First Published on Huffington Post October 16, 2012.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Friday, September 28, 2012
"casting the goal as creating sophisticated functions (i.e. more self-directedness) -- rather than creating a joint human-machine cognitive system -- reinforces the fears of unbounded autonomy and does not prepare commanders to factor their understanding of unmanned vehicle use that there exist no fully autonomous systems, just as there are no fully autonomous soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines."
"Treating unmanned systems as if they had sufficient independent agency to reason about morality distracts from designing appropriate rules of engagement and ensuring operational morality. Operational morality is concerned with the professional ethics in design, deployment and handling of robots. Many companies and program managers appear to treat autonomy as exempt from operational responsibilities."
*Photo of "BigDog" uploaded from Wikipedia
Friday, September 7, 2012
Friday, December 9, 2011
With this time of year many of us find ourselves either happily or unhappily surrounded by family. We are reminded that family is the most important thing, and that the holidays are nothing if you are not firmly ensconced around a gathering of parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts and the myriad of their offspring. Even Scrooge was overcome by the possibility of loneliness in his future and raced to join his distant family for Christmas dinner.
This is a blog about Kant, and for the most part, that is what I will talk about today, but in a round about sort of way. I think that we theorists, philosophers and ethicists sometimes get very caught up in the logic or systematicity of an argument, and forget sometimes about the content of what we are saying. So today, after months of silence on Kantemplation, I'd like to talk about family, the holidays and Kantian ethics.
We are born into families without any sort of choice in the matter. Some of us are morally lucky and end up in loving and caring families, others not so much. We do not get to choose our parents, or siblings, or any of the other relations. They are for better or worse, thrust upon us. When we were little our universe consisted of this morally arbitrary band of people, but as we grow older, families expand by design and choice. Indeed, many people tend to distance themselves from their biological families to take refuge in close friends instead. This, I think is still an expanding of family.
Kant's main message to us all is to respect and help one another. It is that simple. We are forbidden from violating the rights of others, and we are morally blameworthy when we disrespect or (I'll say) hurt another. This hurt can take a variety of forms, from cynicism to snarkiness to just plain meanness. Any other 'hurt' that would be physical in nature would be a right's violation (external freedom). But this other kind of 'hurt', the hurt that so often comes to us as adults and children is morally blameworthy. Kant did not think that we could be lonely misanthropes never helping or coming into contact with anyone else. In fact, I fear he dreaded that, and it is a disservice to him that so many think him such a cold and unfeeling philosopher. Ethics, in its broadest sense, is about how to act rightly. We are to think through not only those actions that immediately affect another person, but other types of action too.
Thus it is at this time of year that when we are faced with the potential of being forced into a room with lots of people that you may or may not want to be with, that you should remember the spirit and content of Kant's writings on ethics. Be charitable, be kind, be patient and be respectful. These might be tall orders, and in some instances, perhaps not surrounding yourself with people who will fail to be charitable, kind, patient and respectful to you is also an equally right choice. As adults, we can choose who we would like to include in our families, and those people do not need to look like you, come from the same town, state or even country. True family are those people that look to support you and be champions of your cause, and unfortunately more often than not, the people to whom you are biologically connected do not necessarily fall into this category. If they do, then you are what Aquinas would call 'blessed'. If you are not, then take the higher road - take the road that Kant would advise. Despite this being the holiday season, you should always be charitable, kind and respectful. Even if that means opting out.
Now, for some of you reading this, you might think I am advocating never seeing your family, and maybe for some this is a good option. But opting out can be as simple as not responding to someone's goading or snide remarks. Opting out can also be ignoring rude and even hurtful comments by family. Because such things are not, in a sense, a matter of a violation of right, we are not entitled to respond in kind. Meeting a snarky comment with an additional snarky comment is not a 'hindrance to a hindrance' of freedom, it is just a further escalation of disrespect. So, when you find yourself sitting around the dining room table, going for a second slice of Christmas turkey or ham, and your sister-in-law makes some lovely remark about the size of your expanding waist, perhaps just smiling back is the best bet.
Ethics is not an easy area to study, as we are constantly faced with hard cases. However, I think that in reality, ethics is really the hardest to practice. We humans, as Kant knows well, are flawed in our make up. We are easy to be lead by our passions and we are really good at using the greatest gift we have, reason, to attempt to justify unethical actions in our own cause. The holidays are about family, but it they are about helping people, opening our hearts to people and acting in the most Kantian of ways towards people too.
So, whether you opt out in toto or whether you let your sister-in-law believe she has "won", it is up to you. For in relationships, of any kind, we know there are no real 'winners', only compromises, and we should use our gift of reason to be the best of possible people at this time of year.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
As I was driving to have lunch with friends today, I was listening to NPR on the radio. One of my favorite programs, "Fresh Air" came on. As I listened to the interview, I was stunned, sickened and worried. The discussion focused on the "New Apostolic Reformation" (NAR) and this group's intent, ideology and (possible) affect on American politics. In particular, how this group is affiliated with the new presidential hopeful, Rick Perry, as well as other prominent politicians.
Before I explain a bit about this misled, dangerous and delusional organization, you can listen to the NPR interview here.
So what is the NAR?
One blogger notes it as:
"A fast-growing, evangelical movement that promotes modern-day apostles and prophets with great authority, supernatural powers, and the ability to give new doctrinal revelation. Advocates of this movement believe that all people, nations, and demonic principalities must submit to these apostles and prophets, who will lead God’s end-times army in establishing His kingdom on earth. This once-fringe movement has entered many charismatic churches (which are the fastest-growing churches in nearly every region of the world, according to church growth experts, like David B. Barrett), and the movement is being promoted by prominent evangelical leaders, like C. Peter Wagner and Jack Hayford." (Holly Pivec).
OK, so NAR is basically an "end times" ideology that attempts to control politics, media, business, culture and whatever else one can think of, by fear mongering about demons and the anti-Christ. Rachel Tabachnick argues that this evangelic movement is extremely different from existing far right evangelicals because it argues for martyrdom, spiritual warfare -- in violent terms--, and a new version of "dominionism". Tabachnick claims that this new "dominionism" is: "simply that Christians of this belief system must take control over the various institutions of society and government." Interestingly, the reason why these "apostles" view dominionism this way is that they believe that God has lost control of the Earth and needs help from these particular people to fight demons and Satan. So... an all powerful and omnipotent being (as Christians understand God to be) lost control of something that He created, and needs help from human beings, who according to these same Christian scriptures are fallen creatures predispositioned to sin and error. Just so we are clear here.
The NAR movement, apparently, has 3 recurring themes. 1) Anti-abortion 2) Anti-Gay Rights (where gays are demonized, literally) 3) converting Jews. One of the new(er) themes apparently is also fighting against the "demon Islam". Demons apparently "hold Muslims in bondage", so these particular people need to help to convert Muslims to this brand of Christianity. Otherwise one can never get to the end-times. Oh, and the "Rapture" doesn't exist either, everyone has to fight and no one gets to heaven.
From what I could find about NAR on the internet this afternoon, this movement looks quite frightening. The predisposition to violence, the rhetoric of martyrdom, and the sheer and explicit intolerance is, indeed, worrying. I also found that this is a fast growing group... to fast for my comfort.
In any event - as this is Kantemplation - what would Kant say about such a group? Specifically if we look to his writings in the Religion.
"Whoever therefore gives precedence to the observance of statutory laws, requiring a revelation as necessary to religion, not indeed merely as a means to the moral disposition but as the objection condition for becoming well-pleasing to God directly, and whoever places the striving fro a good life-conduct behind the historical faith... whoever does this transforms the service fo God into mere fetishism; he engages in a counterfeit service, which sets back all the work leading to true religion. ... If, however, the human being departs from it, the yoke of a (statutory) law will be imposed on him instead of the freedom of the children of God, and this yoke, since it is an unconditional coercion to believe in something of which we can have cognition only historically and hence cannot carry conviction with everyone, can be much more burdensome to conscientious human beings that the whole business of piously ordained observances could ever be... Priestcraft is therefore the constitution of a church to the extent that a fetish-service is the rule; and this always obtains wherever statutory commands, rules of faith and observances, rather than principles of morality, make up the groundwork and essence of the church. (6:179-180).
What does Kant mean here? (And of course, I picked two paragraphs from an entire book to prove my point...but I do not want to burden the reader too much). He means that by placing absolute power into the hands of a few -- for him priests -- where all authority and all ways to God are vested in them, is nothing more than delusion. For him, this state of affairs means that "the clergy has usurped over minds by pretending to have exclusive possession of the means of grace" (6:200). This is antithetical to what he calls "religion within the bounds of mere reason alone". Religion, for Kant, is the practice of virtue. God's law is that of the law of reason. Reason, is the source and the savior to the human race. Let me explain how he sees things:
Writing from the Christian perspective, Kant believes that because of The Fall, humans are blessed and cursed. Humanity chose to disobey God's orders... well Eve did and Adam was duped I suppose, but whatever... Eve ate the apple. Adam followed. This was an act of choice. This capacity of choice, is what makes us human. It is what is the only indication that we are free beings, and this is the only indirect way to truly experience such freedom (and thus have knowledge of it). We were expelled from the garden, harried by pain and suffering from that day forth, only to try to strive to regain God's grace and forgiveness.
But this capacity for choice is also how we know the moral law. The capacity to choose, therefore, is tied up with the faculty of reason. It is through reason, that we come to know the moral law (the fact of reason), and it is from our experience + reason + the categorical imperative that we ultimately know how to act in accordance with the moral law. Thus the faculty that got us into trouble to begin with (choice) is also the way back to God's favor. Once we know the moral law and what we have to do to act in accordance with it, we must freely choose to follow it. This, is, of course, to be virtuous. One can act merely in outward conformity, but that act does not have moral worth. (I will leave aside questions regarding justice or Recht here). It is not pleasing in the eye of God.
Heaven, in my reading of Kant, is the Kingdom of Ends. It is a Kingdom where all human beings obey the moral law because they want to, and is a community of humanity treating each other person as an end in themselves and not a means to another end. But, we can only get there via our power and faculty of choice and reason.
Back to the fetishism. So, why does Kant view this type of worship or claim at knowing God's will and acting only through a select few as a fetish? Because it goes against what it means to be human! We are all free! We all have the capacity for free thought and we all can know what the moral law requires. We do not need, and should not be deluded into thinking, that a few people who claim they have the authority to tell us what is right or wrong or pleasing to God, have the answers. They should not persuade us to act against the precepts of morality for the sake of their own delusions. And yes, Kant uses this word "delusion" -- "Apart from good life-conduct, anything with the human being supposes that he can do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious delusion and counterfeit service to God" (6:171).
There is much more complexity to Kant's arguments in the Religion, but it should be noted that the type of prosthelytizing and evangeliclizing going on with an organization like the NAR is patently unKantian. I think Kant would be appalled by what this group is doing. By attempting, not only to bring religion into the juridical organization of the state (a no no), but also advocating violence against others of different faiths or martyrdom of oneself, is pure nonsense. One does not DEBASE THE HUMANITY IN ONESELF OR ANOTHER. One does not VIOLAT THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS. Such a campaign of intolerance, and nonsense, is detrimental to not only the political fabric of any country but the very fabric of Kant's morality. None of the claims of these people could pass even one formulation of the categorical imperative, and so we should be aware that none of these people are truly "religious" in Kant's terms.
We should also be very afraid of any political candidates attempting to gain control of (high) political office who espouse these very beliefs.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
There has been considerable speculation over the years about how to interpret "Perpetual Peace". Indeed, some want to consider Kant's treatise as gospel to his views on international and cosmopolitan Right. Others want to take a more skeptical track and view this piece as one written with tongue-in-cheek. I happen to think it both. It is a work that is just as good as Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Indeed, it is because, like this great painting, it leaves us wondering. So today's topic is really about the Mona Lisa Smile of Perpetual Peace.
Much of the debate surrounds the opening paragraph of the treatise. Here Kant writes:
"We can leave open the question whether this satirical caption to the picture of a graveyard, which was painted on the sign of a Dutch innkeeper, applies to human beings in general, or specifically to the heads of state, who can never get enough of war, or even just to philosophers who dream the sweet dream of perpetual peace. The author of this essay shall, however, stipulate one condition: since the practical politician tends to look disdainfully upon the political theorist as a mere academic, whose impractical ideas present no danger to the state (since, in the eyes of the politician, the state must be based on principles derived from experience), and who may show his hand without the worldly statesman needing to pay it any heed; then, in case of a conflict with the theorist, the statesman should deal with him consistently and refrain from any allegations of perceived threat to the state in whatever views that the theorist might dare to set forth and publicly express. With this clausula salvatoria the author of this essay is hereby invoking the proper form to protect himself from any malicious interpretation."
Wow, right? What could our Immanuel be up to here? I think there are several things that need to be parsed out.
1) Is war the cause of human beings in general? That is, it is in our nature to be conflictual with others? Or, is war the result of the powerful few who view it as a sport? A couple of reactions here:
A) we could make a case for the first reading. Kant is quite explicit that human nature is that of "asocial sociability". It causes us to get into conflict with each other in a state of nature, to make our freedom and rights so insecure that we must create the civil condition. It might appear then that even absent the monarchies of Kant's time, where powerful kings expressed their continual desire for conquest and war at the expense of their peoples, war will always be with us if there remains any doubt about or insecurity in rights and freedoms. This is of course supported by claims in the Doctrine of Right and throughout the treatise. We also see him make these claims in Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Theory and Practice and even parts of the third Critique.
B) we could make a case for the second reading though too. Much of Kant's writings about reform of polities and constitutions is only directed at HEADS of STATE. Kant is not very concerned with telling people how to reform their states to accord with republican principles. Nope. Reform must come from the top-down, and such reform cannot be undertaken precipitously. Recall in Theory and Practice his musings about revolution and rebellion (also mirrored later in the Doctrine of Right), or his explicit advice to rulers to only reform when the time is right in Perpetual Peace and the Conflict of the Faculties. This, it appears lends support to the view that it is only the powerful that we need to worry about. And, even if those powerful are not kings from Kant's time, but despots, tyrants, or even increasingly powerful executives, we are left with the same result. War is the provence of the few.
C) The self deprecating view of philosophers. We, political theorists and philosophers are the only ones who seem concerned about this issue. No one else seems to think it a problem! Indeed, the realists and hawks that fly in political circles think nothing of how to end war, as war is a profit to them! Ask Dick Cheney...
2) What about this 'one condition' stipulated by Kant?
A) This is surely a tip to the sensors of his time, but also, let us not forget, to Socrates. Athens did, after all, kill him. Thought can be considered dangerous... We do not want to incite those sleeping and dozing people to wake! We do not want them clamoring for rights or or benefits....or.....power. Again the politician views the political landscape as a zero-sum game, right? What he loses, the people gain, and visa versa. For even Orwell in 1984 warns us about the danger of thought and the danger of thought control (for example by disrupting thought by nonsensical "Newspeak") But....
Why even bring attention to it? If we read Kant as attempting to assuage the minds of the sensors and the King that his work is not dangerous, then why stress how the "worldly" statesman should deal with the author "consistently"? What is the worry if the "worldly" prudential and experienced statesman knows that this work is nothing but academic hullabaloo? Why mock the "experience" of the statesman at all?
I think it is a tipping of the hand of how "dangerous" Kant thought it to be. Perhaps the ideas laid out in Perpetual Peace are so dangerous to the status quo that he had to make it seem like a trifling? Or, perhaps, much like "Socrates" in the Republic, he must warn his audience that the ideas are so extreme that they will either generate scorn or laughter, so not to worry!
B) Or Kant is just a political spin-doctor himself. We must attribute to him a pretty dry wit anyway, with all of his side comments here and there. Perhaps he intentionally spun this small introduction so tight that we, 216 years later, still wonder about the actual meaning. Thus, like the dispute about Mona Lisa, we will probably, in another 200 years, be attempting to figure out Perpetual Peace. That is, of course, if the human race is still "progressing".
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
The Uggly Truth about Fashion & The 3rd Critique
Some of you might be wondering how, just how, I can possibly link the Critique of Judgment and College Student Fashion. Well, my fellow Kantian friends, here is a tid-bit to think about.
Kant writes that:
"With the advance of this culture troubles grow equally extensively on both sides (the pinnacle of which is known as luxury, if that which is indispensable begins to be abandoned in favor or what is dispensable), on the side of the lower class by means of violence imposed from without, and on the side of the higher class through internal insatiability..." (5:432).
What does this mean? Well, Kant is here talking about how in the progress of culture, such progress begins by a division of classes, one class of artisans, scientists, and those who are "skilled" in opposition to a class that is one of laborers. If any of you have read Hannah Arendt, this should sound strikingly familiar (as she rips it off from Kant). There are skilled workers, those with techne, and then there are those laborers who just do all the dirty work. Kant claims that in the beginning, these skilled workers make up the higher class, and the laborers make up the lower class. Eventually, however, he believes that with the advance of culture, trouble will begin to brew, and the lower class will struggle for the same material comforts of the upper. Ok, with me so far?
When both sides reach the pinnacle of the quarrel it will be over "luxury". For those historians of western political thought, you can perhaps think of Rousseau here. But, what is interesting for our purposes is that this fight for the same material comforts that the richer class has, is at the expense of those indispensable items: like food, shelter, etc.
I read this as the desire to obtain things outside of one's reach. Enter college student fashion. Now, I have much to say (some of it with scorn) with regards to the present decay of college student fashion; however, here I will limit myself to the behavior of young men and women who cannot afford certain "luxuries" but who, nonetheless, purchase them to "fit in". This notion of looking the part - (when the question ought to arise as: who dictates the part?) - is a root of some very serious problems with the inability of today's youth to appreciate things like credit, responsibility and, oh yes, debt.
Enter now, the Ugg. For those of you who do not know what Uggs are, they are boots that were created, I am told, by people in New Zealand or Australia to keep one's feet warm. Both these countries have large sheep herding/shearing populations, so the boots are a no-brainer. OK, so these sheepskin lined "fury" boots were for all intents and purposes, farmers. Now, they witnessed a sky-rocketing of popularity by the college girl culture in the late 2000s. Since then, there have been too many Uggs. I have also heard rumors that the 'fashion' worn with the Uggs and the constant wearing of them, is causing foot fungus. Gross isn't it?
Anywho, these boots retail for over $100 a pop. College fashion, however dictated that everyone wear Uggs. Thus whether or not you could afford them, you bought them. Had to fit in with those that could afford them. Now, I do not mean to deride Uggs per se, but what they represent. They represent a growing tendency for people to feel entitled to everything they desire, to spend unwisely, to demand better grades, or even to respond in violence (like the riots that just swept through England), to not having what they see as rightfully theirs.
I am not suggesting that we should let poor people starve, or not have progressive tax schemes to help out those in need. No, what I am suggesting is that despite the attempts to have more liberal polities, we are going to always be put into a position, as Kant warns us, between clashes of classes. The poor will riot for more, the middle will emulate, to their destruction, the rich. In the end, what we will see is the unstable condition brought about by extreme luxury.
I will not come down on one side or the other as to whether we should take the Marxist view or the free market capitalism view. As both, I believe are extremes. But we should remember that when everyone starts to demand the same thing, even if it happens to be Ugg boots (with the result that one eats Ramen for a week), we should wonder what on earth is happening. Fashion is, ultimately, a reflection of culture. High fashion might preempt cultural changes, but ultimately, by the time those trends become universalized in every shop, we should start asking ourselves why.