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.”

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.”

Are these lies justified?

In “Are These 10 Lies Justified” Gerald Dworkin listed ten lies he believe can be justified as morally permitted.  He asked his readers to add their comments to begin a dialogue. The article broke all records for “hits” on the New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone.” As he promised he would do, in “How You Justified 10 Lies (Or Didn’t)” Dworkin has now followed up with a report on readers’ comments about those ten lies.

Altruism’s blind spot

Lisa Herzog’s “(One of) Effective Altruism’s blind spot(s)” won the 2015 third place prize awarded by 3 Quarks Daily for a philosophy blog post.

John Collins, the final judge for the contest, wrote of this post: “Moral theories that prescribe extreme versions of utilitarianism are sometimes criticized for being too demanding. Herzog’s focus is on a respect in which effective altruism appears to be not demanding enough. By taking existing social institutions and practices as simply given the effective altruist finds herself choosing from a ‘restaurant menu’ of given options, ignoring the possibility of deeper structural change. When the problem is construed as one of individual choice rather than collective action, such approaches will remain invisible.”

The winning blog posts were selected from these nine finalists.

Slow corruption

Vidar Halgunset’s “Slow Corruption” won the 2015 first place prize awarded by 3 Quarks Daily for a philosophy blog post.

John Collins, the final judge for the contest, wrote of this post: “I liked the simple humanity of this essay very much. Halgunset’s immediate topic is the recent public debate in Norway over the selective abortion of fetuses diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. His central suggestion is that we focus not on the question ‘what would be so terrible about a society without Down’s syndrome?’ but ask instead, why might it be undesirable to create a society that lacked people with Down’s syndrome? And he asks us to stop and consider the reception of this debate by those of us who have Down’s syndrome.”

The winning blog posts were selected from these nine finalists.

More on extreme altruism

This couple lives on 6% of their income so they can give $100,000 a year to charity. “Julia Wise is a social worker and her husband, Jeff Kaufman, is a software engineer. In 2013, their combined income was just under $245,000, putting them in the top 10% of US households. And yet, excluding taxes and savings, they lived on just $15,280, or 6.25% of their income. What happened to the rest of their income, just under $100,000? They gave it to charity.”

Sometimes we expect the truth, sometimes we don’t

“Why is it wrong for Volkswagen to lie (if it did lie) about whether its cars meet emission standards, but uncontroversial for HBO to lie (if it is lying) about whether Jon Snow is dead?” In “Companies Lie. Some Get Away with It,” Stephen Carter explains that sometimes we expect people to lie and sometimes we don’t.

Extreme altruism

The world is full of suffering. How far should you go to prevent the suffering of others, especially the suffering of strangers? Ought you spend way too much to enjoy a fancy coffee drink while children are dying of starvation? Larissa MacFarquhar discusses extreme altruism, illustrating her points with a fascinating example. “In wartime – or in a crisis so devastating that it resembles war, such as an earthquake or a hurricane – duty expands far beyond its peacetime boundaries. In wartime, it is thought dutiful rather than unnatural to leave your family for the sake of a cause. In ordinary times, to ask a person to sacrifice his life for a stranger seems outrageous, but in war it is commonplace. Acts that seem appallingly bad or appallingly good in normal circumstances become part of daily life. This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers; they know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”

Should vegans compromise?

Some activists for animal rights “reject any compromises with welfare-oriented groups that aim to secure incremental improvements — such as larger cages — for animals raised and slaughtered in horrific circumstances.” They think that working for more humane treatment of animals in an unjust institution like factory farming violates their moral principle that it’s wrong to use animals for food in the first place. Bob Fischer and James McWilliams question whether it makes sense to put moral principle ahead of preventing suffering. 

Morality and the war on ISIS

In the age of ISIS, can we still have ‘just wars’?” In her interview with Gary Gutting, Cecile Fabre argues that the principles underlying the “just war” tradition apply not only to “traditional” wars between nation states but also to war against ISIS. “It’s illusory to think that we can ever once and for all defeat terror — as illusory as to think that we can eliminate murder, rape, drug trafficking, and so on. As I noted earlier, human beings have always done those things to one another. Most of us don’t think that the best way to stop suspected murders, rapists, and traffickers is to bomb into the ground the areas where we think they are hiding. The most we can do is to catch and punish them (or if necessary kill them with minimum collateral damage). We do so knowing that we will not be able to spare all likely victims. Outside of war, the price we pay for abiding by moral principles is a great deal of wrongful suffering. The same is true regarding war.”