Alternative Realities: Regret, Counterfactual Thinking, and the Creative Mind – Guest post by Ashley Pearson

I am delighted to be publishing CreativePhilo’s first guest post! Today’s article is by Ashley Pearson, a London-based director and playwright specializing in opera, new work and reimagined classics.

Don’t worry, this isn’t
an article about Trump. I promise.

We’ve all been hearing a
lot about regret lately – particularly, people regretting the choice they made
when they were asked a question about the future of their country.
But as artists, what can
we learn from, and how should we deal with, regret?
I’m an artist. I direct
(mostly opera), I write (mostly plays), and I make a lot of mistakes. One of
the best instincts to tell me if I need to change something is regret. It’s one
of the most important tools in my toolbox. I need my regrets to tell me when
I’ve done something that doesn’t align with my artistic vision. Or when I’ve
done something that’s just plain silly (ie. dear lord why did I think the light
should be purple?). I know I can’t let it control me, but I need it and I use
However, regret is also
a powerful force in opposition to creativity. According to a study by Dr. Neal
Roese, people tend to have more regrets when they have more opportunity. Choice
can be a burden. And what is creativity if not a boundless set of choices,
limited only by imagination.
n opera director, I make
decisions all the time. My job is about being decisive and having opinions
about everything from what someone should wear on stage, to how many rehearsals
we need, to what Handel meant when he wrote that melody. And I make a lot of
mistakes. But something I’ve learned through my practise (and there’s a reason
they call it a ‘practise’) is that the niggling feeling of regret that pangs in
my gut means I need to do one of two things: Either file it away as a mistake I
won’t make again; or change it. One of the best pieces of directing advice I’ve
ever received was from Stephen Unwin, who said, in the theatre “everything is
But how do we know what
to change? And how can we envision what we want to change it to?
Counterfactuals are
thoughts about what might have been. An integral indicator of regret, they
present us alternatives to the present moment, and we’re involved in
counterfactual thinking all the time— “I should have had that salad for lunch,”
or “I wish I hadn’t said that.” In my directing work, I am constantly
confronting counterfactuals; ‘I should have given that note like this,’ ‘That
lighting state would be much better if it wasn’t so blue,’ etc. With
counterfactuals, we imagine alternative realities that are somehow better than
the current one. But how can imagining these alternative realities help us?
We can categorize
counterfactuals in a few different ways. Additive counterfactuals focus on
doing something that wasn’t done, for example, ‘I wish I had learned Italian,’ whereas
subtractive counterfactuals focus on things we wish we hadn’t done, and is
about removing a choice, for example, ‘I shouldn’t have ordered those tacos.’
Also, we can categorize
counterfactuals as either upward or downward. An upward counterfactual tells
you how to make something better, while a downward counterfactual only tells
you how to make sure something doesn’t get worse.
“What else could I have done well?”
If I ate more salads, I would be
“What shouldn’t I have done, so I
could do well?”
If I hadn’t had that piece of cake,
I would be healthier.
 “What could I have done that would make this
even worse?”
If I had that piece of cake, I’d be
really unhealthy.*
“What didn’t I do that made this
If I didn’t have salad with my
cake, I’d be really unhealthy.
*The author in no way
wishes to imply you shouldn’t have that piece of cake.
The distinction may be
subtle, but studies have shown that additive counterfactuals enhance creative
thinking, while subtractive counterfactuals can enhance analytical problem
Additive counterfactuals
are marked by the absence of negation. So, to enhance creativity, it may be
wise to try and phrase counterfactuals in an additive way. For example, instead
of thinking “I shouldn’t have made the lighting so blue,” a better phrase may
be “I should have made the lighting more orange.” By using the latter, I’m
imagining a reality in which the lighting is more orange, instead of just
taking a negative view on the ‘blue’ reality. The additive counterfactual also
allows for more specificity. It presents a solution to the problem.
As you can imagine, too much
counterfactual thinking is indicative of stress and anxiety. Too much
counterfactual thinking early in a creative process might be
counter-productive. It is a reflective activity, and it may be best to put
aside self-evaluation until a later phase in the creative process. Try
following a first draft rule: The first time you write something, don’t
evaluate or judge the work. Then, when in later editing stages, bring in that
counterfactual eye. There may be some scientific evidence to back up this
The orbitofrontal
cortex, which is an important area for decision making and emotional processing
in the brain, is one of the main areas involved in our experience of regret.
However, studies have
shown that inhibiting the prefrontal cortex (the larger area the orbitofrontal
cortex is a part of) can enhance creativity. Suppressing this area can help to
disinhibit an individual’s emotional responses. In one study, scientists found “extensive
deactivation” of certain areas (including lateral orbital) of the prefrontal
cortex when jazz pianists were asked to improvise.
This suggests that
spontaneous creative thought is significantly aided by the suppression of areas
associated with regret and counterfactual thinking.
Next time you’re doing something creative (painting, writing,
acting), write down all the moments of regret you have. Then, when you’re done
the activity, try rephrasing all of them as upward, additive counterfactuals.
See if this helps your next creative phase.
Take another creative moment, and try ignoring and pushing out
any regrets or counterfactuals. Try not to control where your mind wanders.
(You’re suppressing your prefrontal cortex) How does this impact your early
creative phase? What about your next creative phase?
Regret and creativity
are inextricable linked through counterfactual thinking, and regret is an
essential part of the creative process. However, we need to be aware of when
regret becomes an inhibitor to creativity, especially in early stages of
creative thinking and idea generation. Regret is a reflective activity, but it’s
better to phrase regrets as additive, upward counterfactuals, to stimulate
creative problem solving.
Regret in creative
practise (and in life) can be a compass guiding us to change.
And finally, presenting
yourself with alternative facts may enhance your creativity. As long as you don’t
believe they actually happened (ok, maybe it’s a little bit about Trump).

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Being Mortal – Book Review

Few books have elicited as strong an emotional response in me as Being Mortal (link). This is perhaps unsurprising given that the book is about death and our (personal, familial, and societal) relation to it.

This book is filled with stories of the dying, but the true tragedy the
book explores is how we as a society systematically fail to help the
dying die well. The author’s thesis is simple: we have put too much medicine into the care of the dying. Modern medicine, he argues, doesn’t know what to do with death, because modern medicine is all about fixing things. There is an excellent quote in the book ‘we desire autonomy for ourselves, but safety for our family’. This is what I would identify as the central explanation for the tragedy being explored according to the book: we keep the dying so safe that we smother them. We render their lives meaningless by taking away all control in the name of prolonging their lives. Indeed, the scientific evidence seems to suggest that in this very act we kill them: freedom can inflict harm, but enjoying life also can lead to longevity.

Above I refer to the dying as ‘they’, or the other. But, Heidegger argued and as this book makes a point of exploring, othering death gives it power over us – we other it because we fear it. The most important point of this book, to me, is that it challenges us to think about the deaths of our loved ones and ourselves. If it is possible or likely that we will play a role in the decision-making of how a relation shall live in their last years, it is important to find out what they want. It is also important to think about our own deaths, and to think about what we want.

I highly recommend the book. Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think.


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What is Policing?

This post is long overdue. I started a new internship last month at a think tank called The Police Foundation, and I am still settling into my routine. I have also been struggling to decide what to write about. But I have finally mustered the motivation, and, given that I have been researching it for the past month, I have decided to write to write on the nature of policing. I know that policing is a contentious topic today, especially in the USA, and in this post I will highlight some of the factors that may contribute to the contentious nature of the profession. That being said, I am primarily familiar with policing in a UK context.

I entered into police research from a philosophical criminal justice background, and I have been surprised by the complexity and ambiguity of policing. Currently in the UK the police are facing dramatic challenges, having recently been put on an austerity budget and with changes to the prioritization model through the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners. In this post I aim to explicate some of policing’s core features, and then provide two competing definitions of policing.

What do the police do? If you are like me when I started at the Police Foundation, the first answer that probably comes to mind is crime fighting. In both the UK and in the USA political dialogue over
the police certainly focuses on the police as crime fighters, and this is certainly the aspect of
policing that we are presented with on television and in literature. 

I was therefore surprised to learn that the police spend the majority of their time dealing with non-criminal matters. This is not just to say that they just spend a lot of time patrolling, or doing paperwork, though those are certainly important factors. More startlingly, the majority of 999 calls are not crime related. Depending on the police force, 999 calls that result in an arrest only make up 20-50% of calls to the police. The rest of the calls have wide ranging content, from proverbial cats in trees, arguments between neighbors, defusing crowds, and numerous other scenarios. My favorite police theorist, Egon Bittner, provided the following description of why people call the police: there is ‘something-that-oughtnot-be-to-happening-and-about-which- someone-had-better-dosomethingnow’. The police are also a 24/7 service, in contrast to some others such as social services. This means that the police are often asked to pick up work from other organizations (e.g. a social worker may ask the police to check in on a family). This is especially notable in the UK because in the past decade the police were granted substantial resources (and it is part of why the new austerity budget is so problematic for the police, because they now are supporting numerous essential services and can’t put any of them down).

The other thing that needs to be noted about the police is their authority to use force. Any attempt to understand policing requires noting their ability to use force. This use of force is, as I understand it, only somewhat under the authority of the justice system. According to the material that I have read, certain acts (primarily detaining suspects) can only be done in compliance with legal regulations. In other words, if the police wish for an individual to be prosecuted in the legal system, they must comply with certain restrictions. This does not limit the police’s use of force per se. The police also cannot use force towards illegal ends. There is more nuance to be teased out, but I think the sketch I present is roughly accurate, and the point I am trying to make is that the police have considerable discretion over the use of force, for good or ill. This discretionary freedom is of great practical importance, but also leaves open substantial space for abuse.

The preceding account of police activity and power has generated two primary competing definitions of policing. The first, and most popular, definition is that the police are crime fighters. Other activities are auxiliary or tangential. The other definition seems to come out of a cluster of academics, and has been articulated in several ways. The definition that has most influenced my thinking is that of Egon Bittner, who proposes that police should be understood as professionals who are experts in applying proportional force when necessary in order to maintain peace and order. This definition places responsibility for crime fighting primarily on the police, but does not make it their only or even primary purpose.

I’ll be writing more on this topic. Let me know what you think!

Thank you,


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Privacy and Personae

do we value privacy? Some authors, including Steven Davis (2009),
propose that privacy only contingently enables us to attain other
desires (e.g. dignity, love, friendship) (466). Michael Lynch
opposes such a conclusion. Instead, he proposes that privacy always
has value because it is a constitutive element of autonomy (2013, 8).
I agree with Lynch that privacy is always valuable, but I disagree
that this value stems from being constitutive of autonomy because
this seems to make obscurity an essential feature of autonomy.
However, Lynch also makes a secondary argument that privacy is
contingently valuable because it is usually an important component of
human liberty. I believe that if we push this argument further we
find that privacy is not just a contingent but rather a necessary
condition for certain liberties, namely, the liberties associated
with the adoption of different personae.
Davis and Instrumental Privacy
will begin by providing an example of the kind of position that Lynch
and I are arguing against, using Steven Davis’s paper Is there a
Right to Privacy?
(2009). Davis proposes that all privacy is
informational, and that it is only instrumentally valuable as a means
to other ends. By Davis’s definition privacy loss is a very neutral
term: you lose privacy in respects to a specific person and a
specific piece of information when that person gains information (or
ready access to information) about you that they did not have
previously (456). This means that you lose informational privacy
when you tell a friend a secret (455). Loss of privacy is only bad
when we do not want a particular piece of information disseminated.
Davis calls information that we do not want widely disseminated
‘personal’ (456). Given Davis’s account it is theoretically possible
that a society could exist where privacy has no value, because the
harm that privacy loss can cause is always contingent on the
attitudes and dispositions that the members of society have towards
any particular piece of information. To give an example, it only
seems sensible for sexual preference to be deemed personal in a
society where one is at risk of stigmatization. So it goes for all
personal information: the value of privacy is always contingent on
the attitudes of the agents involved. On this basis Davis dismisses
privacy as a necessary condition for essential features of human
well-being such as ‘respect, dignity, friendship, and love’ (465).
Lynch on Privacy as Constitutive of Subjectivity
Lynch, contra Davis, proposes that privacy has value in itself. His
central argument is that part of what makes an individual’s mind
their own is the fact that they have privileged access to and control
over their mental states (including access control) (2013, 8). He
uses a thought experiment to illustrate: imagine if a mind reader had
systematic access to all of your thoughts. Lynch thinks that this
would dehumanize the person being observed:
[the mind reader’s] perspective, the perspective of the knower, your
existence as a distinct person would begin to shrink. [The]
relationship would be so lopsided that [the mind reader] may well
cease to regard you as a full subject…” (9)
argues that privacy invasion essentially renders people into
therefore affronting human dignity by dehumanizing us.
question Lynch’s argument on the following basis:
that loss of privacy dehumanizes us seems equivalent to saying that
we attain autonomy through obscurity. Lynch’s account seems to take
the materialist stance that human’s
in a very real sense, objects in the world: if we understand someone
(by invading their privacy or through other means), we can manipulate
them in the same way we can manipulate a comprehended object. Since
privacy is all that stands between us and object-hood it seems to
follow that agents are obscured objects.
seems to come with some unintended consequences.
example, it
seems to follow that with
those who know you best you are at your least autonomous.
Ultimately, though, my
main criticism of Lynch’s argument is that he seems to say that our
autonomy exists by virtue of others being ignorant of our nature:
that which depends on
for its existence hardly seems to exist. By this I do not mean to
claim that autonomy does not exist,
I think we should reject Lynch’s argument because causes significant
problems for the existence of autonomy.
Privacy and Personae
I think that Lynch’s central argument is flawed, I believe that his
secondary argument for privacy based on liberty provides a basis on
which to argue that privacy is always valuable. I will first
explicate Lynch’s secondary argument, and then I will expand on his
account with my own idea of personae. First I will define the
notion, and in doing so I will demonstrate how privacy is a
prerequisite for the formation of multiple personae. I will then
argue that having some ability to create multiple personae is an
integral aspect of liberty. Finally, I will address a potential
secondary argument is fairly straightforward: he proposes that when
we lose informational privacy our liberty can be adversely affected.
Loss of privacy can curtail our liberty in two ways: we can be
manipulated by those with access to our information, and we can be
forced to regulate our own behaviour because we are aware of the fact
that we are being observed. This loss of liberty is not inevitable,
according to Lynch, but it is still a matter of serious concern (4).
propose to expand Lynch’s account by adding the idea that privacy
provides us with the liberty to create personae.
define a persona as follows: a persona is an appearance that we
develop through acting in certain ways and disseminating specific
information to individuals or groups.
I do not intend appearance to be in any way derogatory or imply
superficiality; how we want to appear to others seems to be an
integral aspect of our identity. It seems to be the case that we
inevitably adopt different appearances in different aspects of our
lives. Someone may be a ruthless businessperson by day and a loving
parent by night, a politician may be diplomatic in public but tell
dirty jokes behind closed doors, most people are politely reserved
with strangers but reveal emotions much more freely to
friends. However, we cannot have multiple personae without privacy.
Privacy acts as the barrier between different personae. Without this
barrier, two personae bleed together. Imagine that I have two groups
of friends, and that there are certain ways in which my behaviour
differs depending on which group I am with. If both groups had
access to how I acted and what I said with the other group, then the
whole set of behaviours and revealed information would become a
single personae. I do not mean to suggest here that such aggregation
is intrinsically bad for an agent: personae collapse together
regularly in our day-to-day lives. I do believe, however, that our
suffers a serious blow if we are greatly deprived of the ability to
adopt various personae.
able to adopt different personae is an integral aspect of human
and it is by virtue of being a constitutive element of personae that
some degree of privacy is always
. Davis objects to the notion
that privacy has intrinsic value on the basis that the badness of
lost privacy is contingent on there being a reason to keep the
information private (2009, 465). I would argue, however, that
creating personae has value regardless of the benignity of the
observers. To illustrate this value, let us take the extreme example
of an individual who only has a single persona. Let us imagine that
we have a person, Theon, who is under constant video surveillance.
The video feed is constantly played on video screens all over his
city of residence in every home. As a consequence of this constant
surveillance, nothing that Theon says or does can be directed purely
at a single individual; he is also always at least potentially in the
eye of all other people in the city. Theon has therefore been
deprived of the ability to have multiple personae: he is one person
to everyone. It seems quite clear to me that Theon is deprived of
many liberties that we take for granted, regardless of the benignity
of his observers. There are certain ways that Theon simply cannot
He cannot be the kind of person who surprises his significant other
with a rose, he cannot be suave with one group of friends and
laid-back with another, he cannot escape any mistake through
anonymity, and he can never say anything about anyone without saying
it directly to them.
This list is not
meant to be exhaustive, I only intend to demonstrate
there are
of liberty of which we are
deprived when we are completely without privacy. It is not
impossible to live in such circumstances, but it seems clear to me
that Theon’s life has been seriously diminished. I would say that
this diminishment holds even if all members of the society were
subject to the same surveillance: the harm is not contingent on
interpersonal comparison.
I would also
say that the diminishment holds whether Theon is aware that he is
being observed, since we can be deprived of the liberty to act in
certain ways
without being aware of our
to the
example of surprising one’s
significant other a rose: Theon is deprived of such liberty
regardless of whether he is aware of his surveillance).

I argue that it is therefore is the case that Theon’
has been dealt a significant
blow. His is, of course, the most extreme case. The exact degree of
required to
avoid significant harms to our liberty is

what I
have aimed to demonstrate here is that at least some privacy is a
necessary component of a flourishing life.
such as Davis would potentially object that it does not seem
necessary that an individual desires the ability to adopt different
personae: there may be people so boldly constituted that they act
wholeheartedly in a single and universal fashion. If such is the
case, they might argue, then the value of the privacy to adopt
personae is contingent on individual disposition. To this I would
respond that
being deprived of a
significant amount of liberty
should be
deemed as harmful whether or not the individual values the
of which they have been deprived. Imagine that a slave desires
nothing but to be a slave; it still seems to be the case, to me, that
freedom remains valuable.
this essay I proposed, in opposition to Davis, that privacy
has value
by virtue of the fact that it
enables us to adopt different personae. I developed this argument by
drawing on arguments made by Lynch in his
. I disagreed with his central
argument, but then developed his secondary argument on the relation
between privacy and liberty further. I proposed that privacy is a
constitutive component of the ability to adopt personae, and that, to
some degree, the ability to adopt personae is an essential aspect of


Steven. 2009. “Is There a Right to Privacy?”
Philisophical Quarterly

90: 450–75.

P. Lynch,

as Amicus Curiae,

vs. Clapper.

could alternatively be interpreted as arguing that we are harmed by
others viewing us as objects, rather then my interpretation that
loss of privacy makes us into objects.
I think that this interpretation is too weak: though we can be
contingently harmed by the fact that others view us as objects, the
harm only seems intrinsic if it somehow diminishes our humanity
(i.e. makes us more
is not necessarily the case that the personae that we develop are
those we wish to develop. A shy person at a party, for example, may
desire to be social but be unable to force themselves to be so.
Their actions still contribute to a personae.

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Excusable Measures: Should we Punish those who kill Innocents to Save Themselves?

Can soldiers justifiably kill innocent aggressors, and does our answer cast any doubt on contemporary just war theory?  Michael Otsuka argues that ‘with few exceptions, it is wrong to kill… an Innocent Aggressor and an Innocent Threat. (1994, 74).’  If we concede that Otsuka’s arguments are sound, then they seem to pose a significant problem for contemporary just-war theory, specifically the principle that an individual becomes liable to attack when they pose an immediate threat.[1]  One of the specific areas of controversy that the principle governs is whether soldiers may kill child soldiers in order to protect their own lives.  In this essay, I am going to concede to Otsuka that killing an innocent aggressor to save one’s own life is impermissible.  What I would like to propose is that even ifwe concede that killing an innocent to save one’s own life is not a justifiable act, it is still excusable.  The act of killing an innocent to save your own life should be considered excusable because requiring otherwise is to require individuals to act as moral paragons, which I propose is an unjust imposition on individual autonomy.
My essay is divided into three sections.  In section 1 I will define innocent bystander and innocent aggressor, and briefly sketch out Otsuka’s argument as to why it is impermissible to kill an innocent aggressor in order to save your own life.  In section 2 I will argue that it is morally excusable, though not morally justifiable, to sacrifice an innocent bystander or kill an innocent aggressor in order to save one’s own life.  I will examine a case study done by Gideon Rosen (2014) of a soldier who was forced to murder innocents in order to save his own life, and then I will put forward a two-part argument that killing an innocent aggressor should be an excusable act.  First, borrowing from Rosen’s case study, I propose that killing an innocent in order to save their own life has not acted contrary to common decency, though they have acted contrary to the moral imperative put forward by Otsuka.  They have, as I shall characterize it, failed to act as moral paragons.  I will argue further that requiring individuals to act as moral paragons is an infringement on individual autonomy.  In section 3 I will examine how the case of soldiers may differ from the case of civilians.  Specifically, I will examine whether soldiers should be obligated to sacrifice their lives if it is a choice between their life and the life of an innocent.  I will propose that if soldiers are obligated to sacrifice their lives in such circumstances then they can not be excused from killing an innocent to save their own lives.  However, I will argue that, just as in the civilian case, to require soldiers act as moral paragons is an unjust infringement on their autonomy.
Section 1: Otsuka on Innocent Aggressors
Before getting into the rest of the essay, I will define some important terms.  In just-war theory, to be innocent means not being liable to be attacked (i.e. having done nothing to have one’s right not to be attacked waived).  An important reference individual is the innocent bystander, the gold standard for a person who is not liable.  If you grab a random person in a crowd and use them as a bullet shield, you are using the life of an innocent bystander to save your own life.   An innocent aggressor is an individual who intends harm, but, due to some facet of their circumstance, is not responsible for that intention.  Otsuka uses the example of someone under the influence of a strong hallucinogenic drug that causes an individual to enter an aggressive rage (74-75).  It is somewhat controversial whether child soldiers are innocent aggressors, but for the purposes of this essay I am going to assume that they are.
Otsuka makes the case that killing an innocent aggressor is morally indistinguishable from killing an innocent bystander, namely, a morally impermissible act.  Otsuka’s starting point is the impermissibility of using the life of an innocent bystander in order to save one’s own life.  The essence of Otsuka’s argument is that, all other things held equal, innocent aggressors are morally equivalent to innocent bystanders.  If it is morally impermissible to harm one then it is morally impermissible to harm the other.  For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to concede Otsuka’s premise that killing an innocent bystander is morally equivalent to killing an innocent aggressor, and we can not justify killing either in order to save our own life.
Section 2: On Excuses and Paragons
Though I have conceded to Otsuka that killing an innocent is not an unjustifiable action, I will argue that it excusable.  First, I am going to explicate a case study of a soldier forced to kill innocent civilians in order to save his own life.  Next, I am going to examine and endorse an argument put forward by Rosen that an individual who kills innocents to save his own life may act contrary to moral decency, but not necessarily basic decency.  Finally I will utilize Rosen’s argument by proposing that when killing an innocent person to save your own life does not contradict basic decency then the we should not interfere with that individual’s autonomy in that instance by imposing punishment for acting immorally.
In his 2014 paper Culpability and Duress: A Case Study, Rosen examines the case of a soldier named Dražen Erdemovi (71-72).  Erdemovi was a member of the Bosnian army in 1995.  On one particularly terrible day Erdemovi participated in the massacre of over a thousand civilians.  He estimated that he himself killed around seventy people.  He was, however, in extenuating circumstances.  He was told that if he did not participate in killing the civilians, then he would be killed as well.  Shortly after the massacre, Erdemovi deserted from the army and surrendered.  Rosen proposes, based on the pareto principle, that Erdemovi’s actions were morally justifiable.  This scenario is different than the case of an innocent aggressor discussed by Otsuka because Erdemovi was not choosing between his life and that of an innocent.  However, in her paper Rosen also wanted to explore whether Erdemovi’s actions were theoretically justifiable if he had been choosing between his life and the life of another.  Imagine if Erdemovi’s resistance would have allowed a prisoner to escape (76).  Would his actions be excusable then?
Rosen proposes that Erdemovi’s actions are potentially excusable because his actions do not display an insufficiently good will.  The core of Rosen’s argument is that there are two aspects of decency on which Erdemovi should be judged.  The first is the moral aspect, which is just the question of whether Erdemovi acted morally.  Rosen believes, in line with Otsuka, that in the hypothetical scenario where Erdemovi could have saved an innocent by sacrificing himself, doing otherwise would be immoral (Rosen, 78).  The second aspect that Rosen proposes is the aspect of common decency.  Common decency does not pertain to morality directly.  To violate common decency is to upset one’s place in the social order.  If I am cruel to you, for example, then you will react by changing your relationship to me.  This is, Rosen emphasizes, not just a change in demeanour but a change in the relationship itself (86).  In Erdemovi’s case, Rosen tentatively argues that because of the extreme duress under which he made his choice then we might not be warranted in distancing ourselves from him socially (88-89).  He had not, in other words, demonstrated himself to be someone in need of social shunning.
Using Rosen’s initial structure, I will argue that killing an innocent (an aggressor or even a bystander) should be an excusable act because otherwise we are interfering with an individual’s autonomy.  First, I want to propose a re-characterization of whythe two aspects of decency come apart in cases such as Erdemovi’s.  In cases such as Erdemovi, I would present morality as requiring an individual act as a moral paragon.  The reason that we may intuitively feel that such a person still can have a place in society is because being a moral paragon is not usually a prerequisite for being even a respected member of society.  We may feel strongly that there was a right action, but we can strongly sympathize with the wrong action that an individual opted to realize. 
Taking my re-characterization, what I propose is that requiring individuals act as moral paragons is an unjustifiable infringement on their autonomy.  What I propose is that an individual should be excused of immoral action if punishing them would be to require that they act as moral paragons.  We do not require people act as moral paragons in their everyday lives, why should we require such paragonism of those unfortunate enough to be thrust into extraordinary and terrible circumstances?  There is a drastic kind of egalitarian unfairness to Erdemovi’s punishment, I think, because but for chance and circumstance many others would have acted just as he had.  Erdemovi, in other words, is being punished for bad luck given that the moral failing that he displayed is likely somewhat common.  On the basis of this unfairness, I propose that in cases where morality demands that we act as moral paragons, we should be free to choose without interference.  Sometimes the world is a terrible place, and our enforcement of moral principles should allow for this reality. 
Section 3: Soldiers and Just War
So far I have just been examining whether civilians can kill an innocent in order to save their own life.  What I would like to address now is whether the circumstance of a soldier fighting in a just war is different.  The question that I’m asking is this: can soldiers systematically be permitted to act in a way that is merely excusable in a just war?  First I am going to concede that if soldiers join an army under the requirement that they sacrifice their lives to protect an innocent aggressor, then they should not be excused.  I will then argue that a war can still be just even if it does not systematically require soldiers to be moral paragons.
If becoming a soldier requires explicitly acknowledging that you are required to sacrifice your own life for the sake of an innocent aggressor, then I do not think that such an act is permissible for them.  My reasoning is simply that the soldier has given premeditated consent to sacrifice themselves: they cannot appeal to the terribleness of their situation because they placed themselves in that situation.  The more challenging question is whether soldiers need to be required to so in order for a war to be just.
Though soldiers are put in more exacting moral circumstances then the average citizen, I believe that there are limits to the constraints we should put upon their autonomy.  When it comes to implementing just war, if we accept my argument so far then we have two options: we can either allow soldiers their autonomy when it comes to the killing of innocent aggressors at the expense that probably more will, or we can forbid them from doing so and in so doing deprive them of their autonomy.  Either way there will be some injustice.  I am inclined towards the latter for a fairly simple reason: soldiers are people just like civilians, and like civilians I think that in such extreme circumstances they should be allowed their autonomy.
I may concede that killing an innocent aggressor is an unjustifiable act, but I maintain that it is excusable.  I believe that it is excusable because we should not be required to act as moral paragons: to do so is admirable, but it is unjust if it is mandated.  I also propose that, just as with civilians, soldiers should not be required to act as moral paragons.
     McMahan, Jeff. Killing in War. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2009. Web. 28 Dec. 2014.
     Otsuka, Michael. 1994. “Killing the Innocent in Self-Defence.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 23 (1): 74–94.  
     Rosen, Gideon. “Culpability and Duress: A Case Study.” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 88.1 (2014): 69–90. Print.

[1] As described by Jeff McMahan (2009)

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Essay Post – Against a Lawful Human Nature

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy with life and essays.  However, I can make my work do double duty by posting one of my essays 🙂

Against a Lawful Human Nature
Donald Ryan Workman
Mill believes that human nature is governed by psychological laws.  These psychological laws are uniformities common to all human action, and are also the fundamental cause of all social phenomena.  I will argue, contra Mill, that there is a theoretical obstacle to lawfully describing human nature, and if this problem cannot be solved then the social sciences cannot be founded on laws of human nature.  The twofold problem is that humans are born unique, and that we are developmental entities.  Together these two facts create an epistemological catch-22 in that they make it impossible to aggregate human behaviours into uniformities.  I believe this catch-22 is actually a symptom of the fact that individual human action is unlawful at the psychological level.
I will begin by elucidating the relevant arguments that Mill makes in A System of Logic.  The important sections that I will be examining are: Mill’s definition of a law, his exposition on the laws of human nature, and his explanation of their relevance to the social sciences.
Mill defines a law as a uniformity of events, and he defines a law of nature as a fundamental uniformity.  If B always occurs with A, then AB is a law (229).  A law of nature is the expression of a particular uniformity at its most fundamental level.  The distinction between a law of nature and a non-fundamental law can be illustrated by comparing the rule that all multiples of two are even numbers and all multiples of four are even numbers.  That multiples of four are even is contained in the statement that multiples of two are even, so the first rule is more fundamental than the second.
Mill believes that human nature is comprised of a set of laws that, in combination, delineate the entire scope of actual and potential human behaviour.  He says,
The laws of mind… compose the universal or abstract portion of the philosophy of human nature; and all the truths of common experience… must… be… consequences of these.  (596)
In other words, all human behaviour is a consequent of psychological laws.  They govern both our actions and our development.  Mill acknowledges that the laws of human psychology may be found to be complexes of more fundamental physical laws.  He says that the truth of the laws of human nature ‘may ultimately depend on physical conditions (591).’  That being said, he did not think that the scientific inquiry into the matter was mature enough for us to explain human nature at the physical level.[1]
Mill also believed that we should explain social phenomena at the level of the laws of human nature.  He says,
The actions and feelings of human beings in the social state, are… entirely governed by psychological and ethological laws: whatever influence any cause exercises upon the social phenomena, it exercises through those laws. (620)
What Mill is proposing is that the only causes of social phenomena are the laws that govern the people who comprise those phenomena.  If we understood all of the rules of human psychology then we could also predict the future movements of societies.  It is on this basis that Mill claims the laws of human nature provide a foundation for all of the social sciences.  He also thinks that the social sciences should be primarily concerned with a specific category of laws, the laws of human development.  He says that these laws produce ‘the whole of the phenomena of human action and feeling (599).’  In other words, the universal laws that differentiate us are the subject of most importance to the social sciences.
Before I begin my argument I want to explicate further the distinction that Mill is making when he draws attention to the laws of human development.  There seem to be two kinds of laws that comprise human nature: those that relate to the specific development and actions of individuals, and those pertaining to the mechanics of human functioning.  An example of the second kind of law would be ‘every mentalimpression has its idea (591).’  This is not a law pertaining to the individuation, but instead an observation on a universal property of human cognition.  An example of the first kind of law is “a greater gain is preferred to a smaller (623).”  Though Mill believes that this is a principal of human action, this law can be contested by other similar laws, and its only realization is as one of the many forces that determine individual action.
There is an epistemological catch-22 that Mill needs to address if he wants to make the claim that all human behaviour is governed by psychological laws.  Mill asserts that there is initial variation in individuals from birth (605), and he also acknowledges that human behaviour develops over time (though he characterizes this development as lawful) (599).  If both of these elements are conceded, however, then describing human nature as lawful becomes highly problematic.
The concession that each individual is slightly different is relatively banal, as there are many examples of laws successfully capturing uniformities across entities.  I will use astronomy to illustrate because Mill uses it as his model example of a law-based science.  Astronomers use laws to describe and predict the behaviour of an immense diversity of heavenly entities.  The fact that all of these entities are unique does not prevent them from being lawfully described.  It is not theoretically problematic to lawfully describe categories of unique entities because we can make our law capture how the behaviours of those entities change based on their properties. 
The second concession that human properties develop over time is mostly particular to complex organisms that can store information.  As humans, our behaviours are composite products of conflicting internal forces that change over time in response internal and external pressures.  I believe that it is theoretically possible to lawfully describe a collection of entities with this property as long as they have consistent initial properties.  Imagine that we found a series of A.I. that developed and changed through experience but all started from the same base state.  It seems that through experimentation and given enough A.I. we could, at least in theory, discern all of the internal forces that generated action and development in these artificial intelligences. 
Unlike entities possessing only one of the two traits, an entity that combines unique initial conditions and continuous development is not susceptible to lawful description.  Since laws are aggregations of phenomena, the derivation of a law requires that we can, at least in theory, identify the commonality that we are aggregating.  However, each of the properties that I’ve identified prohibits the investigative method that could at least theoretically allow lawful description of an entity with only the opposite property.  Lawfully describing unique entities requires observing how the unique properties of that entity cause variation in behaviour, but to lawfully describe developmental entities requires that we can repeatedly observe them in their base state.  This traps us in an epistemological circle.  We cannot learn the rules of human development without first understanding our initial state.  But we cannot grasp our initial state without first understanding the rules of our internal forces.  If my argument holds, then I have grounds for disputing Mill’s claim that the foundational goal of the social sciences is trying to understand invariable laws of human behaviour.
An argument Mill may have made in response is that his theory does not require that the laws of human nature be epistemologically accessible, only that they metaphysically exist.  He then may have argued further that if I contest the metaphysical existence of laws of human nature then I am committing myself to a notion of freedom unbound by physical reality.  Mill says, very clearly and in numerous instances, that we cannot ever fully grasp a lawful regularity.  As an example he writes, ‘[it is] impossible to trace any regularity whatever completely through [any class of phenomena] (598).’  He believes that this epistemological barrier exists even for the most direct law based sciences, such as astrology, and he considers the laws of human nature to be of considerably greater complexity.  But even though the sciences have not grasped the laws of nature, they are still capable of generating insight of immense practical value.  He might point out, for example, that though political science only has a tentative grasp on the motives of humans, those involved can still make generalizations and predictions with some degree of accuracy.  Mill would likely speculate that the power of these observations support the lawful and uniform nature of human behaviour.  Following this, he would potentially find the consequences of my metaphysical scepticism absurd.  He might propose, for example, that to maintain my scepticism of a lawful human nature I must hold that we have some kind of radically free human nature.  Mill’s duel critique, then, is that for my argument to be persuasive I must demonstrate that it is a metaphysical one, but making that metaphysical critique commits me to archaic conceptions of human nature.
I concede to Mill that, for my argument to have proper force, it needs to be a metaphysical critique.  I believe that I can make this critique without being required to bite the bullet by declaring humans to be possessing unbounded freedom.  By proposing that all humans are regulated by the same laws of human nature, Mill is proposing that humans are of a kind, on the psychological level.  Based on the two properties that I have just ascribed to human beings, it seems to me that humans are only of a metaphysical kind in terms of mechanics, not individual action.  In other words, we all operate within the same scope of perception and potential action, but there are no laws that direct our action within this space.  We are still all similar entities, which can explain why there are patterns that we can observe and general predictions we can make about human behaviour.  However, I can characterize human behaviour in this way without appealing to a notion of unbound human freedom.  My recourse is to say that human nature remains ultimately grounded in physical laws, though like Mill I do not think that we have advanced enough in that domain for it to be a practical way of actually understanding or predicting social phenomena.  My conception of human nature can be grounded in evolutionary theory.  According to the theory of evolution there is not a universal human ‘kind’.  Instead each human is a unique organism that is categorized into the human species based on our ability to produce viable offspring.
I have argued that, since humans have unique initial states and are developmental entities, individual human action is not lawful.  Though we are all constrained to essentially the same scope of potential action by our mechanical properties, within this field of potential action our behaviour cannot be fully grasped on the psychological level.  Mill wanted to ground the social sciences on the notion that all human behaviour stems from psychological laws, but if my arguments hold then these psychological laws do not exist.  This does not mean that the social sciences cannot observe regularities in human behaviour (they obviously can), but it does mean that psychological laws are a flawed conceptual foundation that could generate error or confusion in some form.
MMill, John Stuart. A System of Logic, Rationcinative and Inductive. Eighth. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882. Project Gutenburg. Web. November 9, 2014

[1]Even given modern day neuroscience, I remain inclined to agree with Mill on this point.

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Responsibility has no Place in Policy

For the past few weeks I have been looking at many different moral issues related to distributing health care resources.  All of the topics have been challenging and interesting, but I found that I was not strongly inclined to either side for most of the topics.  Not so for the latest topic.  Next week we will be discussing whether an individual’s personal responsibility should be a consideration when deciding how to distribute resources.

At the moment I feel quite strongly that responsibility should not be a consideration when distributing any resources – health or otherwise.  The reason that I’m opposed to responsibility based distribution stem from the topic of my previous post – people in disadvantaged rolls in society have less willpower.  Punishing them for this lack of willpower is a double whammy.  This does not mean that I’m universally against any kind of incentives or encouragement – if we found that reducing health benefits for smokers significantly decreased smoking then I would at least consider such a policy, for example.  I am just against any responsibility based justification for such a policy.

Probably more controversially, I would extend very similar reasoning to areas like criminal justice.  I do not think that punishment, the infliction of harm because a criminal is deserving of harm, should be a consideration in the dispensation of justice.  That people desire that criminals be punished is a sensible consideration, but it should not be the role of the state to desire punishment on its citizens behest.

Let me know what you think,


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