptation?

Although the Marshmallow Test was interesting in its own right, it only gained notoriety when Mischel and colleagues performed follow up studies on the original experimental cohort. They discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification were far more successful in later life: they had higher rates of educational attainment, lower rates of obesity and so on. The inference was obvious: the capacity to delay gratification was the key to success (with the obvious caveat that this is a statistical trends, not an immutable law).

This feels right. We are taught from an early age that delayed gratification is the sine qua non of getting ahead. Study hard for 15+ years and you might get a decent entry-level job. Struggle through years of low-paid, contingent, grunt work, and you might get a full-time gig. Put in long hours, show-up, suck-up, and you might eventually be able to afford a house. The rewards always lie in the future; the graft is always in the present.

Is this really the best way to live? It seems right to suggest that the best things in life take time and effort — that we shouldn’t always satisfy our immediate lusts and longings. But there must be some upper limit to this? Surely we can’t delay gratification forever? In the remainder of this post I want to consider this issue by looking at something the philosopher Iddo Landau writes about in his recent book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Following him, I want to argue that delayed gratification has a dark side: it can make our lives less meaningful.


1. Meaning and the Paradox of the End
Landau’s book discusses many of the obstacles to meaning in life. Landau is — as Campbell and Nyholm point out in their review of his work — like an inverse-Schopenhauer: where Schopenhauer was thoroughgoing pessimist, Landau is an irrepressible optimist. Contrary to the many meaning sceptics, Landau thinks it is possible to find meaning in life, as long as we avoid the mistake of perfectionism (i.e. looking for an ideal or perfect form of meaning). His book explores this possibility by critically assessing the many objections to meaningfulness.

One of the objections he considers is the ‘Paradox of the End’. The name seems to be original to Landau but the idea underlying the objection is a familiar one. We usually think of our lives as a series of means-ends projects. I go to college to study to get a degree. I train hard for months to run a marathon. The awarding of the degree and the completion of the marathon are the ‘ends’; the studying and training are the ‘means’. Some ends are relatively trivial — saving enough money to buy a nice meal out — others are grand and important — toiling for years at a laboratory bench in order to discover the latest scientific breakthrough. The pursuit of grand and important ends is usually thought to be central to the good life. Orienting our activities towards ends is what gives shape and purpose to our lives.

But what happens if we achieve our ends? Far from making our lives more meaningful, some people have argued that such achievements actually rob our lives of meaning. We are invariably disappointed by our achievements. They are never quite as a good as we hoped. Once we have achieved them, we quickly move on to the next project — like junkies searching for the next hit. There are many bits of folk wisdom that reinforce this belief — ‘the anticipation of something is better than actually having it’, ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ — and there are some philosophers who seem to have believed in it. Landau cites the famous example of John Stuart Mill. Trained from an early age by his father to be the leader of the utilitarian movement, Mill had a complete breakdown in his early adulthood when he contemplated what would happen if he actually succeeded in this project:

I had what might be truly called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world…[Later] it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”. At this my heart sank within me… 
(Mill, Autobiography)

Of course, Mill never achieved his goal. One could, consequently, dismiss his depression as a recognition of the difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) of his task. But you cannot dismiss all such episodes. I can speak from personal experience. I have often set myself goals and, when I have achieved them, felt surprisingly underwhelmed as a result. I always have to move on to the next thing, hoping it will bring me some measure of satisfaction.

This sense that the achievement of ends is undesirable is the essence of the ‘Paradox of the End’. Landau explores several different ways of formulating it, but here’s my preferred version:

Paradox of the End: The pursuit of ends seems to be essential to give our lives purpose/meaning but the achievement of ends seems to strip this away.

Technically, there is no strict paradox here (in the sense of two logically contradictory statements). But there is definitely something odd going on. How could it be that directing ourselves towards ends is essential to meaning but the attainment of them is not? Should we engage in acts of self-sabotage in order to prevent the attainment of goals? Should we constantly delay gratification?


2. Escaping the Paradox and Avoiding Delayed Reward
Landau offers two main responses to the paradox. The first is to argue that the paradox only arises in some cases and that its proponents overlook or ignore the cases to which it does not apply. The second is to argue that even in those cases in which it does arise it is often our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. Let’s consider both of these responses in more detail.

Think about the goals you have achieved in your own life. Were you always dissatisfied when you achieved them? Landau argues that this is unlikely, at least not when we consider all the projects that make up a typical human life. He gives a few examples of ends that people generally feel proud of once attained and whose worth does not seem to diminish in the rear-view mirror of memory. One example is ‘having raised children successfully’ (though I’m curious as to what ’success’ means here) another is ‘having been part of helpful social or political movements’ (Landau 2017, 150). People’s enjoyment of these ends remains relatively constant over time. Similarly, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise in the case of ‘regulative goals’, i.e. goals that serve as ideals which we approximate over time but never quite achieve. For example, trying to be a more moral person, or to learn and understand more about the world. We can never hope to achieve moral perfection or complete understanding, but we can get better and this provides a constant source of motivation and direction in life. Finally, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise for non-instrumental activities, i.e. activities that are performed for their own sake because they are intrinsically rewarding. Experiencing beauty in the world around you, listening to uplifting music, engaging in deep conversations with your family, are all examples of this sort of activity. There is no goal to be achieved here but there is plenty of value.

The more interesting response, at least to me, is the second one: that even in the cases where the paradox appears to have some bite, it is our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. This is where we return to the Marshmallow Test and the dark side of delayed gratification. As Landau puts it:

…the paradox is not a constant in human life. It is, rather, a variable that can be changed — the result of several factors that can be largely controlled. Many of these factors are related to education: there are several problematic elements in education that exacerbate the tendency to undervalue achieved ends, and changing these elements will decrease the extent to which the paradox is experienced. 
(Landau 2017, 153)

So what are these ‘elements’ that need to changed? There are at least four mentioned by Landau, though they are all variations on the same thing. The first is ‘workaholism’. This is something that often gets trained into us at school and in early adulthood. We believe that we should always be working; that if we aren’t working we are wasting time. The guilt at not writing and researching — often experienced by academics — is a good example of this. The problem with workaholism is that it encourages us to undervalue achievements, not to rest for a moment to enjoy what we have, to always move on to the next thing. The second element is ‘stinginess with compliments’, which Landau argues is a common feature of modern education. Teachers don’t want to students to become complacent or lazy; they want to train them to develop a ‘growth mindset’ and to have more ‘grit’. This means they always highlight things that students could improve, rather than what they have done well, when giving feedback. Again, this encourages dissatisfaction with achievements because we are trained to find some fault in what we have done. The third element is ‘hyper-competitiveness’. We are often ranked relative to our peers and encouraged to interpret our successes relative to theirs. This is a surefire path to constant dissatisfaction because there is probably always someone out there who is better than you in some respect: there is always something they have that you do not. The fourth element is ‘overstating future rewards’, i.e. selling people a future that will always fail to live up to the hype. This is another surefire path to dissatisfaction.



These four elements contribute to a culture in which people become too good at delaying gratification and as a result experience a constant listlessness. They can never feel happy with what they’ve got. The conclusion, for Landau, is that if we moderated our educational and cultural environment to reduce or eliminate these four elements, we could mitigate the paradox of the end.


3. Conclusion
There are other factors affecting the paradox of the end. Landau mentions several in his book, including our tendency to mis-estimate rewards and to confuse waning satisfaction with a lack of genuine reward. I’ve dwelt on the delayed gratification/delayed reward angle here because it’s the part I found most insightful. It rings true to my own experiences. I feel like I am often guilty of workaholism and hyper-competitiveness and that this breeds a constant sense of dissatisfaction with what I do. I am always reluctant to celebrate any of my personal achievements (to the extent that I have had any) or to recategorise them as non-achievements as soon as they are done. I also worry that this is something that I am passing on to others. It’s safe to say that I am pretty stingy when it comes to compliments on student assessments: I’m constantly searching for the flaws and not the strengths. This is my natural mode of thought. It is a habit that has become deeply ingrained.

So I think there is much wisdom in what Landau has to say. There is a vicious side to delayed gratification and we would be well advised to avoid it. That said, I’m not sure what the best response to it is. The most obvious would be to steer a middle-course, to avoid the vice of immediate gratification as well as the vice of delayed gratification. But what is that middle course? Should we have any ambitions at all? The natural thing to say is that we should, but we should have them in moderation, and avoid becoming so tunnel-visioned that we cannot stop to smell the roses (or whatever your preferred cliche is) from time to time. But that strikes me as being too obvious. I wonder whether there is something in the logic of Landau’s (and other’s) philosophical assessment that suggests that a life of ambition is not the best course to steer? I’ll take up that question in a subsequent post.





Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Episode #38 - Schwartz on the Ethics of Space Exploration

  use Jim schwartz.jpg

In this episode I talk to Dr James Schwartz. James teaches philosophy at Wichita State University.  His primary area of research is philosophy and ethics of space exploration, where he defends a position according to which space exploration derives its value primarily from the importance of the scientific study of the Solar System.  He is editor (with Tony Milligan) of The Ethics of Space Exploration (Springer 2016) and his publications have appeared in Advances in Space Research, Space Policy, Acta Astronautica, Astropolitics, Environmental Ethics, Ethics & the Environment, and Philosophia Mathematica.  He has also contributed chapters to The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth, Human Governance Beyond Earth, Dissent, Revolution and Liberty Beyond Earth (each edited by Charles Cockell), and to Yearbook on Space Policy 2015.  He is currently working on a book project, The Value of Space Science.  We talk about all things space-related, including the scientific case for space exploration and the myths that befuddle space advocacy.

 You can download the episode here or listen below. You can also subscribe on Stitcher and iTunes (the RSS feed is here).



Show Notes

  • 0:00 - Introduction
  • 1:40 - Why did James get interested in the philosophy of space?
  • 3:17 - Is interest in the philosophy and ethics of space exploration on the rise?
  • 6:05 - Do space ethicists always say "no"?
  • 8:20 - Do we have a duty to explore space? If so, what kind of duty is this?
  • 10:30 - Space exploration and the duty to ensure species survival
  • 16:16 - The link between space ethics and environmental ethics: between misanthrophy and anthropocentrism
  • 19:33 - How would space exploration help human survival?
  • 23:20 - The scientific value of space exploration: manned or unmanned?
  • 28:30 - Why does the scientific case for space exploration take priority?
  • 35:40 - Is it our destiny to explore space?
  • 38:46 - Thoughts on Elon Musk and the Colonisation Project
  • 44:34 - The Myths of Space Advocacy
  • 51:40 - From space philosophy to space policy: getting rid of the myths
  • 58:55 - The future of space philosophy
 

Relevant Links




Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Unjust Sex and the Opposite of Rape (2)

William Hogarth, After


(Part One)

This is the second part of my series on John Gardner’s article “The Opposite of Rape”. As I explained in part one, my goal in this series is to consider whether or not Gardner’s analysis in that article is problematic in some way. I tend to think it is not — with one possible exception — and I’m trying to justify that opinion here. The main justification is that Gardner’s analysis is quite similar to that offered by certain feminist scholars of sexual ethics. In this sense, it is not so much problematic as it is unoriginal. I set this up in part one by discussing Ann Cahill’s article ‘Unjust Sex vs Rape’. You should really read part one before proceeding any further…


…Still here? Good. As you will now, no doubt, remember I concluded part one by suggesting that Cahill’s analysis of ‘unjust sex’ can be taken to endorse two propositions:

Proposition 1: There is more to ‘bad’ (i.e. morally unwelcome) forms of sex than rape and sexual assault; or, to put it a different way, the mere presence of sexual consent is not enough to make a sexual interaction morally commendable.

Proposition 2: Because of this, an excessive focus on consent in discussions of sexual ethics can be misleading, and possibly unhelpful, because it does not move the needle sufficiently toward a normative ideal of male-female sexual relations.

My claim is that Gardner’s analysis can also be taken to endorse these two propositions. The main difference is that whereas Cahill starts with morally problematic sex, Gardner starts with morally commendable sex. This is what he means by the ‘opposite’ of rape. The choice of words may be a little unfortunate, but the inquiry itself seems perfectly legitimate: if rape is undeniably bad, what is undeniably good? Gardner has an answer for this.


1. Good Sex as a Kind of Teamwork
When we try to figure out what makes sex ‘good’ we confront an embarrassment of riches. There are many things that make sex good: it provides intense physical pleasure, it brings people closer together, it allows for playful experimentation and, in some cases, enables procreation. Gardner agrees with all this. He thinks there are many dimensions to good sex. Nevertheless, he wants to focus on just one. He does so because he thinks it is important when it comes to distinguishing good sex from rape/sexual assault. That dimension is the collaborative one. Good sex, according to Gardner, is a collaborative enterprise. It is when two (or more) people ‘come together’ as one (Gardner explicitly references the Beatle’s song and the possible double entendre in his article).

This is where the teamwork idea comes in. Teamwork is a collaborative enterprise par excellence. It happens when a group of people get together and coordinate their actions toward a common goal/purpose. But it is more than that. Commonality of purpose is not enough. The people in a team are responsive to one another: there is a ‘sustained interpersonal feedback loop’ (2017, 6) between them. Their collaboration is more the sum of its parts. There is a joint intention at play. They don’t just do things for themselves; they do things for the team, as a collective.

Gardner uses lots of examples to flesh this out. One, taken from Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, is about a group of people who spontaneously collaborate on trying to rescue someone from a hot air balloon (with tragic results for one person when the team disintegrates). Gardner makes much of this example in his article, but I’m not going to go through it here because it would take too long to explain and seems to me to be unnecessarily complicated. Other examples, which are much more straightforward, include an orchestra/band/jazz improv group working together to play music. Gardner particularly likes the jazz improv example because it involves spontaneous, playful collaboration, and not simply the repetition of rote-learned notes. Nevertheless, in each case, the group of musicians is working together with a joint intention to make good music.*

Good sex then, according to Gardner, is a kind of teamwork. It involves two or more people working together toward a joint end. What is that joint end? Well it could be many things but the most obvious (and the most intrinsic to the sexual activity itself) is mutual pleasure and satisfaction. The partners are, to put it bluntly, trying to ‘get off’ together:

…I propose that we think of good sex as a kind of team activity (for which ‘teamwork’ serves as a mere shorthand [because it is odd to think of sex as work]). Not only do the sexual partners have common intentions regarding the pleasure and satisfaction that each is to bring to the other and the general menu of ways in which that pleasure and satisfaction is to be achieved and such like; each also has a version of the infinitely reflexive intention I just described. Each intends that they do it together, that it be a joint pursuit and not just a pursuit in common… 
(Gardner 2017, 7)

Good sex is not, however, perfectly symmetrical. Being part of the same sexual team, doesn’t mean that the parties to the sex are doing the same things to each other and taking on the same roles. Teamwork sometimes has this feature but often does not. Usually there are different parts to be played by different team members — think, once again, of the jazz improv group and the different instruments being played. But teamwork is symmetrical in one critical respect: all parties to the activity are agents. They all take on some active role in achieving the common purpose; no one is a passive recipient of the actions of the other. Gardner expresses this in a typical philosophical way. He says that a good, two-party, sexual interaction is an agent-agent interaction; it is not an agent-patient interaction. It is two people doing something together not one person doing something to another.

It is worth noting how similar this is to Cahill’s analysis of ‘bad’ sex. As you’ll recall from part one, Cahill argues that bad sex — be it unjust or rape/sexual assault — is not characterised by symmetry of agency. Indeed, one of its distinctive features is that female sexual agency lacks the same power as male sexual agency. In the case of unjust sex, female sexual agency is extremely limited; in the case of rape/sexual assault, it is dismantled or disenabled. The fact that there is this similarity in the analysis — albeit arrived at from different directions — is one of the things that convinces me that Gardner’s analysis is in line with what Cahill says.


2. Gardner’s Dangerous Idea: Does consent matter?
There is, however, one aspect of Gardner’s analysis that could be problematic. Having concluded that good sex is distinguished by its collaborative (agent-agent) nature, Gardner proceeds to consider the role of consent in sexual ethics. He doesn’t define consent but does offer some general comments about it that are suggestive.

For one thing, Gardner is adamant that consensual activities often involve agent-patient asymmetry. Indeed, he hints that this is the most natural/normal form of consensual activity. If you consent to something it usually means that you are waiving your claim right to non-interference by another. For example, if I consent to being medically examined by my doctor, I am waiving my claim right to bodily integrity/privacy, and waiving his/her duty to respect my bodily integrity/privacy. The doctor then takes on the agent role — he/she performs the examination — and I take on the patient role (literally) — the examination is performed on me. It is not an active collaboration. I merely signal a willingness to forgo rights that I would otherwise have. It is this signalling that is the hallmark of consent.

Understood in this way, Gardner argues that people expect consent to do too much work in sexual ethics. Consent is a concept that applies to many different domains of human activity. It plays an important moral role across those domains. But it cannot morally vindicate sex because (a) it tends to presume the agent-patient asymmetry and (b) good sex involves agent-agent symmetry. So, while consent might make a sexual interaction permissible (barely and bleakly), it cannot make it commendable. This is true even of recent attempts to reform the concept of consent, e.g. the move towards affirmative consent or, even, ‘enthusiastic and willing’ consent. The former because it still allows for agent-patient asymmetry and the latter because it probably stretches the concept of consent too far. As Gardner himself puts it:

Taking the concept of consent to be the only legitimate currency for the evaluation of sex puts the concept under a lot of pressure to do a lot of work. Consequently, many have been tempted to reintroduce other currencies of evaluation indirectly by packing them into a ‘refurbished’ ideal of consent….One wonders how those who place such demanding restrictions on (valid) consent can possibly interact with their doctors, lawyers, electricians, taxi drivers, decorators, auto mechanics, hairstylists, dentists, bank tellers, dry-cleaners and the many others whose everyday interactions with them call for their consent. 
(Gardner 2017, 12)

But here’s where we get to Gardner’s potentially dangerous idea. All of the comments to this point suggest that there are at least two distinct ethical dimensions along which one can evaluate a sexual interaction: (i) the collaborative dimension and (ii) the consensual dimension. In other words, you can ask of any sexual interaction ‘Was it collaborative?’ and ‘Was it consensual?’. The following diagram captures the idea.




Now, from my perspective, this is an odd way to think about it. To me, it seems to make sense to collapse the consensual dimension into the collaborative one — that is, to assume that any collaborative sexual interaction must also be consensual. It would strike me as odd to suggest that two people had engaged in a collaborative sexual act (a ‘good’ sexual act) that was non-consensual. But Gardner doesn’t seem to see it that way. Although he is never explicit about it, he says several things that suggest that he views the consensual dimension as being distinct from the collaborative one. The clearest example of this is when he suggests that consent may be ‘unnecessary’ to good sex:

Here, I am advancing the more explosive proposition that, when the sexual going is good, consent is also unnecessary. Before you explode, bear in mind that my case proceeds, not from the thought that consent is too high an expectation for our sex lives, but rather from the thought that it is too low an expectation. Ideally, I suggest, the question of consent does not arise between sexual partners, for the question of consent belongs to sex individualistically, even solipsistically conceived… 
(Gardner 2017, 13)

I call this a ‘dangerous’ idea partly because it goes against so much of the orthodox thinking about sexual ethics. Nowadays, ‘consent’ is seen as the sine qua non of permissible sex. Consent simply must be present in order for sex to be permissible. But what Gardner suggests in this quote is that there are types of permissible (in fact, morally ideal) sex that do not involve consent. This not only goes against the orthodoxy, it also takes Gardner away from the Cahill-style argument about unjust sex — there was nothing in what Cahill said that suggested that consent was irrelevant/unnecessary to good sex (though she was skeptical about its central role in contempoary discussions of sex).



I appreciate, of course, what he is trying to say. People in long term intimate relationships have frequently told me that the giving and receiving of consent plays no explicit role in their ongoing sex lives. They just don’t think about it that way. But, of course, the mere fact that they don’t think about it in that way doesn’t mean that consent isn’t, at least implicitly, given. Furthermore, I think Gardner’s idea could be particularly dangerous if it is translated into practice. Say that there is some dispute as to the propriety of a sexual interaction. Gardner’s argument suggests that there are two ways to establish its propriety: (i) prove that it was consensual or (ii) prove that it was collaborative. But how do people prove that sex is collaborative? Is there a danger that a collaborative standard could be more subjective and prone to epistemic disputes of the he said/she said variety? This is a problem that has long afflicted debates about consent, of course, but there have been recent improvements in this regard with the introduction of evidential rules for proving the existence of non-consent. Would we need to create a new set of rules to make a collaborative standard workable?


3. Avoiding the Dangerous Idea
Gardner does not answer that question. The reason for this is that shortly after introducing his dangerous (“explosive”) idea, he marks out an escape route from its more unpalatable consequences. His escape route hinges on a distinction between agreement and consent. This is not a distinction I find useful, but I’ll try to explain what he says.

He argues that two people can agree to a collaborative enterprise without consenting to that enterprise. He gives the example of two people who agree to meet at a certain time and location. They both give undertakings to be at the relevant location at the relevant time. The meeting is a joint activity and exhibits agent-agent symmetry. But it would be strange indeed to suggest that it involved both parties consenting to be at the same location at the relevant time. The two parties do not signal and exchange consents with one another. Agreement is, thus, distinct from consent.

This gives us a way to avoid the unpalatable conclusion. Perhaps cases of permissible sex that do not involve consent do involve sexual agreement? Perhaps, as Gardner puts it, ‘when sexual consent is unnecessary that is only because we are lucky enough to have sexual agreement instead?’. That sounds plausible, but it then reframes the argument, particular when you think about it in terms of some practical dispute as to the priority of a sexual interaction. Instead of the dispute hinging on the epistemic signals needed for reasonable belief in consent it hinges on the epistemic signals needed for belief in agreement. It’s not entirely clear how different those are going to be from the current status quo — particularly since consent is often defined in terms of agreement (something Gardner is aware of and, not surprisingly, disagrees with).

Gardner isn’t entirely happy with this agreement vs consent, get-out-of-jail-free card. One problem he has with substituting agreement for consent is that he is still committed to the collaborative ideal and he thinks that some collaborative actions do not involve any prior agreement. There can be spontaneous collaboration in which there is joint activity and intention, but no prior exchange of undertakings. The balloon-rescue example from Ian McEwan’s novel is trotted out at this point again, as is spontaneous musical improvisation. Some people might suggest that you can imply agreement from spontaneous collaboration, but Gardner thinks we should resist this suggestion because it would neutralise the normative power of agreement.

By this point in the paper, Gardner seems to have painted himself into a corner. He has suggested that consent is not necessary for permissible sex (and not sufficient for ideal sex). He has spotted the unwelcome (‘explosive’) implications of this view and tried to avoid them by suggesting that we substitute agreement for consent, but then he has found that unsatisfactory. In the end, he hits upon the following solution to his dilemma. He distinguishes between two types of agreement (i) performative agreement and (ii) cognitive agreement. Performative agreement involves the actual making of an agreement with someone, i.e. the prior exchange of undertakings; cognitive agreement involves being in agreement with another, i.e. being of one mind/sympatico with them. The latter may be what arises in cases of spontaneous collaboration and it may be what saves Gardner’s position from it potentially unwelcome implications. Furthermore, Gardner argues that being of one mind with someone else requires an ‘ongoing consensus’, which suggests a need to check-in with your collaborator to see whether there still is agreement. This is similar to the view — common among consent theorists — that sexual consent in an ‘ongoing’ act, i.e. you retain the right to withdraw consent at any time. But Gardner doesn’t like this understanding of consent because he thinks it means that consent loses some of its distinctiveness as a normative concept. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that there would be no point to consent if it did not mean that you forego some of your rights to prevent/deny another person performing an act on you for some extended period of time.

So, through some elaborate conceptual engineering, Gardner is able to arrive at a position on collaboration and agreement that is not far from the mainstream view on sexual consent. Was it worth all the effort to end up in the same place? Maybe — maybe Gardner is right that our thinking about sexual consent has become hopelessly confused and that we need an alternative conceptual vocabulary to capture what is going on in cases of normatively bad and normatively ideal sex. My own sense is that it is unnecessarily confusing, particularly if we are to continue to accept, as Gardner seems to be urging, that there are two kinds of permissible sex: (i) consensual and (ii) collaborative (with cognitive agreement).


4. Conclusion
To briefly sum up, Gardner thinks that consent is not enough to morally vindicate sex. There is lots of (morally) bad (though not impermissible) sex that is consensual. Some additional ingredient is needed to move us from bad to good. That ingredient, according to Gardner, is teamwork. Good sex is a collaborative act in which two (or more people) work together to accomplish a common purpose (sexual pleasure/fulfillment) as a team. This does not mean that they take on symmetrical roles in the collaborative act, but it does mean that they are both agents. The problem with consensual sex is that it does not require both parties to be agents. Indeed, consent, as a concept, is more naturally applied to cases in which one party (the agent) does something to another (the patient). The danger with becoming fixated on the consent standard is that it could, consequently, perpetuate the gendered stereotype of women (the patients) giving up sex to men (the agents).

In saying all this, I think that Gardner is being consistent with a long-standing view among feminist critics of sex-under-patriarchy and the centrality of the consent standard in modern thinking about sexual ethics. I’ve tried to demonstrate this by illustrating the similarities between his views and the views of Ann Cahill. Where Gardner differs from this long-standing view is in his suggestion that consent may not be necessary for morally permissible sex. This is a more dangerous idea and one that could lead to problems in practice. Gardner tries to avoid these unwelcome implications by substituting the concept of agreement for that of consent. In doing so, he thinks he is being more conceptually precise, but he ends up endorsing a view that is not that dissimilar to the one endorsed by many consent theorists.

* Having played in bands that were prone to improvisation, this seems a little bit idealistic to me. In many instances, one member of the collective will try to dominate and hog the limelight. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Gardner is focused on ideals rather than realities in his article.