Socrates the hoplite

An earlier post considered the Melian massacre and the Athenian conduct of war during the Peloponnesian War (link). Since we know that Socrates served as an armored infantry soldier during that war (a hoplite), it is reasonable to ask whether Socrates would have carried out atrocious orders involving the execution of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, and other acts of retaliation and punishment against the enemies of Athens.

In particular, would Socrates the hoplite have obeyed the order to slaughter the innocent? Ancient historian Mark Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the known context of Athenian warfare and Socrates’ military history, and concludes that Socrates did not express moral opposition to these acts of war (link). Anderson argues at length that Socrates was a hoplite during exactly these kinds of campaigns of retaliation, and that he never expressed any moral objection to them. Against the arguments of Gregory Vlastos and other scholars of Athenian philosophy, Anderson argues that the historical record of Socrates’ military service is fairly clear, and it is evident that his participation was voluntary, courageous, extended, and supportive. Anderson argues on the basis of these facts that Socrates did not offer moral objections to this dimension of Athenian military strategy.

Consider first the argument by Gregory Vlastos that Socrates offered a “moral revolution” on these topics. Vlastos is one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated scholars of ancient philosophy, and his book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a much-respected study of Socrates. 

Much of the book is relevant to the question considered earlier of the changing nature of morals and values over time (link). Vlastos appears to accept the view advocated several times here that humanity creates its moral framework through long human experience. Here is what Vlastos writes about the morality of a time and place:

By the morality of a society I understand those norms of right and wrong, rules of conduct or excellences of character, publicly acknowledged within it, whose function it is to foster human wellbeing. The sense of justice centers in the concern that those norms be applied impartially. (179)

Here is a clear expression of the idea that values are created over time rather than discovered as timeless truths.

Protagoras in that speech propounds a comprehensive theory of the origins of culture which views all cultural institutions, including morality, as inventions through which men win the struggle for existence against wild beasts. (187)

Further, Vlastos believes that Socrates was one of those thinkers who succeeded in challenging and changing the moral culture of his time. According to Vlastos, Socrates rejected retaliation on very strong philosophical grounds. And this would involve the rejection of the strategy of exterminating the populations of cities in rebellion against Athens.

Vlastos’ central aim is to show that Socrates rejected the Athenian moral idea of retaliation against those who have wronged you (lex talionis). This traditional Athenian view of the moral acceptability of retaliation comes to bear in concrete detail when, as reported by Thycydides, the Athenian Assembly of citizens is asked to consider the extermination of Mytilene for rebellion (exactly the fate that befell Melos several years later):

… that rebellious Mytilene, now subdued, should be exterminated, all its adult males executed without trial, and all its women and children sold into slavery. In the speech for the proposal Cleon invokes justice on its behalf and, as we might expect, it is the justice of the talio. (184)

Vlastos works hard to distinguish between punishment and revenge: punishment is morally justified, whereas revenge is motivated by abiding hate. “The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism” (187).

Crucially, Vlastos believes that Socrates alone among his contemporaries recognizes the moral repugnancy of revenge. “So far as we know, the first Greek to grasp in full generality this simple and absolutely fundamental moral truth is Socrates” (190).

So how does Vlastos understand Socrates’ moral reasoning when it comes to retaliation? He focuses on Socrates’ arguments in the Crito. There Vlastos singles out two moral conclusions:

II. “Therefore, we should never return an injustice.”

IV. “Therefore, we should never return evil for evil [to anyone].” (194)

So, Vlastos concludes, for Socrates, retaliation in the case of personal actions is always unjust and wrong. And this would imply, if appropriate equivalence could be maintained, that retaliation against Mytilene as was proposed to the Assembly, or against Melos, as was carried out, was wholly unjust and immoral. But there is a catch: Vlastos is not entirely convinced that what is wrong for the individual Athenian is also wrong for the state. As a philosopher and a man, Socrates cannot support the resolution to retaliate against Mytilene; indeed, he cannot be a party to the deliberation (195). But it is not clear that Socrates takes the additional step: if the state decides to retaliate against Mytilene or Melos, it lacks the authority to do so. Socrates does not invoke a duty of civil disobedience upon himself as a citizen; he does not assert that as a citizen he can challenge the state’s right to take actions it has duly deliberated.

So there we have Vlastos’s argument for Socrates’ moral philosophy when it comes to doing good, acting justly, and exacting retaliation. Can we conclude, then, that Socrates the hoplite would have rejected Cleon’s authority, duly authorized by the Citizen’s Assembly, to execute the male citizens of Mytilene or Melos?

Mark Anderson thinks not. In fact, he finds Vlastos’ treatment of Socrates’ moral ideas about massacre to be fundamentally flawed. It is unpersuasive because it is entirely based on the philosophical texts without serious attention to historical details documenting what is known about the military career that Socrates experienced as a hoplite. Socrates’ military experience was entirely voluntary — Anderson suggests that he must have had to struggle to be selected as a hoplite, given his age and poverty — and extensive, taking years of his life. Further, Anderson claims that Vlastos makes major and consequential errors about the nature of Socrates’ military life (274). And Anderson rejects Vlastos’ contention that Socrates had achieved a major moral revolution through his statement in Crito that one must never do injustice (275). In particular, he rejects the idea advanced by Vlastos in an earlier essay that “not doing injustice” has the implication of rejecting traditional Athenian “military culture” by Socrates (Gregory Vlastos, 1974, “Socrates on Political Obedience and Disobedience,” The Yale review 63:4).

[Vlastos] argues that Socrates would have refused to participate, for two reasons: first, the proposed punishment was unprecedented in its ferocity, nearly genocidal, and barbaric (Vlastos 1974, 33); second, it was indiscriminate inasmuch as it condemned the innocent democrats along with the renegade oligarchs. Vlastos concludes that Socrates, had he been commanded to do so, would have declined even to relay the orders to those charged with carrying out the executions (Vlastos 1974, 33-34).

But Anderson argues two important points: first, that Socrates did in fact participate as a hoplite in campaigns in which exactly these sorts of mass killings occurred; and second, that Socrates never expressed moral objection or dissent to these actions, whether in the Platonic dialogues or in other historical sources about Socrates.

Hardly a passive observer, Socrates actively supported Athens’ imperial war effort. As we shall see, he willingly fought with some of the men and on some of the very campaigns that the standard accounts assure us he would have condemned. Moreover, the extent of his military activity is much wider than anyone has recognized. The relevant evidence demonstrates that Socrates fought in many more battles than the three that are commonly acknowledged. On the Potidaean campaign alone he may have seen action at Therme, Pydna, Beroea, and Strepsa. Before returning to Athens he probably served at Spartolus and ‘other places’ (Thucydides ii 70.4). On the Amphipolitan expedition he served possibly at Mende, definitely (for a time, though perhaps for a very brief time only) at Scione, then at Torone, Gale, Singus, Mecyherna, Thyssus, Cleonae, Acroathos, Olophyxus, Stageira, Bormiscus, Galepsos, and Trailus. (277)

There is a record of Socrates on this [Potidaea] campaign. We know that during the long siege he stood out among the soldiers as something of an eccentric (Symp. 21ge-220e). We hear nothing, however, of his standing out as a moral revolutionary suggestively questioning his comrades about the justice of Pericles’ military aggression. That Socrates, so far as we know, raised no objections to serving on this campaign suggests that neither militarism nor imperialism violated his conception of the noble and good life. (279-280)

Socrates served in Cleon’s army, and he supported Cleon. But here is Cleon’s record of massacre:

Cleon was ruthless; he was brutal to rebellious cities; but Athens needed him. The empire in the north was crumbling; much of Thrace was in open rebellion. The Athenians were livid (iv 122.5, 123.3). The punishment from which they had spared the citizens of Mytilene they imposed upon the defeated Scionians, at Cleon’s insistence. They retaliated against Torone almost as severely. Thucydides did not record the sufferings of the many other cities that fell to Cleon’s army, but we may be sure that they too felt the bronze edge of the lex talionis. (281)

When Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 153-154 declare that Socrates never actively supported Athens’ ‘evil’ acts, they do so expressly in connection with the Athenians’ treatment of Scione. But Socrates may very well have been with the contingent that stormed Scione in the summer of 423. Or he may have sailed with Cleon the following summer. Either way, he served at Scione and he arrived there in full knowledge of the campaign’s objectives; he knew that the men were to be executed and the women and children enslaved. Thus the assertion that Socrates never participated in Athens’ ‘evil actions’ cannot be correct. If he were under a legal obligation to serve on these campaigns, then Brickhouse and Smith have gone wrong again. If, as I believe, he served willingly and eagerly, their error is compounded. (282)

In other words, it is Anderson’s contention that Socrates was an active participant in Cleon’s campaigns of retaliation against cities in rebellion, involving the massacre of the men and the enslavement of the women and children. And further, there is no record of moral objections raised by Socrates to these actions — viewed at close hand as a combatant — in any of the Socratic corpus. This implies, to Anderson anyway, that Socrates did not have a moral objection to these military and imperial tactics.

This is a densely argued and damning portrait of Socrates as soldier-citizen-philosopher. Anderson makes a compelling case that Socrates did not rebel against the prevailing Athenian military culture, he did not reject massacre and enslavement as instruments of retaliation in war, and he did not act on the basis of a moral theory of just war — Athenian or any other. “Nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates give any indication that he had moral objections to hoplite warfare. To the contrary, in the Protagoras he says it is ‘noble’ and ‘good’ to go to war” (287). “Socrates fought such battles and was such a man. He did not fight at Marathon himself, of course; but he stood proudly in the long line of hoplites that stretched back to those who did. He identified with these men and accepted that their way–the way of the hoplite–led most nearly to the good life” (288).

To our question above, then, it seems as though there is a reasonably clear answer: in his life choices and in his words, Socrates the hoplite did indeed support the campaigns of slaughter that we would today regard as atrocities.

Buffy the existentialist vampire slayer

Here is a hard question. Can the creators of television shows and other kinds of pop culture be understood sometimes to pose fundamental and important questions about human life and morality? We probably all believe that great novelists are able to confront and explore hard human moral predicaments and life contradictions — often in ways that are more penetrating than the most astute philosophical writings on these subjects. Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary, James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, Alice Walker in The Color Purple — all of these writers have complex moral imaginations and they confront and question some of the profound issues of real human lives. Can the same be said of the creators of television series? Is there an existential or moral side to Hill Street Blues or Grey’s Anatomy? And what about Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

I suppose the conventional answer is that there is a sharp and uncrossable line between great literature and popular television culture — the former can be profound and insightful, whereas the latter is unavoidably shallow and empty, from a philosophical or moral point of view. Shakespeare was great in ways in which Steven Bochco could never attain. And yet this seems not to be so clearly the case as one might imagine. Many viewers of The Wire, for example, have felt that the series has some very important sociological insights about race and urban life in America today, and David Simon is credited for a genuine artistic achievement in the five seasons of the show (link). 

This brings me to Buffy. At first glance the series looks like pure adolescent fodder, with a dollop of horror show stirred into the mix. The show is the creation of Joss Whedon, who has earned a great deal of praise for his creativity and also some harsh criticism for his style and behavior with the cast in production.

The concept of the show is fairly simple. Buffy is a high school sophomore in California, a new arrival after her expulsion from another school for unexplained absences. As it turns out, her absences and other forms of weird behavior all stem from the fact that she is a “slayer” — the unique young woman of her generation who is specifically ready to confront and slay the vampires and other demons that most of the normal world fails to see. The series rolls out a handful of high school kids as main characters, as well as a growing roster of horrible and long-lived demons and vampires just seeking a way to overturn the dominion of humans on earth. The high school side of the story is roughly as engaging (or unengaging) as Community, another television series about young people who are students at a community college — pure sitcom. But the secret world of demons and vampires that makes up the dramatic thrust of the plot of Buffy is complex and involving. And this fictional world is involving because of the issues of evil, freedom, personal identity, responsibility, and “soul” that it raises. (Here is an appreciation of the show in Vox by a pair of talented television critics; link.)

Two characters in particular carry a great deal of the moral and existential weight of the series — Angel and Spike. Both are vampires who have managed to regain their souls, while retaining their memories of their horrible actions as soulless vampires over a thousand years. Each of them has committed terrible acts against humans, without conscience. Having regained their “souls”, they are able to reflect on these acts in the past, and to reflect on their personal responsibility or culpability for these past actions.

These are philosophical issues; if only there were a philosophical tradition within which they might be discussed. It turns out that there is such a discourse. The Whedon Studies Association was formed a few years ago by a number of individuals with a serious interest in Whedon’s corpus, and it has attracted a number of very interesting discussions and commentaries on Buffy. One contribution that I find especially valuable is an article written by Dean Kowalski, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, titled “Visions of the Soul: Looking Back on Buffy and Angel” (link). Kowalski approaches the topic in a rigorous philosophical way: What is the soul? What different interpretations of “soul” have been offered in explication of Whedon’s fictional universe? How do these theories help to shed light on the moral situation of the various characters in the drama? Kowalski considers an ontological theory of the soul — “the soul is a thing that a person possesses; when he or she is infected by a demon he loses his soul and becomes a vampire”. And he considers an existential theory — “the soul is a metaphor for our capacity for moral choice”. A vampire regains his soul when he or she chooses to act in a deliberate and free way. A vampire is a soulless monster; but he or she or it can become good by exercising a capacity for choosing to act in a morally good way; she can regain her soul. Kowalski quotes Scott McLaren, an early contributor to the Whedon Studies Association:

Scott McLaren acknowledges that “soul-talk” on Buffy and Angel can be interpreted metaphorically. He writes, “The soul can also be defined existentially: Angel resists temptation not simply because he ‘has’ a soul… but rather because, existentially, he makes a deliberate moral choice” (McLaren 13). McLaren further claims that “soul-talk” is also “an existential metaphor for a particular moral orientation” (13). Thus, the soul as metaphor can apply to any one ethically significant choice or a concerted effort to continue making similar choices. Due to the emphasis upon altering one’s own existence via the choices one makes, let us call this the existentialist interpretation of the soul. 134

Like a good literary critic, Kowalski and the other authors he discusses make substantial use of the details of the dialogue and plot to provide evidence for their claims; and like a good philosopher, Kowalski engages in careful conceptual analysis and analytical probing to attempt to gain clarity about difficult moral questions. It is therefore a little difficult to identify Kowalski’s own genre. His article is a careful philosophical essay on freedom, identity, and the concept of the soul; and it is also a detailed analysis of the thought-world involved in a seven-season drama about supernatural creatures who do massive evil. This may be confusing; but it is also very stimulating and challenging, in exactly the way that a philosophy essay ought to be. It is good philosophy on a non-orthodox topic.

So what about Buffy? Does the series over its seven seasons have “literary or philosophical” value? Here is a very interesting quote about Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (quoted in the Vox article linked above):

[1999] was a year when I was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it. Every week, I watched The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that [Sopranos creator] David Chase and [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama.

What this implies to me is that there is no clear line between those genres that provide real insights and those that do not — Madame Bovary on one side of the line, The Young and the Restless on the other. Rather, talented creators take up their tools in many locations and in many genres, and it is possible to find substantive, important discussions of large human questions across a very broad range of cultural products. And along the way, it is possible that some of the toughest moral questions that we face may find some degree of clarification as a result of the dramatic and creative work done by people like David Simon and Joss Whedon.

One reason I find the hidden world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of interest is the unexpected convergence it seems to create with the allegory I wrote in the blog a few months ago (link) — without any knowledge of Buffy. In that entry I imagined a thousand-year-old man attempting to uncover and come to terms with the sometimes awful things he had done in earlier centuries — which sounds a lot like the situation of Angel in the series. And my reason for writing the allegory was to consider whether there is a serious insight we can learn from this imaginary story that helps us make sense of the evils of the twentieth century — certainly one of the toughest moral questions we can pose for ourselves. But in a way, it seems as though Joss Whedon has something equally ambitious in mind as well for his teen-oriented horror show.

Making sense of atrocities

Reading Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 has made me aware of something outside his storyline: the normal, routine, and unremarked willingness of medieval peasant-soldiers, leaders, bands, and armies to slaughter one another, to kill the disarmed, to enslave prisoners, and to do all these things with apparently no compunction. Vikings, Franks, Bulgars, Huns, and Romans massacred and burned. Here is just one example, from the wars of Charlemagne:

Saxony was hard to conquer precisely because it was disunited, and it was the theatre of considerable violence, not least for the 4,500 Saxon prisoners massacred in 782 after a Frankish defeat. The conquest was by 780 associated with a conscious process of Christianization; this was one of the few conversion processes openly brought about by force in our period. (378)

Or, when we get around to the high and mighty, we find kings, generals, and emperors who maim and kill their rivals, including often enough members of their own families. Blinding one’s rival or one’s brother-in-law, maiming the face or body, these were familiar ways of dealing permanently with a rival. The crimes represented in Greek tragedy were not imaginary.

What are we to make of this fairly simple historical fact about the behavior of our human ancestors a mere 1500 years ago?

Does it imply that “human nature” is inherently cruel and indifferent to the suffering of other human beings, and that compassion is a cultural discovery or innovation?

Does it imply that restraints on violence depend upon social structures and cultural creations — laws, norms, and institutions setting boundaries on violence?

Is there such a thing as a “civilizational” turning away from violence against the innocent? Did human institutions (military law, international conventions, religion) and invented and disseminated moral values (“it is horrible and shameful to harm or kill the innocent”) change the occurrence of atrocity? (John Keegan quotes views to this effect to explain the fact that studies indicated that only 25% of battlefield soldiers fire their weapons in World War II.)

The Ten Commandments have been the foundation of monotheistic religious ethics for more than three thousand years — including the prohibition against murder. Did monotheistic religions change the behavior of individuals, bands, armies, and states? Were Christian Visigoths or Vandals less cruel in war? Did the armies of Islam commit these same kinds of atrocities, or did the kindness preached by the Prophet prevail? What about ancient Judaism and Jewish communities? For that matter, what about the converts to Judaism in the Khazars — did they massacre their enemies just as wantonly?

Most importantly, does this changing history of cruelty on a mass scale suggest that our human sensibilities themselves have changed in a millennium and a half, so human beings in typical social circumstances are no longer so ready to kill and maim their fellow human beings? Does a religion, a personal value scheme sincerely embraced, or adherence to an ideal of how one should value the human experience and life of anonymous others effectively change a person’s social psychology? Can compassion and pity be learned or culturally reproduced?

But if so, what about My Lai, Lt. Calley, and Ghraib Prison? What about Isis beheadings, burnings, and rapes? What about the vicious brutality of Trump rioters against police on January 6?

Here is a fairly concrete question: what did ancient writers and philosophers have to say about the killing of the innocent? Did Seneca or Lucretius make any pronouncements on the behavior of armies, massacre, or killing of the innocent? Here is Seneca, writing in roughly 50 CE, about the morally corrosive effects of the crowd at the “games” (Letters from a Stoic):

2. To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. 

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. 3. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation,—an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men. But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain. 4. Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering. The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. 5. You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? In the morning they cried “Kill him! Lash him! Burn him! Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way? Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game? Whip him to meet his wounds! Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!” 

Come now; do you not understand even this truth, that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. 6. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue. 7. Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it! You must either imitate or loathe the world. (Seneca, letter VII)

The text treats cruelty obliquely. This is not his primary target; rather, Seneca uses the scene of the “exhibition” as an occasion for making a different point — the harmfulness of associating with “the crowd”. But in his framing of the example, he makes it clear that he sees the behavior of the crowd as detestable and awful in its bloodthirstiness and cruelty. And he sees the behavior as contagious: when a virtuous person — even a Socrates or Cato — is exposed to this sight, he will be harmed in his virtue. And why is this cruelty awful? Because, it would seem, it involves the horrible imposition of pain, mutilation, and death on the weak, for the entertainment of the many. It is recognition of the human reality of the pain and desperation of the victims that motivates Seneca, it seems; he is empathetic with these other unfortunate human beings.

The historical evolution of massacre and cruelty raises huge and important questions. The topic converges with an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians, described in Thucydides (link). And the questions are genuinely difficult to answer. Human nature? Moral progress? The favorable role of religion? Institutions designed to limit violence? Perhaps some will even consider the intuition embraced by Dr. King in 1967 — “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But if we want to understand the particular evils of the twentieth century — Holocaust, Holodomor, and Gulag, to name just the most awful — we need to consider the nature and situations of the human beings — versions of ourselves — who have committed acts like these at other times in history.

(Relevant books to consider on this topic include John Keegan’s The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, and Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.)

An existential philosophy of technology

Ours is a technological culture, at least in the quarter of the countries in the world that enjoy a high degree of economic affluence. Cell phones, computers, autonomous vehicles, CT scan machines, communications satellites, nuclear power reactors, artificial DNA, artificial intelligence bots, drone swarms, fiber optic data networks — we live in an environment that depends unavoidably upon complex, scientifically advanced, and mostly reliable artifacts that go well beyond the comprehension of most consumers and citizens. We often do not understand how they work. But more than that, we do not understand how they affect us in our social, personal, and philosophical lives. We are different kinds of persons than those who came before us, it often seems, because of the sea of technological capabilities in which we swim. We think about our lives differently, and we relate to the social world around us differently.

How can we begin investigating the question of how technology affects the conduct of a “good life”? Is there such a thing as an “existential” philosophy of technology — that is, having to do with the meaning of the lives of human beings in the concrete historical and technological circumstances in which we now find ourselves? This suggests that we need to consider a particularly deep question: in what ways does advanced technology facilitate the good human life, and in what ways does it frustrate and block the good human life? Does advanced technology facilitate and encourage the development of full human beings, and lives that are lived well, or does it interfere with these outcomes?

We are immediately drawn to a familiar philosophical question, What is a good life, lived well? This has been a central question for philosophers since Aristotle and Epicurus, Kant and Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus. But let’s try to answer it in a paragraph. Let’s postulate that there are a handful of characteristics that are associated with a genuinely valuable human life. These might include the individual’s realization of a capacity for self-rule, creativity, compassion for others, reflectiveness, and an ability to grow and develop. This suggests that we start from the conception of a full life of freedom and development offered by Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom and the list of capabilities offered by Martha Nussbaum in Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach — capacities for life, health, imagination, emotions, practical reason, affiliation with others, and self-respect. And we might say that a “life lived well” is one in which the person has lived with integrity, justice, and compassion in developing and fulfilling his or her fundamental capacities. Finally, we might say that a society that enables the development of each of these capabilities in all its citizens is a good society.

Now look at the other end of the issue — what are some of the enhancements to human living that are enabled by modern technologies? There are several obvious candidates. One might say that technology facilitates learning and the acquisition of knowledge; technology can facilitate health (by finding cures and preventions of disease; and by enhancing nutrition, shelter, and other necessities of daily life); technology can facilitate human interaction (through the forms of communication and transportation enabled by modern technology); technology can enhance compassion by acquainting us with the vivid life experiences of others. So technology is sometimes life-enhancing and fulfilling of some of our most fundamental needs and capabilities.

How might Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Baldwin, or Whitman have adjusted their life plans if confronted by our technological culture? We would hope they would not have been overwhelmed in their imagination and passion for discovering the human in the ordinary by an iPhone, a Twitter feed, and a web browser. We would like to suppose that their insights and talents would have survived and flourished, that poetry, philosophy, and literature would still have emerged, and that compassion and commitment would have found its place even in this alternative world.

But the negative side of technology for human wellbeing is also easy to find. We might say that technology encourages excessive materialism; it draws us away from real interactions with other human beings; it promotes a life consisting of a series of entertaining moments rather than meaningful interactions; and it squelches independence, creativity, and moral focus. So the omnipresence of technologies does not ensure that human beings will live well and fully, by the standards of Aristotle, Epicurus, or Montaigne.

In fact, there is a particularly bleak possibility concerning the lives that advanced everyday technology perhaps encourages: our technological culture encourages us to pursue lives that are primarily oriented towards material satisfaction, entertainment, and toys. This sounds a bit like a form of addiction or substance abuse. We might say that the ambient cultural imperatives of acquiring the latest iPhone, the fastest internet streaming connection, or a Tesla are created by the technological culture that we inhabit, and that these motivations are ultimately unworthy of a fully developed human life. Lucretius, Socrates, and Montaigne would scoff.

It is clear that technology has the power to distort our motives, goals and values. But perhaps with equal justice one might say that this is a life world created by capitalism rather than technology — a culture that encourages and elicits personal motivations that are “consumerist” and ultimately empty of real human value, a culture that depersonalizes social ties and trivializes human relationships based on trust, loyalty, love, or compassion. This is indeed the critique offered by theorists of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School — that capitalism depends upon a life world of crass materialism and impoverished social and personal values. And we can say with some exactness how capitalism distorts humanity and culture in its own image: through the machinations of advertising, strategic corporate communications, and the honoring of acquisitiveness and material wealth (link). It is good business to create an environment where people want more and more of the gadgets that technological capitalism can provide.

So what is a solution for people who worry about the shallowness and vapidity of this kind of technological materialism? We might say that an antidote to excessive materialism and technology fetishism is a fairly simple maxim that each person can strive to embrace: aim to identify and pursue the things that genuinely matter in life, not the glittering objects of short-term entertainment and satisfaction. Be temperate, reflective, and purposive in one’s life pursuits. Decide what values are of the greatest importance, and make use of technology to further those values, rather than as an end in itself. Let technology be a tool for creativity and commitment, not an end in itself. Be selective and deliberate in one’s use of technology, rather than being the hapless consumer of the latest and shiniest. Create a life that matters.

Ethical principles for assessing new technologies

Technologies and technology systems have deep and pervasive effects on the human beings who live within their reach. How do normative principles and principles of social and political justice apply to technology? Is there such a thing as “the ethics of technology”?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is an overriding fact about technology that needs to be considered in every discussion of the ethics of technology. It is a basic principle of liberal democracy that individual freedom and liberty should be respected. Individuals should have the right to act and create as they choose, subject to something like Mill’s harm principle. The harm principle holds that liberty should be restricted only when the activity in question imposes harm on other individuals. Applied to the topic of technology innovation, we can derive a strong principle of “liberty of innovation and creation” — individuals (and their organizations, such as business firms) should have a presumptive right to create new technologies constrained only by something like the harm principle.

Often we want to go beyond this basic principle of liberty to ask what the good and bad of technology might be. Why is technological innovation a good thing, all things considered? And what considerations should we keep in mind as we consider legitimate regulations or limitations on technology?

Consider three large principles that have emerged in other areas of social and political ethics as a basis for judging the legitimacy and fairness of a given set of social arrangements:

 A. Technologies should contribute to some form of human good, some activity or outcome that is desired by human beings — health, education, enjoyment, pleasure, sociality, friendship, fitness, spirituality, …

B. Technologies ought to be consistent with the fullest development of the human capabilities and freedoms of the individuals whom they affect. [Or stronger: “promote the fullest development …”]

C. Technologies ought to have population effects that are fair, equal, and just.

The first principle attempts to address the question, “What is technology good for? What is the substantive moral good that is served by technology development?” The basic idea is that human beings have wants and needs, and contributing to their ability to fulfill these wants is itself a good thing (if in so doing other greater harms are not created as well). This principle captures what is right about utilitarianism and hedonism — the inherent value of human happiness and satisfaction. This means that entertainment and enjoyment are legitimate goals of technology development.

The second principle links technology to the “highest good” of human wellbeing — the full development of human capabilities and freedoms. As is evident, the principle offered here derives from Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functionings, expressed in Development as Freedom. This principle recalls Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures:

Mill always insisted that the ultimate test of his own doctrine was utility, but for him the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number included qualitative judgements about different levels or kinds of human happiness. Pushpin was not as good as poetry; only Pushkin was…. Cultivation of one’s own individuality should be the goal of human existence. (J.S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought : 454)

The third principle addresses the question of fairness and equity. Thinking about justice has evolved a great deal in the past fifty years, and one thing that emerges clearly is the intimate connection between injustice and invidious discrimination — even if unintended. Social institutions that arbitrarily assign significantly different opportunities and life outcomes to individuals based on characteristics such as race, gender, income, neighborhood, or religion are unfair and unjust, and need to be reformed. This approach derives as much from current discussions of racial health disparities as it does from philosophical theories along the lines of Rawls and Sen.

On these principles a given technology can be criticized, first, if it has no positive contribution to make for the things that make people happy or satisfied; second, if it has the effect of stunting the development of human capabilities and freedoms; and third, if it has discriminatory effects on quality of life across the population it effects.

One important puzzle facing the ethics of technology is a question about the intended audience of such a discussion. We are compelled to ask, to whom is a philosophical discussion of the normative principles that ought to govern our thinking about technology aimed? Whose choices, actions, and norms are we attempting to influence? There appear to be several possible answers to this question.

Corporate ethics. Entrepreneurs and corporate boards and executives have an ethical responsibility to consider the impact of the technologies that they introduce into the market. If we believe that codes of corporate ethics have any real effect on corporate decision-making, then we need to have a basis in normative philosophy for a relevant set of principles that should guide business decision-making about the creation and implementation of new technologies by businesses. A current example is the use of facial recognition for the purpose of marketing or store security; does a company have a moral obligation to consider the negative social effects it may be promoting by adopting such a technology?

Governments and regulators. Government has an overriding responsibility of preserving and enhancing the public good and minimizing harmful effects of private activities. This is the fundamental justification for government regulation of industry. Since various technologies have the potential of creating harms for some segments of the public, it is legitimate for government to enact regulatory systems to prevent reckless or unreasonable levels of risk. Government also has a responsibility for ensuring a fair and just environment for all citizens, and enacting policies that serve to eliminate inequalities based on discriminatory social institutions. So here too governments have a role in regulating technologies, and a careful study of the normative principles that should govern our thinking about the fairness and justice of technologies is relevant to this process of government decision-making as well.

Public interest advocacy groups. One way in which important social issues can be debated and sometimes resolved is through the advocacy of well-organized advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace. Organizations like these are in a position to argue in favor of or against a variety of social changes, and raising concerns about specific kinds of technologies certainly falls within this scope. There are only a small number of grounds for this kind of advocacy: the innovation will harm the public, the innovation will create unacceptable hidden costs, or the innovation raises unacceptable risks of unjust treatment of various groups. In order to make the latter kind of argument, the advocacy group needs to be able to articulate a clear and justified argument for its position about “unjust treatment”.

The public. Citizens themselves have an interest in being able to make normative judgments about new technologies as they arise. “This technology looks as though it will improve life for everyone and should be favored; that technology looks as though it will create invidious and discriminatory sets of winners and losers and should be carefully regulated.” But for citizens to have a basis for making judgments like these, they need to have a normative framework within which to think and reason about the social role of technology. Public discussion of the ethical principles underlying the legitimacy and justice of technology innovations will deepen and refine these normative frameworks.

Considered as proposed here, the topic of “ethics of technology” is part of a broad theory of social and political philosophy more generally. It invokes some of our best reasoning about what constitutes the human good (fulfillment of capabilities and freedoms) and about what constitutes a fair social system (elimination of invidious discrimination in the effects of social institutions on segments of population). Only when we have settled these foundational questions are we able to turn to the more specific issues often discussed under the rubric of the ethics of technology.

Kojève on freedom

An earlier post highlighted Alexandre Kojève’s presentation of Hegel’s rich conception of labor, freedom, and human self-creation. This account is contained in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the “Phenomenology of Spirit”; link.

Here are the key passages from Hegel’s Phenomenology on which Kojève’s account depends, from Terry Pinkard’s translation in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit:

Hegel on the Master-Slave relation

195. However, the feeling of absolute power as such, and in the particularities of service, is only dissolution in itself, and, although the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom, in that fear consciousness is what it is that is for it itself , but it is not being-for-itself. However, through work, this servile consciousness comes round to itself. In the moment corresponding to desire in the master’s consciousness, the aspect of the non-essential relation to the thing seemed to fall to the lot of the servant, as the thing there retained its self-sufficiency. Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object, and, as a result, it has reserved to itself that unmixed feeling for its own self. However, for that reason, this satisfaction is itself only a vanishing, for it lacks the objective aspect, or stable existence. In contrast, work is desire held in check, it is vanishing staved off , or: work cultivates and educates. The negative relation to the object becomes the form of the object; it becomes something that endures because it is just for the laborer himself that the object has self-sufficiency. This negative mediating middle, this formative doing, is at the same time singularity, or the pure being-for-itself of consciousness, which in the work external to it now enters into the element of lasting. Thus, by those means, the working consciousness comes to an intuition of self-sufficient being as its own self.

196. However, what the formative activity means is not only that the serving consciousness as pure being-for-itself becomes, to itself, an exist- ing being within that formative activity. It also has the negative mean- ing of the first moment, that of fear. For in forming the thing, his own negativity, or his being-for-itself, only as a result becomes an object to himself in that he sublates the opposed existing form. However, this objective negative is precisely the alien essence before which he trembled, but now he destroys this alien negative and posits himself as such a negative within the element of continuance. He thereby becomes for himself an existing- being-for-itself . Being-for-itself in the master is to the servant an other, or it is only for him. In fear, being-for-itself is in its own self . In culturally formative activity, being-for-itself becomes for him his own being- for-itself, and he attains the consciousness that he himself is in and for himself. As a result, the form, by being posited as external, becomes to him not something other than himself, for his pure being-for-itself is that very form, which to him therein becomes the truth. Therefore, through this retrieval, he comes to acquire through himself a mind of his own, and he does this precisely in the work in which there had seemed to be only some outsider’s mind. – For this reflection, the two moments of fear and service, as well as the moments of culturally formative activity are both necessary, and both are necessary in a universal way. Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear is mired in formality and does not diffuse itself over the conscious actuality of existence. Without culturally formative activity, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness will not become for it [consciousness] itself. If consciousness engages in formative activity without that first, absolute fear, then it has a mind of its own which is only vanity, for its form, or its negativity, is not negativity in itself , and his formative activity thus cannot to himself give him the consciousness of himself as consciousness of the essence. If he has not been tried and tested by absolute fear but only by a few anxieties, then the negative essence will have remained an externality to himself, and his substance will not have been infected all the way through by it. While not each and every one of the ways in which his natural consciousness was brought to fulfillment was shaken to the core, he is still attached in himself to determinate being. His having a mind of his own is then only stubbornness, a freedom that remains bogged down within the bounds of servility. To the servile consciousness, pure form can as little become the essence as can the pure form – when it is taken as extending itself beyond the singular individual – be a universal culturally formative activity, an absolute concept. Rather, the form is a skill which, while it has dominance over some things, has dominance over neither the universal power nor the entire objective essence. (Hegel, Phenomenology, 115-116)

Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel

Here are the primary passages that represent the heart of Kojève’s interpretation of this section.

Work, on the other hand, is repressed Desire, an arrested passing phase; or, in other words, it forms-and-educates. Work transforms the World and civilizes, educates, Man, the man who wants to work — or who must work — must repress the instinct that drives him “to consume” “immediately” the “raw” object. And the Slave can work for the Master — that is, for another than himself — only by repressing his own desires. Hence he transcends himself by working — or perhaps better, he educates himself, he “cultivates” and “sublimates” his instincts by repressing them. On the other hand, he does not destroy the thing as it is given. He postpones the destruction of the thing by first transforming it through work; he prepares it for consumption — that is to say, he “forms” it. In his work, he transforms things and transforms himself at the same time: he forms things and the World by transforming himself, by educating himself; and he educates himself, he forms himself, by transforming things and the World, Thus, the negative-or-negating relation to the object becomes a form of this object and gains permanence, precisely because, for the worker, the object has autonomy…. The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. Only after producing an artificial object is man himself really and objectively more than and different from a natural being; and only in this real and objective product does he become truly conscious of his subjective human reality. Kojève 24-25

The Master can never detach himself from the World in which he lives, and if this World perishes, he perishes with it. Only the Slave can transcend the given world (which is subjugated by the Master) and not perish. Only the Slave can transform the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create a World that he has formed in which he will be free. And the Slave achieves this only through forced and terrified work carried out in the Master’s service. To be sure, this work by itself does not free him. But in transforming the World by this work, the Slave transforms himself too, and thus creates the new objective conditions that permit him to take up once more the liberating Fight for recognition that he refused in the beginning for fear of death. And thus in the long run, all slavish work realizes not the Master’s will, but the will — at first unconscious — of the Slave, who — finally –succeeds where the Master — necessarily — fails. Therefore, it is indeed originally dependent, serving, and slavish Consciousness that in the end realizes and reveals the ideal of autonomous Self-Consciousness and is thus its “truth.” Kojève 29-30

However, to understand the edifice of universal history and the process of its construction, one must know the materials that were used to construct it. These materials are men. To know what History is, one must therefore know what Man who realizes it is. Most certainly, man is something quite different from a brick. In the first place, if we want to compare universal history to the construction of an edifice, we must point out that men are not only the bricks that are used in the construction; they are also the masons who build it and the architects who conceive the plan for it, a plan, moreover, which is progressively elaborated during the construction itself. Furthermore, even as “brick,” man is essentially different from a material brick: even the human brick changes during the construction, just as the human mason and the human architect do. Nevertheless, there is something in Man, in every man, that makes him suited to participate–passively or actively–in the realization of universal history. At the beginning of this History, which ends finally in absolute Knowledge, there are, so to speak, the necessary and sufficient conditions. And Hegel studies these conditions in the first four chapters of the Phenomenology.

Finally, Man is not only the material, the builder, and the architect of the historical edifice.  He is also the one for whom this edifice is constructed: he lives in it, he sees and understands it, he describes and criticizes it. There is a whole category of men who do not actively participate in the historical construction and who are content to live in the constructed edifice and to talk about it. These men, who live somehow “above the battle,” who are content to talk about things that they do not create by their Action, are Intellectuals who produce intellectuals’ ideologies, which they take for philosophy (and pass off as such). Hegel describes and criticizes these ideologies in Chapter V. (32-33)

The central ideas here are —

  • Work transforms and educates the worker.
  • Work requires the delay of consumption.
  • Work transforms the world and the environment.
  • The self-creation of the human being through work is essential to his or her reality as a human being.
  • By merely directing and commanding work, the master fails to engage in self-creation.
  • The master cannot be truly free.
  • Human beings create history through their creative labor.
  • Human beings create and transform themselves through labor.
  • History is human-centered. History is “subject” as well as “object”.
  • Those who merely think and reflect upon history are sterile and contribute nothing to the course of history.

These comments add up to a substantive theory of the human being in the world — one that emphasizes creativity, transformation, and self-creation. It stands in stark contrast to the liberal utilitarian view of Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham of human nature as consumer and rational optimizer of a given set of choices; instead, on Kojève’s (and Hegel’s) view, the human being becomes fully human through creative engagement with the natural world, through labor.

It is interesting to realize that Kojève was a philosopher, but he was not primarily an academic professor. Instead, he was a high-placed civil servant and statesman in the French state, a man whose thinking and actions were intended to create a new path for France. He is credited with being one of the early theorists of the European Union.

Kojève’s account of labor and freedom is, of course, influenced by his own immersion in the writings of the early Marx; so the philosophy of labor, freedom, and self-creation articulated here is neither pure Hegel nor pure Marx. We might say that it is pure Kojève.

Jeff Love’s biography of Kojève is also of interest, emphasizing the Russian roots of Kojève’s thought; The Black Circle: A Life of Alexandre Kojève. Love confirms the importance of the richer theory of human freedom and self-realization that is offered in Kojève’s account, and notes a parallel with themes in nineteenth-century Russian literature.

Kojève’s critique of self-interest merits renewal in a day when consumer capitalism and the reign of self-interest are hardly in question, either implicitly or explicitly, and where the key precincts of critique have been hobbled by their own reliance on elements of the modern conception of the human being as the free historical individual that have not been sufficiently clarified. Kojève’s thought is thus anodyne: far from being “philosophically” mad or the learned jocularity of a jaded, extravagant genius, it expresses a probing inquiry into the nature of human being that returns us to questions that reach down to the roots of the free historical individual. Moreover, it extends a critique of self-interest deeply rooted in Russian thought, and Kojève does so, no doubt with trenchant irony, in the very capital of the modern bourgeoisie decried violently by Dostoevsky in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.

(Here is an interesting reflection on Kojève as philosopher by Stanley Rosen; link.)

Ethical disasters

Many examples of technical disasters have been provided in Understanding Society, along with efforts to understand the systemic dysfunctions that contributed to their occurrence. Frequently those dysfunctions fall within the business organizations that manage large, complex technology systems, and often enough those dysfunctions derive from the imperatives of profit-maximization and cost avoidance. Andrew Hopkins’ account of the business decisions contributing to the explosion of the ESSO gas plant in Longford, Australia illustrates this dynamic in Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion. The withdrawal of engineering experts from the plant to a remote corporate headquarters was a cost-saving move that, according to Hopkins, contributed to the eventual disaster.

A topic we have not addressed in detail is the occurrence of ethical disasters — terrible outcomes that are the result of deliberate choices by decision-makers within an organization that are, upon inspection, clearly and profoundly unethical and immoral. The collapse of Enron is probably one such disaster; the Bernie Madoff scandal is another. But it seems increasingly likely that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family’s business leadership of the corporation represent another major example. Recent reporting by ProPublica, the Atlantic, and the New York Times relies on documents collected in the course of litigation against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family in Massachusetts and New York. (Here are the unredacted court documents on which much of this reporting depends; link.) These documents make it hard to avoid the ethical conclusion that the Sackler family actively participated in business strategies for their company Purdue Pharma that treated the OxyContin addiction epidemic as an expanding business opportunity. And this seems to be a huge ethical breach.

This set of issues is currently unresolved by the courts, so it rests with the legal system to resolve the facts and the issues of legal culpability. But as citizens we all have the ability to read the documents and make our own decisions about the ethical status of decisions and strategies made by the family and the corporation over the course of this disaster. The point here is simply to ask these key questions: how should we think about the ethical status of decisions and strategies of owners and managers that lead to terrible harms, and harms that could reasonably have been anticipated? How should a company or a set of owners respond to a catastrophe in which several hundred thousand people have died, and which was facilitated in part by deliberate marketing efforts by the company and the owners? How should the company have adjusted its business when it became apparent that its product was creating addiction and widespread death?

First, here are a few details from the current reporting about the case. Here are a few paragraphs from the ProPublica story (January 30, 2019):

Not content with billions of dollars in profits from the potent painkiller OxyContin, its maker explored expanding into an “attractive market” fueled by the drug’s popularity — treatment of opioid addiction, according to previously secret passages in a court document filed by the state of Massachusetts.

In internal correspondence beginning in 2014, Purdue Pharma executives discussed how the sale of opioids and the treatment of opioid addiction are “naturally linked” and that the company should expand across “the pain and addiction spectrum,” according to redacted sections of the lawsuit by the Massachusetts attorney general. A member of the billionaire Sackler family, which founded and controls the privately held company, joined in those discussions and urged staff in an email to give “immediate attention” to this business opportunity, the complaint alleges. (ProPublica 1/30/2019; link)

The NYT story reproduces a diagram included in the New York court filings that illustrates the company’s business strategy of “Project Tango” — the idea that the company could make money both from sales of its pain medication and from sales of treatments for the addiction it caused.

Further, according to the reporting provided by the NYT and ProPublica, members of the Sackler family used their positions on the Purdue Pharma board to press for more aggressive business exploitation of the opportunities described here:

In 2009, two years after the federal guilty plea, Mortimer D.A. Sackler, a board member, demanded to know why the company wasn’t selling more opioids, email traffic cited by Massachusetts prosecutors showed. In 2011, as states looked for ways to curb opioid prescriptions, family members peppered the sales staff with questions about how to expand the market for the drugs…. The family’s statement said they were just acting as responsible board members, raising questions about “business issues that were highly relevant to doctors and patients. (NYT 4/1/2019; link)

From the 1/30/2019 ProPublica story, and based on more court documents:

Citing extensive emails and internal company documents, the redacted sections allege that Purdue and the Sackler family went to extreme lengths to boost OxyContin sales and burnish the drug’s reputation in the face of increased regulation and growing public awareness of its addictive nature. Concerns about doctors improperly prescribing the drug, and patients becoming addicted, were swept aside in an aggressive effort to drive OxyContin sales ever higher, the complaint alleges. (link)

And ProPublica underlines the fact that prosecutors believe that family members have personal responsibility for the management of the corporation:

The redacted paragraphs leave little doubt about the dominant role of the Sackler family in Purdue’s management. The five Purdue directors who are not Sacklers always voted with the family, according to the complaint. The family-controlled board approves everything from the number of sales staff to be hired to details of their bonus incentives, which have been tied to sales volume, the complaint says. In May 2017, when longtime employee Craig Landau was seeking to become Purdue’s chief executive, he wrote that the board acted as “de-facto CEO.” He was named CEO a few weeks later. (link)

The courts will resolve the question of legal culpability. The question here is one of the ethical standards that should govern the actions and strategies of owners and managers. Here are several simple ethical observations that seem relevant to this case.

First, it is obvious that pain medication is a good thing when used appropriately under the supervision of expert and well-informed physicians. Pain management enhances quality of life for people experiencing pain.

Second, addiction is plainly a bad thing, and it is worse when it leads to predictable death or disability for its victims. A company has a duty of concern for the quality of life of human beings affected by its product, and this extends to a duty to take all possible precautions to minimize the likelihood that human beings will be harmed by the product.

Third, given that the risks of addiction that were known about this product, the company has a moral obligation to treat its relations with physicians and other health providers as occasions of accurate and truthful education about the product, not opportunities for persuasion, inducement, and marketing. Rather than a sales force of representatives whose incomes are determined by the quantity of the product they sell, the company has a moral obligation to train and incentivize its representatives to function as honest educators providing full information about the risks as well as the benefits of the product. And, of course, it has an obligation not to immerse itself in the dynamics of “conflict of interest” discussed elsewhere (link) — this means there should be no incentives provided to the physicians who agree to prescribe the product.

Fourth, it might be argued that the profits generated by the business of a given pharmaceutical product should be used proportionally to ameliorate the unavoidable harms it creates. Rather than making billions in profits from the sale of the product, and then additional hundreds of millions on products that offset the addictions and illness created by dissemination of the product (this was the plan advanced as “Project Tango”), the company and its owners should hold themselves accountable for the harms created by their product. (That is, the social and human costs of addiction should not be treated as “externalities” or even additional sources of profit for the company.)

Finally, there is an important question at a more individual scale. How should we think about super-rich owners of a company who seem to lose sight entirely of the human tragedies created by their company’s product and simply demand more profits, more timely distribution of the profits, and more control of the management decisions of the company? These are individual human beings, and surely they have a responsibility to think rigorously about their own moral responsibilities. The documents released in these court proceedings seem to display an amazing blindness to moral responsibility on the part of some of these owners.

(There are other important cases illustrating the clash between moral responsibility, corporate profits, and corporate decision-making, having to do with the likelihood of collaboration between American companies, their German and Polish subsidiaries, and the Nazi regime during World War II. Edwin Black argues in IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation-Expanded Edition that the US-based computer company provided important support for Germany’s extermination strategy. Here is a 2002 piece from the Guardian on the update of Black’s book providing more documentary evidence for this claim; link. And here is a piece from the Washington Post on American car companies in Nazi Germany; link. )

(Stephen Arbogast’s Resisting Corporate Corruption: Cases in Practical Ethics From Enron Through The Financial Crisis is an interesting source on corporate ethics,)

Guest post by Dave Elder-Vass


[Dave Elder-Vass accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of moral realism.  (link). Elder-Vass is Reader in sociology at Loughborough University and author of Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency and The Reality of Social Construction, discussed herehere and here. Dave has emerged as a leading voice in the philosophy of social science, especially in the context of continuing developments in the theory of critical realism. Thanks, Dave!]


Moral realism and explanatory critique
By Dave Elder-Vass

Daniel Little’s latest blog post “Moral progress and critical realism” raises some important issues for critical realists and indeed social scientists more generally. I’m sympathetic to the general orientation of his piece, and have made similar arguments elsewhere (summarised in this blog post). I thought it would be useful, though, to add some further discussion of how Daniel’s argument relates to critical realism itself.

While critical realists agree that there is a real world that exists independently of what we think about it, they need not – and do not – agree on exactly which classes of things exist within that world. Moral realism is a case in point. Roy Bhaskar explicitly identified himself as a moral realist, and offered several different justifications for this in the course of his work. Some critical realists accept all of those justifications, some are ambivalent or selective about which they accept, and others like Andrew Sayer and myself, for example, reject moral realism outright.

I’d like to focus here on one of Bhaskar’s arguments: the theory of explanatory critique. Technically this is an argument for ethical naturalism rather than moral realism (I’ll come back to that), although it is sometimes regarded as supporting both. The classic statement of the theory can be found in his book Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:

Let a belief P, which has some object O, have a source (causal explanation) S. I am going to contend that if we possess: (i) adequate grounds for supposing P is false; and (ii) adequate grounds for supposing that S co-explains P, then we may, and must, pass immediately to (iii) a negative evaluation of S (CP); and (iv) a positive evaluation of action rationally directed at the removal of S (CP (SRHE, p. 177)

This argument can be read and/or employed in a number of different ways. Let me discuss three. First, it is a variation on the classic Marxist critique of ideology – it suggests that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O) and that we ought to get rid of them. For example: if capitalist-controlled media sources mislead us about the nature of capitalism then we should replace those media sources (note that Bhaskar is careful to qualify the argument with a ceteris paribus clause (CP), and thus acknowledges that other factors must also be taken into consideration). As a critical ethical claim this seems reasonable and attractive, and it gains some of its appeal by being rather more direct than most versions of ideology critique.

But this is not the point of the theory of explanatory critique, which brings us to the second reading. On this reading, the purpose of Bhaskar’s statement is to support his advocacy of ethical naturalism: the claim that we can derive ethical conclusions from purely factual premises. Bhaskar maintains that the premises (i) and (ii) are purely factual, and lead logically (“we may, and must, pass immediately to…”) to the ethical conclusions (iii) and (iv). But as a number of people have pointed out, there is a flaw in this argument. The premises are indeed purely factual, and the conclusions are indeed ethical, but the premises are not sufficient to entail the conclusions. To arrive at these conclusions, we need a further premise: we must also believe that it is wrong to generate, advocate, or support false beliefs. Of course, most of us DO believe that, and if so we may well be happy to accept the conclusion in reading one. But that doesn’t mean that Bhaskar has shown us how to derive an ethical conclusion from purely factual premises: his argument for ethical naturalism is false.

One also finds critical realists who think that the theory of explanatory critique provides a justification for moral realism: the claim that there are moral facts that are objectively right, good, or true regardless of what people may think about them. As far as I am aware Bhaskar himself does not claim that the theory of explanatory critique entails moral realism, and when he does advocate moral realism explicitly in his later work he offers other arguments to support it. But most critical realists are uncomfortable with those later arguments, and so it is important to establish whether or not the theory of explanatory critique does support moral realism. Let me call this a third reading of the argument, although it also depends on the second. On this reading, the argument for ethical naturalism establishes that we can indeed derive ethical claims from non-ethical facts, and this further implies that those ethical claims must therefore be objectively true. The logic is pretty straightforward: if it is objectively true that there are social institutions (S) which generate false beliefs (P) about other (or the same) social institutions (O), and if we can logically derive an ethical claim from these objective facts, then it would seem to be objectively true that we ought to get rid of those social institutions, irrespective of what any person or social group might believe about the issues. But it is quite clear that this is not a tenable conclusion, because reading two is itself false: the ethical conclusions of Bhaskar’s explanatory critique depend on ethical as well as factual premises, so even if the factual premises are objectively true there is no basis to conclude that the ethical conclusions are also objectively true.

While this argument may have been a little technical for a blog post, I think it is important to clarify these distinctions. I regularly encounter (and read) fellow critical realists who cite Bhaskar’s theory of explanatory critique as support for ethical naturalism and moral realism. I suspect that some of them have been seduced by the attractiveness of the argument in the first reading discussed above into believing that this justifies the second and third readings as well. It does not!

Moral progress and critical realism

Critical realists share a rejection of the fact-value distinction as a fundamental criterion of scientific rationality — and rightly so (link). They believe that social research and theorizing involve value commitments all the way down. Further, they commonly believe that good social science should lead to improvement in the world and in our system of moral judgments.

So far, so good. But some critical realists think that this points to “moral realism” as well as scientific realism. Moral realism maintains that there are objective and timeless answers to the questions, what is justice? what should we do? what rights do people have? Moral realists hold that holds that the moral facts are out there and waiting for discovery; there is a domain of “moral facts” that ultimately goes beyond the limits of rational disagreement.

This impulse towards moral realism is a problem. Moral realism and scientific realism are not analogous. There is no philosophical or theological method that will resolve moral questions into an unquestionable foundation or set of universal moral truths. Neither Kantianism, nor Aristotelianism, nor utilitarianism, nor traditional religious systems have the capacity to establish universal and unquestionable moral conclusions. The impulse towards moral realism has the perilous possibility of morphing into a dogmatic view of morality that substitutes one’s own convictions for eternal moral truths. In my view, this is farfetched and ultimately implies an unreflective dogmatism about values. Fortunately there is a better and more modest position available that drives from the same pragmatist origins that are inspiring other advances in critical realism.

The better approach is based on a coherence epistemology. This approach is explicitly anti-realist when it comes to moral values. Ethical reasoning always has to do with conversation, disagreement, and sometimes progress. Moral practices have social reality, to be sure; but there are no “moral facts” consisting of moral principles and values that are beyond the possibility of further rational debate. This approach to moral theory emphasizes corrigibility and pragmatic debate about ends, means, and values. It converges with coherence epistemology along the lines of Quine and Rawls; it deliberately replaces a foundationalist approach to moral thinking with a corrigible ongoing series of discussions by moral equals. This allows for an epistemology based on dialogue, and it comes out of the pragmatist tradition.

This is the approach that John Rawls adopted in his theory of reflective equilibrium. Rawls explicitly links his approach to the anti-foundationalist thinking of philosophers like Quine. (Here is a 1985 paper in which I tried to summarize Rawls’s moral methodology of reflective equilibrium; link.) Moral reasoning involves a back-and-forth between a set of considered judgments (current moral judgments about concrete issues) and more abstract moral principles. Both considered judgments and abstract principles are adjusted until the system of beliefs is reasonably consistent and coherent. Here is how Rawls describes this process of moral navigation with respect to the idea of the original position in A Theory of Justice 2nd edition:

In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the hypothetical original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments. Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the original position. (TJ 18)

This approach leads to two important features. (i) There are no fixed and final moral facts; moral facts are not part of the furniture of the world. But (ii) our moral frameworks have the potential of improving over time, as we grope reflectively with our moral responses, sympathies, and principles. There is a bootstrapping kind of progress here.

What Rawls adds is the idea that our efforts to move toward reflective equilibrium permit us to increase the overall adequacy of our system of beliefs and considered judgments. And this ties directly to his treatment of Political Liberalism — an ongoing discourse allowing us to refine and reform our convictions on the basis of communication with fellow members of our communities and groups. (Habermas and the public communicative process converges here as well.)

It is clear enough that no group is likely ever to reach full unanimity in a discussion like this. This is implied by Rawls’s own conception of a liberal society including people with conflicting conceptions of the good. And ultimately a society can be very stable even as it embraces multiple conceptions of the good and other important questions of value.

These considerations suggest that we should abandon the idea of absolute moral truth (moral realism) and embrace instead the goal of securing a respectful, thoughtful dialogue that creates a possibility of moral progress. We may have the optimistic hope that a community or society improves its ability to make moral perceptions and distinctions over time, through the practice of debating and testing the normative ideas that are shared and those that divide the population.

The ongoing work by various theorists on deliberative democracy sheds some light on the concrete ways in which this kind of moral clarification can work within a group of citizens and otherwise unrelated people. (Here is a programatic statement from the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance; link.) Everyone brings a moral and value sensibility to their interactions and reactions to the world, and sometimes those sensibilities can change through interaction with other individuals. Consideration of facts, complications, and alternative ways of stating various value commitment permit the individuals to honestly reflect on their commitments and social reactions and perhaps adjust them. (Here is a discussion of deliberative democracy; link. And here is a recent paper by Archon Fung on deliberative democracy and progressive social change; link.)

(Richmond Campbell’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Moral Epistemology” is excellent as background on this topic; link.)

Jobs, basic income, and the future of the techno-market economy

In the dystopian vision of the future described in William Gibson’s Sprawl novels, there are few people with normal jobs, regular sources of income, retirement plans, and health insurance. Instead, there are hackers, freelance security guards, software traffickers, criminals at many levels, and a few distant corporations with scientists and managers. It is a grim picture.

But how distant is that future from our current trajectory? Is that pretty much where we are heading? With the effort to shed 24 million Americans from health insurance; with the disappearance of “good” industrial jobs; with the rise of the gig economy; with the super-extreme development of inequalities of income and wealth, based on privileged positions in the financial and tech economies — do these trends not seem like early-stage Gibson?

Philippe van Parijs has long been an advocate for a very fundamental change to the legal and economic structure of a capitalist democracy, the establishment of a universal basic income for all citizens and legal residents of a country. A recent statement of his position (with Yannick Vanderborght) is Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. The central value that drives van Parijs’ social philosophy is “real freedom”. And he believes that the creation of a legal commitment to universal basic income within advanced democracies is both politically feasible and desirable for the impact it would have on the levels of freedom enjoyed by the most disadvantaged members of society. Here is how van Parijs and Vanderborght put the fundamental point:

A basic income is not just a clever measure that may help alleviate urgent problems. It is a central pillar of a free society, in which the real freedom to flourish, through work and outside work, will be fairly distributed. It is an essential element of a radical alternative to both old socialism and neoliberalism, of a realistic utopia that offers far more than the defense of past achievements or resistance to the dictates of the global market. It is a crucial part of the sort of vision needed to turn threats into opportunities, resignation into resolution, anguish into hope. (kl 81)

What should be the level of a universal basic income? Parijs and Vanderborght choose as a benchmark the 25th percentile of a country’s GDP per capita. In the US this would amount to $1,163 and in Brazil $180 (kl 235). For a US family of five including two adults, this amounts to $2,326 per month — roughly the current level of the US poverty threshold for a family of five. (Van Parijs and Vanderborght address the relation between the UBI and the poverty threshold; kl 252.)

The current issue of Boston Review includes a forum on “Work, Inequality, Basic Income”, with essays and discussions by Brishen Rogers, Philippe van Parijs, Dorian Warren, Tommie Shelby, Diane Coyle, and others. It is “must” reading for anyone concerned about the question of how we can craft an equitable and livable world in the context of a market economy in the coming decades.

Here is how Brishen Rogers describes the idea of universal basic income in his anchor essay:

The idea is simple: the state would provide regular cash grants, ideally sufficient to meet basic needs, as a right of citizenship or lawful residency. Understood as a fundamental right, basic income would be unconditional, not means-tested and not contingent on previous or current employment. It would help sever the link between work and welfare, provide income security for all who are eligible, and perhaps mitigate growing inequality. It could also enable people to provide unpaid work or community service, start new businesses, or get an education. (

Forum

14)

Rogers places a great deal of emphasis on the changes in the power relations between capital and labor that are implicit in the technology revolution currently underway. Workers (think Uber drivers or Amazon inventory fulfillers) are more and more disempowered with respect to their conditions of work, including wage levels but also including job satisfaction, job security, workplace safety and health standards, and other features of meaningful work experience. Rogers thinks that basic income is a good idea, but one that needs to be part of a more comprehensive package of reforms.

An alternative case for basic income draws from classic commitments to social democracy, or an economic system in which the state limits corporate power, ensures a decent standard of living for all, and encourages decent work. In the social democratic view, however, a basic income would be only art of the solution to economic and social inequalities — we also need a revamped public sector and a new and different collective bargaining system. Indeed, without such broader reforms, a basic income could do more harm than good. (15)

Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of van Parijs in an earlier Boston Review forum on universal basic income strikes a similar note (link). Anderson believes that the “real libertarian” foundations of van Parijs’s arguments for UBI are unconvincing, and they are inconsistent with the broader goal of establishing a just society within the circumstances of a capitalist democracy. Van Parijs over-estimates income relative to other social entitlements. Her summary is straightforward: “I will argue that Van Parijs’s real libertarianism cannot justify a UBI, but that a UBI may have some promise as a supplementary part of a larger social welfare package that is justified on other grounds.”

So let’s consider whether the establishment of a universal basic income would in fact lead to a substantially better level of quality of life and real freedom for the disadvantaged in a given capitalist democracy. To start, the level of basic income postulated by van Parijs and Vanderborght is by no means comparable to the level of living standards associated with a current unionized American worker. At $18/hour, a single earner family in the automotive manufacturing sector generates about $36,000 per year; with two earners this may rise to $48,000-$72,000 per year, depending on the nature of the second earner’s job and number of hours of work. So the universal basic income does not substitute for “good jobs”.

But this is perfectly clear to the advocates for a universal basic income. Their vision is not that the UBI is the sole source of income for most people most of the time. Both private employment and social provisioning would also be part of the individual’s overall bundle of entitlements.

Contrary to the way in which it is sometimes characterized and to the chagrin of those among its advocates who want to sell it as a radical simplification, a basic income should not be understood as being, by definition, a full substitute for all existing transfers, much less a substitute for the public funding of quality education, quality health care, and other services. (kl 252)

Rather than constituting an all-round solution to the problem of living well in a capitalist democracy, the UBI is a safety net in the context of which individuals can seek out employment of various kinds.

It does not amount to giving up the objective of full employment sensibly interpreted. For full employment can mean two things: full-time paid work for the entire able-bodied part of the population of working age, or the real possibility of getting meaningful paid work for all those who want it. As an objective, the basic income strategy rejects the former but embraces the latter. (kl 617)

Individuals can use their skills and their interests to generate additional income permitting higher levels of prosperity and job satisfaction. And in a country in which access to affordable healthcare and free public education are rights, we can begin to see how van Parijs can assert that UBI would be a foundation for real freedom of choice and life plan.

This, then, is van Parijs’s response to Rogers and Anderson: his view too depends upon a host of social-democratic reforms, including access to healthcare, education, and other critical components of quality of life. But this seems to concede the point: the reforms we need are broader than simply establishing UBI. And that seems to be correct. We need social democracy, and UBI may be a valuable component of a full social-democratic regime.

(The moral basis for an extensive state along the lines of the Nordic examples was discussed in a prior post; link. The topic of rapid change in employment opportunities in advanced capitalism came up earlier in a post about “A Jobless Future”; link. Also of interest is a post on the social construction of work; link. And here is a post on alternatives to capitalism; link.)