Talking Philosophy With Kids At The Brooklyn Public Library

This Sunday afternoon at 4PM, I will be participating in a Philosophy for Kids event at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (in the Info Commons Lab); the event is sponsored by the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy. I’ll be functioning as a kind of Philosophical Advice Columnist taking on, and considering, the following question with an audience made up of six to twelve-year old youngsters):

A friend of mine has a three-year old daughter. Every piece of clothing he buys her is pink and floral. Every toy is a doll or makeup kit. He’s already started joking about how she won’t be allowed to have a boyfriend until she’s 30. This all makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I don’t know whether I’d be crossing a line if I said something. Can I let him know how I feel?

After I posted this announcement on my Facebook page, a friend asked the following question–in what seems a rather irate tone of voice:

The bigger question is why someone should think that they have a right to even think about how someone else is raising their children in the first place, let alone believe that have a right to interfere.

This is a very good question. The straightforward response to it is that because we live in a community, a society, our actions always carry the possibility of bearing on the welfare of others, no matter how self-directed or ‘personal’ they might seem; it is a libertarian and liberal fantasy to imagine that we are isolated islands in the social sea; we are caught up, inextricably, in the lives of others, and they in ours. A family bringing up their child in a sexist or racist environment is raising someone who might very well inculcate those pernicious doctrines and then act on them–to the detriment of someone else’s child. We form political communities directed toward the common good, even as we strive to maximize our individual welfare; the challenge of figuring out how individual freedoms and self-determination can be safeguarded and enhanced while ensuring the rights of others are not infringed on is a central challenge to political and moral philosophy.

To make this discussion a little more personal: I’m the father of a four-year old daughter, and I try my best to bring her up as well as I can to prepare her for the challenges that will undoubtedly confront her in a patriarchal society. My task would be made incomparably easier if the parents of male offspring brought up their children to be sensitive to such considerations as well; it undoubtedly takes a village to raise a child.

This afternoon, I will not pretend the question raised above has a straightforward answer, and will not attempt to provide one to my ‘discussion group’; instead, I will try to draw out some of the central issues involved, perhaps by engaging in some level of abstraction so that the general form of this particular query can be exposed, and the difficulties of answering it can be confronted directly. I’m looking forward to it.

Prohibitionists and Their Impoverished Sense of Human Motivation

A few days ago, I wrote a post here on David Brooks’ inane ‘Weed: Been There, Done That‘ Op-Ed. Looking back on it now, what strikes me as most galling about Brooks’ post and other pro-prohibition sentiments that I’ve heard expressed in the past is the shriveled, impoverished, reductive view they have of human character. Their advocacy of prohibition reveals no concern for their fellow humans; it merely highlights their narrowly conceived view of them.

To wit, the (extreme) prohibitionist seems to believe that once someone, any one, is exposed to an intoxicant, a pleasurable one, perhaps offering some palliative relief from daily routine, or diversion, or entertainment, the consumption of that intoxicant will immediately be placed atop their hierarchy of desires. From then on, the user, now an addict, will divert his time, energy, and monetary resources to the pursuit of the intoxicant. Nothing else may compete with its allure.

This–possibly caricatured–description of prohibitionist sentiment highlights its most salient assumption: that pursuit of intoxicatory pleasures will override other goals entertained by the human agent, even if the price to be paid is ill-health or financial ruin.

I hope this sounds ludicrous to you. For humans have many desires that compete for their attention; these are satisfied depending on their standing in our scheme of values, our capacities, and our stations in life. Many are the pleasures we decline because we feel that some competing goal of ours will be compromised. Some of us, admittedly, are unable to adjudicate thus between competing desires and fall prey to a possibly pernicious indulgence repeatedly; but when these compulsions become pathological, we rightly suggest that such folks seek treatment for behavior that appears to self-destructive.

This point is broader, of course. We are all assumed hedonists by the prohibitionist: any experience deemed pleasurable by us will always be pursued by everyone no matter what its cost. Our tastes are alike; our dislikes and likes are alike.

But all too often, we find that experiences found pleasurable by others are not so for us. Many of my friends love scuba diving. I have been assured it’s an otherworldly experience, taking its exponent into a magical realm beneath the waves. I’m sure that’s the case. But I tried it, and I didn’t like it. I felt no desire to pursue that experience; knowing myself and my capacity to panic at inopportune moments, I reckoned I stood a good chance of hurting myself, and hurting others too, if I continued. So, after one dive down to the Great Barrier Reef, I gave it up. There are many other things I’d rather do on my vacations (hiking well above sea level, for instance!) I might have compromised other goals of mine if I had continued to pursue scuba diving. So, to reiterate, I didn’t do it any more. Or there are those, for instance, like mountaineers or F1 drivers, who pursue their pleasures and then give them up because the risks of their pursuits has become too visible and they feel their lives with their families threatened.

These examples can be multiplied endlessly.

The understanding of human beings as being constantly and relentlessly afflicted by a form of what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, and thus not worth being granted the freedom to live their lives according to their own, autonomously-arrived-at scale of values, is prohibition’s central incoherence.

We Robot 2012 – Day One

I am posting today from the University of Miami Law School, which is staging the We Robot 2012 conference. I presented and discussed Patrick Hubbard’s (University of South Carolina Law School) Regulation of Liability for Risks of Physical Injury From “Sophisticated Robots”. Presenting someone else’s work presents a difficult challenge; thanks to being an academic I have perfected the dark arts of bullshitting about my own work but doing so about someone else’s work is far more difficult.  I tried my best to present Patrick’s work as comprehensively and fairly as possible and to raise some questions that could spur on some discussion. (I will place the slides online very soon so you can see what I got up to.)

One of the points I raised in response to Patrick’s claim that robots that displayed ’emergent behavior’ would occasion changes in tort doctrine was: How should we understand such emergence? Might we need to see if robots, for instance, displayed  stability, homeostasis and evolvability–all often held to be features of living systems, paradigmatic examples of entities that display emergent behavior. Would robots be judged to display emergent behavior if it was not just a function of its parts but also of the holistic and relational properties of the system. I also asked Patrick how the law should understand autonomy given that some philosophical definitions of autonomy–like Kant’s for instance–would rule out some humans as being autonomous. (Earlier in the morning during discussions in another talk, I suggested another related benchmark that could be useful: Draw upon the suggestion made in Daniel Dennett’s The Case for Rorts that robots  could be viewed as intentional agents when we trust robots as authorities in reporting on their inner states, when its programmers and designers  lose epistemic hegemony.) An interesting section of the discussion that followed my presentation centered on how useful analogizing robots to animals or children or other kinds of entities was likely to be, and if useful, which analogies could work best. (This kind of analogizing was done in Chapter 4 of A Legal Theory of Autonomous Artificial Agents.)

Earlier in the day in discussing automated law enforcement–perhaps done by fleets of Robocops–I was glad to note that one of its positive outcomes was highlighted: that such automation could bring about a reduction of bias in law enforcement. In my comment following the talk, I noted that a fleet of Robocops aware of the Fourth Amendment might be be very welcome news for all those who were the targets of the almost seven hundred thousand Stop-n-Frisk searches in New York City.

As was noted in discussions in the morning, some common threads have already emerged: the suggestion that robots are ‘just tools,’ (which I continue to find bizarre), the not-so-clear distinction–and reliance on–true and apparent autonomy, the concerns about the need to avoid ‘projecting’ human will and agency onto robots and treating them like people (i.e., that we need to avoid the so-called ‘android fallacy.’) I personally don’t think warnings about the android fallacy are very useful; contemporary robots are not sophisticated enough to be people and there is no impossibility proof against them being sophisticated enough to be persons in the future.

Hopefully, I will have another–much more detailed–report from this very interesting and wonderfully well-organized conference tomorrow. (I really haven’t done justice to the rich discussions and presentations yet; for that I need a little more time.)