Improving morality through robots

In “Can we trust robots to make moral decisions?” Olivia Goldhill describes research by philosophers and computer scientists to program robots to make ethical decisions. One big reason for asking how to build an ethical machine is that “work on robotic ethics is advancing our own understanding of morality.”

Socrates’ heirs: Plato v. Diogenes

In “Socrates, Cynics and Flat-Nailed, Featherless Bipeds,” Nickolas Pappas describes two competing philosophical types that arose from the example Socrates set: sober Academics like Plato and mangy Cynics like Diogenes. “Philosophy has pulled in both directions, systematic and subversive, for as long as it has remembered Socrates. … The Academy had the originality to envision an intellectual society  … distinguished by the virtues of modesty and self-control, always ready to usher new students into the tradition. Philosophy as a tradition would have withered without an academy to live in. If it sometimes appears to be withering within the academy, that is because the subversive side of Socrates has its appeal: the virtues of the eccentric, above all eccentric courage, and the willingness to make your life an improvisation.”


Add your own egg

In “Bringing Philosophy to Life,” Nakul Krishna reflects on his introduction to philosophy by way of reading Bernard Williams. Along the way, there are many interesting points about ethics in general, utilitarianism in particular, other areas of philosophy, and what attracts people to philosophy at all. Williams brought “depth” to philosophy.

Williams never disdained rational argument, but he never thought it was enough by itself: “Analytic argument, the philosopher’s specialty, can certainly play a part in sharpening perception. But the aim is to sharpen perception, to make one more acutely and honestly aware of what one is saying, thinking and feeling.” Unhedged with cautious qualifications, his work goads you to distinguish what you actually think from what you think that you think. If his prose, compressed and epigrammatic, stands up to rereading today, as analytic philosophy seldom does, it’s because it leaves room for its readers to add something of themselves to it. A reader’s thought, Williams said, “cannot simply be dominated … his work in making something of this writing is also that of making something for himself.” For every reader comes to philosophy with “thoughts of his own, ways of understanding which will make something out of the writing different from anything the writer thought of putting into it. As it used to say on packets of cake mix, he will add his own egg.”

Ought implies can … or not

In “The Data against Kant,” Vlad Chituc discusses psychological research challenging Kant’s principle that ought implies can. This is the principle that “it would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do.” The research shows that there are common situations in which nonphilosophers do think it makes sense to say someone ought to do something that it is impossible for them to do it. In these situations “ought” has more to do with “blame” than with “can.” This in turn raises questions about “experimental philosophy” and the role the intuitions of nonphilosophers ought to play in philosophical analysis. Can we draw conclusions about what we ought to think from data about what some people actually think?

Superintelligence or superstupidity?

In “The A. I. Anxiety,” Joel Achenbach discusses the ideas of philosopher Nick Bostrom, physicist Max Tegmark, and others about A. I. or artificial intelligence. “Big-name scientists worry that runaway artificial intelligence could pose a threat to humanity. Beyond the speculation is a simple question:  Are we fully in control of our technology?” Which is the greater threat … that machines will become superintelligent or superstupid?