Sunday, 29 April 2018

When Worlds Collide: Neuroethics and Personalism, Part 2

by James Beauregard

In the previous blog I considered neuroethics from the perspective of its world view, which is drawn ultimately from the worldview of the hard sciences.  The metaphysics and epistemology of science, however, cannot account for the presence and practice of neuroethics.  If I am right, and this is in fact the theoretical foundation of the current worldview of neuroethics, which is itself a subset of the worldview of neuroscience more broadly of the regional ontology science, there are further implications, then all knowledge sought by neuroethics must be sought within the physicalist paradigm of empiricism.  All human activity must then be conceived within a philosophical anthropology that is physically and biologically determined. Next, we run into a problem with language; metaphor, the warp and woof of human communication, cannot exist either.
Communication between human beings becomes difficult to envisage since it must be described exclusively in terms of biological processes. At most, an assertion of degree zero rhetoric can be made, a bare-bones use of language in its most literal and closed.  At the same time, the very assertion of a concept cannot be accounted for in a strictly held regional ontology of science that is physicalist in nature, an ontology that has no place for ideas, models, or even the notion of “notions.”   In such a regional ontology, there is no way to account for or even to recognize our use of metaphor, imagery, abstraction, of models and images, since these require creativity, choice and ingenuity that cannot be accounted for in any physicalist or biological paradigm.  This leaves us trapped in a vicious circle in which we cannot account for the fact that we are accounting for something.  If we take this position seriously, then we are also forced to acknowledge such things as the history of music, attendance at musical performances, the visual arts conserved displayed so many museums, our rich histories of literature across cultures, the technologies that pervade our daily lives, and our very ability to choose to act either straightforwardly physically determined or are biological and evolutionary necessities.
Finally, there has been a shadow text operative inwhat I have been writing here. It is that of John Macmurray’s historical/conceptual Fields, the conceptual architectures that he created to characterise the history of science and philosophy. As he described it, in the Field of the Mechanical matter used as its organising concept - universe composed of matter operating in a cause and effect paradigm. The methodology of this Field was empirical and mathematical, exemplified by the science of physics. The Field operates within a cause-and-effect paradigm of matter in motion and is ultimately impersonal. Historically, the next Field to develop was the Field of the Organic or biological, a conceptual architecture which organised our understanding not around matter but around the notion of biological organisms. Here, human beings are conceptualised as organisms and biology in all its manifestations superseded physics as the reigning science. The cause-and-effect paradigm physics gave way to the stimulus- response model of activity and adaptation to environment, a vision that is also essentially impersonal in nature, a vision and ultimately reducible to physics.
If we conceive of neuroethics theoretically within this broad historical paradigm, and it is my argument that this is in fact what has happened, then to follow this theoretical vision to its logical conclusion means that neuroethics is not within the realm of possibility.  Matter and organism do not yield ethics of any kind.
The ongoing contradiction: neuroethics exists, is practiced, has a steadily growing literature, and has had an important impact on both neuroscientific and healthcare theory and practice. How are we to account for this? A necessary first step is to recognize that neuroethics, as it is actually conceived of, theorized about and practiced, happens outside of the regional ontology of science, and outside of the strict limitations of degree zero rhetoric, and not in John Macmurray’s two conceptual fields of the Material and the Organic.[1] It becomes necessary, to bring theory into alignment with practice and with experience, and this is a task I want to suggest cannot be done within theoretical limits of neuroethics as it currently exists.

[1] Also, the fact that this is happening outside the Fields of the Mechanical and the Organic indicates that there is, in fact, an outside, that there is something going on beyond the disciplinary boundaries of the regional ontology of science, suggesting that the regional ontology of science doesn’t capture everything about what is. In this case, that something is philosophy, an activity of the Field of the Personal.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

When Worlds Collide: Neuroethics and Personalism, Part I

by James Beauregard

I am working on a book about neuroethics from the perspective of personalism. No, don’t think head on collision or train wreck.  I think personalism has a great deal to offer neuroethics, starting from its foundations and working through to practice.  The book I’m writing deals with neuroethics from a theoretical perspective, that is, considering the discipline’s foundations and worldview as a prelude to getting into specific bioethical issues. I include here some thoughts from it:
Neuroethics embraces the worldview of science, and with it the presuppositions, both explicit and tacit, of the scientific worldview. This creates the very same problems of internal coherence and contradiction. The regional ontology, the paradigm within which neuroethics operates is the regional ontology of science, and within that the field of neuroscience. This theoretical vision is amply evident in the neuroscience and neuroethics literature. Consider the following examples:

Although some would argue otherwise, the burden of evidence currently available suggests that the mind is manifested through ordinary physical processes located within the body. – Hal Blumenfeld.[1]

In principle, and increasingly in practice, we can understand the human mind as part of the material world.  This has profound implications for how we regard and treat ourselves and each other.  It gives us powerful ways to predict and control human behavior and a jarringly material view of ourselves. – Martha Farah.[2]

The construction we call ethics began with the edifice of bioregulation. By bioregulation I mean the set of automated mechanisms that allows us to balance out metabolism, maintain life, and achieve well-being, and which also produces delves and motivations, emotions of diverse kinds, and feelings. – Antonio Damasio.[3]

Perception, memory, decision making, and many other mental functions have been associated with the activity of specific sets of localized populations of neurons.  At this relatively molar level of description, the brain’s operations can be linked upwards to psychology as well as downwards to biology. – Martha Farah.[4]

Where do values come from?  How did brains come to care about others? If my genes organize my brain to attend to my survival, to reproduce and pass on those genes, how can they organize my brain to value others? Some, but only some, of the neurobiology of this is beginning to be understood.  First, however, the more fundamental question: how is it that brains care about anything?  What does it mean for a system of neurons to care about or to value something?  On these questions, we do know quite a lot, and the answers will launch us into the more complex domain of social caring. – Patricia Churchland.[5]

Of course, these brief quotes do not capture the full range of thought of any of these authors.  They do, however, suggest a commonly held worldview, and point to the use of biological or organic analogies deployed in the attempt to understand persons.  With this in mind, we can consider the four areas of philosophy so understood and what they imply for neuroethics:
The metaphysics of neuroethics embraces the metaphysics of science, which is materialist, physicalist and determinist in nature.  What exists, what populates the universe, is matter, and the concept of truth means knowledge obtained through the methods of empirical science. 
The epistemology of neuroethics flows directly from its metaphysical presuppositions. The universe is physical, and in our case, biological, and knowledge as such is empirical knowledge, knowledge derived from the senses directly or through senses augmented by various instruments of measurement that assess some aspect of the physical world.
The philosophical anthropology of neuroethics, as is the case in science, moves within a biological paradigm – The Field of the Organic. Thus, the biological analogy of neuroethics entails the adoption of a physicalist and biological anthropology which asserts that everything knowable about persons is biological and, ultimately, physical in nature, origin, and process. The epistemological resources for reflection on persons are, then, the resources of physics, chemistry and biology. We are biological organisms, a specific type of animal, subject to physical forces of cause and effect, and biological forces of stimulus and response. This, in sum, is what we are.
The philosophical anthropology of the neuroethical world view can be summarized in one word: objectivity.  Focused as it is on the physical, the material and the organic, humans are understood as objective things in the world, measurable things available for empirical study. This view, if followed to its logical conclusions, has difficulty dealing with the subjective world of persons, of our conscious experience of ourselves, of our subjectivity, other than as a function of neurologic processes. Instead, all subjectivity is reducible to objectivity, that is, everything about us is ultimately explainable in objective, physicalist terms. 
It is in the domain of the ethics of neuroethics that the consequences of this worldview become most clear: if the metaphysics, epistemology and philosophical anthropology of neuroethics remain with the regional ontology of science and are taken to be true, neuroethics as it is practiced in research and clinical care cannot exist. Ethics entails concepts of free will, choice and responsibility. In biological and physical paradigms of science, these concepts are nonsensical. Any instance of neuroethical thinking within such a paradigm presents, of necessity, and incoherence under which the very possibility of neuroethical activity collapses into contradiction.  What then, are we to do?

[1] H. Blumenfeld, Neuroanatomy Through Clinical Cases.  Sunderland MA: Sinauer, 2010. Blumenfeld acknowledges these as hypotheses rather than facts: “Note that these first two fundamental conjectures about where the mind is (in the body) and what the mind is (normal physical processes) remain hypotheses, perhaps with growing evidence in their favor, yet remaining hypotheses nonetheless.” (p. 973).  Overall, his view remains solidly within the empirical paradigm.
[2] Farah, M., Ed.  Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010, 1.
[3] Damasio, A. “The Neural Basis of Social Behavior: Ethical Implications,” in Marcus, S.J. Ed., Neuroethics: Mapping the Field.  New York: The Dana Press, 16.  Damasio, in the same presentation, notes that he believes humans have free will, “though not for all behaviors, and not for all conditions, and sometimes not to the full extent in any condition.”  He presents this as an observation, and one that seems underivable from biological models of persons.
[4] Farah, M. Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.  In both of the sciences Farah cites, biology and psychology, the empirical paradigm is operative, and along with it, its assumptions about persons.  In terms of what was described in the previous chapter, they take the perspective of the Field of the Organic.
[5] Churchland, P. Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.  Here we see the Field of the Organic in operation again, this time as a resource for thinking about our moral lives. Do brains do all these things, or do persons do them?  In an organic model or paradigm, the answer must be the former.    

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Nature, Value, and Technology: Anthropocentrism Unchained

by Denis Larrivee

Trending through recent, technology conferences are increasing speculations on the feasibility and extent of human technology mergers. This summer, for example, will see the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers sponsor their world congress on computational intelligence, which will include a spectrum of diverse themes devoted to the intersection of human and machine based intelligence. Concerns over the trajectory that may be taken by these proposed mergers have begun to mark ethical debates on the issue. Since feasibility is premised, ultimately, on the shared materiality of organismal and machine organization, how physical nature is perceived is likely to significantly impact not only the technical achievement, but also the normative presuppositions that guide the course actually taken. Some thoughts on the likely contribution of late 19th and 20th century philosophies of nature to this merger are given below:
Technologizing is a process neither novel nor unconsidered. Its recent intrusion into cognitive performance, however, promises a distinctly new philosophical terrain, altering technology’s instrumentalist role and impacting the ontological distinctions that have traditionally distinguished humans from the products of their creation. Bioethical questions emerging from this new relation concern not the presence of absence of human life, which has dominated the most strident forums, but the anthropological meaning given to it. The significance of intervening in life, which, in these forums, has been normatively premised on life’s ontological definition, will be qualitatively dismissed in this new undertaking by the normative question of how anthropology conditions bioethical praxis.
Traditionally, technology has been conceived in terms of its relationship with human beings. Aristotle first characterized this relationship as instrumental. Technology was understood to serve human purpose; hence, it was configured to human needs and human dimensions. In his view this instrumental nature derived from their fundamental ontological distinction. Per Aristotle, humans, indeed all, living systems, were autonomous, self-initiated beings whose principal of motion lay inside, extending even to reproduction. Technology, on the other hand, was incapable of self-initiated motion, or of generating the processes that would make it so. Human intervention was needed to bring its organized form into being and to configure it to human measure. Conceived as instrumental, technology’s purpose constituted the intrinsic feature by which it was defined and how it related to humans, an understanding adopted even in the modern era, seen, per example, in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers slogan ‘For the Benefit of Humanity’.
On this understanding technology has never fallen far from its human framing, in which instance it will have lost its intrinsic meaning, and for which reason old and unserviceable technologies are often discarded. This proximity has frequently acquired a symbolic stature, indicative of human mastery over nature’s regularities, mediated through technological variability and versatility. Technology was seen to be of benefit - to provide for basic needs, to confront environmental danger, or to extend social networks - because it instrumentally served to advance a broadly uniform perception of human anthropology. Technology thereby extended human reach, subduing obstacles by the sequential transference of human intent.
Emanating from late modernist movements, however, an intensified pressure on this proximate association has accelerated a merger between the two, fuzzying their originally crisp demarcation, and challenging the rationale on which their distinctions were earlier premised. Emancipatory urges that sprang from the Enlightened era, particularly, sought to bring empiricist conquests to heel, and found ample possibility throughout the 19th century as rampant industrialization amplified the variety of available forms. The progress that technology was seen to confer lay, initially, in satisfying human needs by replacing modes of execution dependent on human effort, transferring laborious processes from humans to technical devices, which then surrounded man with an ever greater range of instruments, at hand, in Heidegger’s term, for ready access. The human ‘technicalization’ brought by industrialization expanded in the biological and information revolution of the 20th, driven by a research enterprise and the need of therapeutic intervention, laying the groundwork for their symbiosis in the 21st.
Concern over the direction of this movement has been present since the industrialist expansion, with progressively strident warnings over the reciprocal impact that shaped the human being whose products his creation had brought into being. Detecting the implicit materialist attribution behind Darwin’s natural selection thesis, Butler’s Erewhon offered an early, significant statement that explicitly linked the product of human conception, a machine race, with a cotransmission of human ontology. Remarkably, Butler’s intended warning was prescient, predating a recent special issue on artificial intelligence and robotics of the Science journal, ‘Made in His Image’, by some 150 years. Heidegger’s well-known critique of technology furthered the portrayal of the essential otherness of technological being that nonetheless constrained the form of their relation. (Commenting on this effect several decades later Charles Taylor attributes the underlying motivations to a temporally downward moral spiral motivated by Enlightenment emancipatory ideals, reaching a nadir in the technologizing of reason and affectivity.) Heidegger’s antipathy notwithstanding, his coincident revision of metaphysics significantly impelled the mutual intersection of human and technology, and corroded technology’s instrumentalist character. In consequence the fundamental ontological distinction that has historically structured its relation to humans has been dissipated. Taken up in modern trends, the ascription of ontological parity has justified the promotion of their merger, and opened the human to radically revised notions of ontological variability that have sprung from recent centuries’, revised notions of material being.
Such modern conceptions of nature are neither uniform nor simple, their understanding having evolved over the several centuries of the scientific era; hence, their influence is likely to be complex. Due to the vast panorama that has been explored since Bacon, which now extends from quantum mechanics to cognition, attempts to extract metaprinciples are burdened by predilection and insufficiency. Overshadowing their perception, moreover, has been the dominant hypothetical-deductive paradigm of experimental praxis, an epistemological view that is often mistakenly taken for the underlying metaphysic. While this has yielded a mosaic of inferences, broader trends have emerged whose presuppositions now yield novel conceptions on the form of natural reality. These trends will significantly influence the shape of humanity’s progressive merger with technology.

The specific revolution inaugurated by Descartes, later reappropriated to the scientific movement, derived much of its impetus from the emphasis that restricted causal influence to contiguous relations, and the asymmetric nature of their mutual associations. The intimacy of these relations ‘naturally’ trended to decompositional quests that disregarded the whole for the part, since the former was viewed as the terminus of this succession and ‘gaps’ necessitated filling. Enticing curiosity, moreover, the unknown has always cavorted promiscuously unseen, hidden within the evident of the exterior.
Recomposition has thus been traditionally viewed by Descartes’ philosophical disciples as the mere reversal of decompositional exploits, rather than a true synthesis driven from above, with little determination on the aggregate assembly. The progressive penetration to simpler and ever more minute forms has therefore left a vanishingly small residue on which to anchor properties that could then be upwardly scaled to entities. In David Lewis’ theory of Humean supervenience, for example, all properties ultimately supervene on space time points which are, intrinsically, propertyless. This sense of empty being has engendered its own ontological inversion, replacing material form with its measure, information. In other words, the progressive simplicity revealed by the natural world is perceived to lack a propensity to particular form and so, like information, its basic particles are regarded as form neutral; hence, objective reality is seen to be arbitrary. Brent Waters points out that the critical consequence of this perception is a loss in the intrinsic stability of objective reality. “Since information has no inherent meaning it can be recast, conveyed, and interpreted in virtually endless arrays. The fluidity of information means that all borders are temporary, and any definition permeable. Reality is a construct of shifting patterns of information within and through various media.” Meaning, and the technology that inscribes it, are thereby epitomized in the digital displays that encapsulate the human, whose relation to technology is left wholly open.

Plasticity and Transience:
Undifferentiated, marked from below, and universally unified, organizational structures are regarded as lacking the incipient predilections needed to govern preferred associations. Thus, a second perception of nature that will influence human technology relations is plasticity, a variability of form, relation, and association that will be unconstrained by organizational principles of synthesis. In the absence of preferred associations, synthesis will be determined by coalescence, a merger of indifferent arrangements incapable of achieving a unity of form identified by holistic, predicable properties.
The lack of individuated entities will mean by default the ascriptive ascendance of physical relations; metaphysically, this will entail the replacement of entities as the mediators of natural reality. In the new metaphysics inaugurated by Heidegger, and developed through a cluster of post-modernist philosophies like that of Alfred North Whitehead, physical reality will thus be configured through the lens of relational independence. Illustrative is Michael Esfeld, a leading philosopher of physical reality, who adopts a moderate position in the current spectrum, committing to relations the oxymoronic of relational properties; by this, Esfeld means that the property of relating retains objective validity nonetheless even in the absence of relatable entities.
The influence of relational emphasis has in turn elicited its macroscopic counterparts, actor network theory for one, that analogize relations to extended and amorphous networks inclusively ‘attaching’ humans to broader, and shifting, ontologically neutralized systems that intentionally redact anthropocentric hierarchies. In a hyperbolic extrapolation taken from Heidegger, Bruno Latour, noted ecological proponent, specifically attaches to human nature binaries the philosophical obstacle that confounds ecological integrity. In his view, human properties are not the province of humans alone, but instead remain latently distributed within broader vistas where human subjectivity is dissipated along a relational arc.

A Plurality or Not of Ends
Drawn from its relational premises, Latour’s ethical conclusions are nothing if not logical, a point David Chandler facetiously emphasises, where every river and rodent assume membership in his kingdom of ends. The deductive counter, however, is the deprivation of significance in the kingdom’s membership, since no object can validate individual meaning. In recalling Descartes’ explanatory severance of teleology, rather, emphases on contiguous interaction, relational precedence, and plasticity, truncate the understanding of purposeful properties. Casualties of this premise are hierarchy and progressive levels of complexity, where interaction is determined by chance. Following this line, John Dewey first proposed the essentially random nature of evolution, a process without direction, occupied by broadening ripples of probable form. In Dewey’s view, anthropocentric trending is reduced to epiphenomenon, the achievement of numerical excess.
For technology the lack of teleology underscores the porous and utterly permeable intersection between human and technology, since in absence there can be no intrinsic centrality that is provisional for ontological meaning. In commenting on the normative need for intrinsic value, William James once famously proposed that in the absence of sentience, whether divine or human, material reality was intrinsically valueless. James query made the evident point that value is conditioned by reference and perceived by subjectivity. When its referent is missing, when the human has been redacted, value lies beyond material reality, and is introduced only by imposition. The world becomes, necessarily, alien.
James might have added that value is native to nature since the human presence is a conciliant outcome of metaphysical reality. What then counts in human technology relations is not their shared materiality, but the natural emergence of their ontological distinction.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Yet Another New Book by Giorgio Baruchello!

The Business of Life and Death
Volume One: 
Values and Economies

Giorgio Baruchello

My previous two volumes for Northwest Passage Books were, basically, philosophical explorations. Whether dealing with the traditional topic of death (Mortals, Money, and Masters of Thought) or the less commonplace topic of cruelty (Philosophy of Cruelty), the essays contained therein did investigate, organise and make some sense of the vast legacy of the Western philosophical canon—or at least they attempted as much. In the process, they did not aim at achieving more than merely suggest that a foundational conception of value might lie underneath it all. As this third collection of essays is concerned, however, that first and merely suggested conception of value finds finally full expression and open backing. In this book, as the reader is going to find out, I am no longer exploring, but engaging in philosophical advocacy. Life-value onto-axiology, namely the theory of value that I had merely hinted at in the two previous collections of essays of mine, is articulated and applied here to highly representative social dimensions, while some of its implications for intellectual and economic history are discussed.
As I look back at the years during which the essays collected and revised hereby were written, i.e. between 1999 and 2016, I realise how the diverse projects gathered and restyled for the present volume—review essays, book chapters, conference papers, scholarly articles, short notes—are all informed by my familiarity with, and tacit commitment to, life-value onto-axiology, even though this theory of value may not have always been the focus-point of each of them. Because of this realisation, I considered using the technical expression itself in the title of this book but, following conversations with Northwest Passage Books’ chief consultant, I concluded that it would be unnecessarily abstruse and rhetorically ineffective. “Life-value onto-axiology” is theoretically correct, but it is not consistent with the spirit of this book. Insofar as the present volume is part of a project aiming at making philosophy less ivory-tower-based and biased, fostering reflection on what really matters in people’s lives individually and collectively, then speaking of “the business of life and death” is equally correct and far more immediate. It is what our existence consists in, in a nutshell. The subtitle, “Values and Economies”, captures further the contents of the present book and expresses the two main axes of scrutiny to be found in it by the reader, i.e. what really counts (“values”) and what this recognition entails for concrete social organisation (“economies”), not just their abstract representation, which would be better labelled “economics”. So numerous are the works of mine informed with the principles and concerns of life-value onto-axiology, that a careful selection was made in relation to the present volume and an additional one is going to be issued in the near future.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Ethics: Not Jutht The Only Way Ith

by Simon Smith

It’s about time we wrapped this up and not just because the joke-titles are getting desperate.
The trouble is, even after all this, the answer to our moral quandary remains unclear. Just what is morally wrong with possessing a child sex doll? After all, it’s not as though the possession of sex dolls in general is morally problematic, not necessarily nor inevitably. At worst, owning a sex doll might be considered distasteful; possibly – but not necessarily – indicative of an unhealthy attitude to sex, of the sort which sees others as nothing but a means to satisfaction rather than partners in any meaningful sense. Then again, it might not be any such thing; it might, quite conceivably, be nobody else’s business at all.
Paraphilia perhaps? This too is possible, although whether something that is generally regarded as psychological or emotional disorder of some kind could be subject to moral censure is debatable. Besides, it seems likely that sex toys are more commonly a substitute than a replacement, that is, an object of desire in their own right.
Clearly, however, there is something amiss. The case of this man with the child sex doll doesn’t seem to be simply distasteful; nor, for that matter, does it seem to be the sort of thing that just makes one feel morally queasy. There is, surely, something very wrong with having a sex doll in the shape of a child. But what is that something? What’s more, there’s something quite odd about that moral judgement too, something which I can’t quite put my finger on.
My feeling is – and I appreciate this is not a very satisfactory answer – that it’s something to do with the image and the way it’s being used. More than this, it’s something to do with the role that all personal images play in the development of consciousness, in our becoming persons at all.
Put simply, and far too briefly, images of otherness play a crucial role in the dialectics of personhood. In becoming a person, the other invests their image in us, we internalise it, learning to speak and think for and by ourselves, learning how to participate in our own development and, perhaps more importantly, the development of others. That, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a person.
If it’s true that the ways in which we appropriate and make use of those images makes a profound difference to the kind of people we are – and it most assuredly is true – then how much more care must we take when the images belong to the vulnerable, to those who are themselves only begun on the journey of their own becoming? It is, I think – if you’ll forgive the melodramatic language – a kind of sacrilege, a breach of faith with ourselves and those who made us.
Perhaps that is all a bit too melodramatic. Very well, let’s try one last thing, something which, I think, links up with what we’ve already said. 
Again, just to be clear, I’m not pretending to have the final answer here. Evidently, however, the problem is, in part at least, something to do with the desires, if not actual intentions, revealed by possession of such an object. That said, we would not ordinarily be held morally culpable for our desires, especially those that are not acted upon, or at least not fully acted upon. After all, we do not deliberately have desires; it might be more accurate to say that desires have us. Of course, we may cultivate desires which are dangerous or which, if they were acted upon, might prove morally problematic, profoundly so. By cultivating such desires, we should then be morally culpable. Perhaps something like that is going on here; it seems likely. In acquiring this sex doll, this man has begun to act on his desires, to foster them and give them room to grow; he has begun to invest himself in them and so manifest a personality-type, which is morally unacceptable.
Perhaps, as has been suggested, he was trying to control that desire in a way, trying to prevent it manifesting itself fully. That may be true, but there are other and better ways of controlling dangerous desires, which don’t involve cultivating them in this very explicit way. True, one might be afraid to seek medical help before things got to this stage, yet it doesn’t seem much of a defence to act upon that fear but apparently to feel considerably less afraid of allowing such a dangerous desire any rein at all and to act accordingly. In a sense, then, what’s wrong with this situation, what makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, is to do with the objectification of others and the objectification of the self which necessarily follows from it. It’s about allowing a desire to take possession of the self which can only manifest itself as a damaging disconnection of the self from others.
That leaves us with one last question: has technology created a new moral problem for us? The fact that it’s still quite difficult to say exactly what that problem is suggests that it might well have done just that. Perhaps, but even if it has, two things do seem to be quite clear. First, and going back to the discussion which started this series of posts off, it’s not at all obvious that more and better information about the processes and the technology involved in this case would help. I don’t really want to know the technical details of how something like this is made and even if I did know, I can’t see how that would help me understand my moral concerns about it. Secondly, and getting to the real heart of all ethical thinking, whatever is wrong with this situation it almost certainly has something to do with the multifarious ways in which people can and do objectify one another. There’s nothing new in that. In that case, the difficulty in identifying very precisely where the moral problem lies might reasonably be put down to my not being a sufficiently sophisticated thinker; that doesn’t sound too outlandish, I suppose.
In the end, however, the point is that the fundamental moral issues don’t really change. Whether the particular area of moral practice is the world of business, information technology, neuroscience, or just bad puns, the question is, what are we doing to other people and what are we doing to ourselves?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Beyond Realism, Maybe; Beyond People Saying Nice Things, No Way!

by Simon Smith
Apropos yesterday’s post regarding my step up into the paperback leagues –
because my book,

Beyond Realism: Seeking the Divine Other


Apropos, as I say, my sharing of this most excellent news: some readers’ comments from some actual readers, quite illustrious ones at that, which I would also like to share.

Praise for Beyond Realism:

This is a very interesting book. Its strength lies in articulating a non-realist (I hesitate to say ‘anti-realist’, since this has different connotations) theory of God. [...] The result is a very rich text, which both proposes a new theory of the religiosity of consciousness per se, as well as shedding new light on Farrer, reinstating him as a major thinker of the twentieth century.
Dr. Karl Simms, University of Liverpool, UK.

In seeking to recover Austin Farrer’s metaphysical personalism, Beyond Realism is the natural successor of Charles Conti’s Metaphysical Personalism (1995). [...] We need tough and intelligent books like this in both philosophy and religion. Whether it will attract a wide readership in our time of sad theological decline is another matter. It should.
The Revd Canon Professor David Jasper DD FRSA FRSE, Professor Emeritus, University of Glasgow, UK.

Nota bene, both Dr. Simms and Prof. Jasper are real people, not made up, and neither of them were bribed or blackmailed or in any way forced to write these comments.

Needless to say, I’m very grateful to Dr. Simms and Prof. Jasper for their kind words. But that’s not all. Yet another philosopher of considerable renown, a most venerable sage among the American Personalists, Richard Prust, has published a review of Beyond Realism. Prof. Prust’s review can be read here, at the

And don’t forget, Beyond Realism is now available in PAPERBACK from Vernon Press: 

At the checkout, just enter the code


For a solid 30% off!

Beyond Realism: Seeking the Divine Other

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Some Good News for For a Change

by Simon Smith

No, it’s not that. Not that either. Seriously, do you really think that I would be sitting here writing this nonsense if I could do that? You’re even crazier than everyone says you are. And I mean everyone.

Having ruled out Armageddon (it’s all going to be fine, trust me), each and every one of you receiving a selection of the very best in Spanish cured meats (those guys really know what to do with a pig), and me becoming Wimbledon Women’s Singles Champion for the third year in a row (genetically unsuitable and I just don’t have the backhand), what could it possibly be?
Well it’s better than all three of those put together with extra cheese on top. Allow me to explain. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Some weeks ago, James Beauregard and I were discussing the somewhat depressing situation in academic publishing, specifically from the book-buying/getting readers perspective. As bizarre as it may seem. Dr. B and I are both keen on getting people to read our work. “Why not write something people actually want to read?” you may ask. That, friend, is not an option.
Our rambling ruminations were precipitated by the publication of Giorgio Baruchello’s recent collections, published by Northwest Passage as paperbacks and at a much lower price than is common for academic texts. Giorgio’s books are, in consequence, much more affordable and, one might fairly suppose, much more likely to be bought and read. That, to me, seems like a good thing. Thus, I opined that it might be worth checking out Giorgio’s publisher. In reply, the now legendary Jim suggested that we ought to speak to our current publisher, the truly wonderful Vernon Press, to see whether they would consider putting out a paperback run of a book after they had done what needed to be done with hardbacks.
My response to this was not especially kind. In truth, I scoffed, I sneered, I mocked the very idea. Naïve fellow, said I to myself and also to Jim. Not – as my dear, grey-bearded old grandmother used to say – half as green as he is most certainly cabbage-looking, but more so, and fool to boot. Vernon are going to have to sell an awful lot of copies to make a second, paperback run even remotely worth their while. Academic publishing is in crisis: no one is buying academic texts anymore. And with budgets being squeezed tighter than tight, even university libraries can’t be relied upon to buy a dozen copies these days. There is simply no way that Vernon are going to do a second, paperback run of a book, fine fellows though they most undoubtedly are.
Thus was Jim’s suggestion, utterly and most devastatingly pooh-poohed. Pooh-poohed like a half-naked bear in a dried-apricot eating contest.
Some weeks have passed since this initial conversation and, sad to say, now I am being forced to eat my own scorn, to scoff my scoffing, and munch upon my mean and mocking words. Indeed, if I was American, I would be ordering a big slice of humble pie with an extra serving of apology-flavoured ice-cream and a big sprinkling of contrite-nuts. Actually, if I was American, I would probably have bought a gun and gone on a killing spree while eating real pie with real ice-cream and real nuts. However, as an Englishman born and very ill-bred, I will merely say, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
My sincerest apologies to Jim, for rejecting his suggestion, which, as it turns out, was spot on. This isn’t the first time his perspicacity has been on display. Fortunately, there were no witnesses before and the police can’t touch him for it anyway. Equally, to those truly, fundamentally, deeply, and profoundly incredible people at Vernon Press, my apologies to them, likewise. How could I have ever doubted them? For shame.

And why such entirely uncharacteristic humility? I shall tell you why, dear reader: Vernon Press only emailed to say that my book – my book, Beyond Realism: Seeking the Divine Other – is now available in…


In the words of Paul McCartney, I am a Paperback Writer.

And it gets better. Not only am I a fully qualified Beatles song title, but also the good and decent people of Vernon press have also issued a discount coupon!

That’s right! We may be Beyond Realism, but no one is Beyond a Bargain! See? They care about you too! Vernon cares about all of us!

The PAPERBACK is available from Vernon’s website:

At the checkout, just enter the code


For a solid 30% off!

Beyond Realism: Seeking the Divine Other

Friday, 6 April 2018

Meditation on Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology

by J. Edward Hackett

When I had decided to write Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology: An Exploration in Moral Metaphysics, I had no idea of the result. I had published several papers with two thinkers in each: James correcting Husserl, Scheler correcting Heidegger, an aspect of Heidegger helping us with Scheler, Scheler correcting James, and James correcting Scheler. In these explorations, I suddenly found the possibility of the title by bringing these essays together; I am forming a system out of both Jamesian pragmatism, and the phenomenological tradition.
At the point when you discover you are systematizing yourself it’s a very weird experience. That moment is the closest you can come to disembodied state of consciousness. You begin to look down on your own self as if you floated above your own philosophical life. Then, you can move the various pieces of your beliefs and commitments around, adjusting them as you see fit to address the existential and pragmatic needs of life—both for yourself and whoever you think will be listening to your thoughts.
I discovered a few things.
First, I have never given up on the role intentionality plays in concrete life, and this is undoubtedly Husserl’s influence in me. However, Husserl only indicated the absolute need in every description of consciousness is a consciousness-of. Paul Ricoeur’s dictum of Husserl remains true for all time—the history of phenomenology is “the history of Husserlian heresies.” Everyone must start with Husserl, but nobody remains with him for very long unless, of course, they want some level of systematization that doesn’t exist in the rest of Continental philosophy.
Second, Scheler’s contribution to metaethics is unacknowledged in analytic philosophy, but then again, there’s no patience for sustained descriptions of the primordiality intentionality plays in concrete life (or what we might call doing phenomenology with a capital “P”). That’s the insight I took from Scheler. Scheler provides a type of phenomenological dictum to all moral theorists and ethicists alike. Before all moral theorizing can occur, we need to engage in a phenomenological description of persons, values, and otherness. These are the three concepts I see at the basis of all ethical inquiry, and we need to understand exactly how each concept is situated in the most concrete way. In this way, we should seek to describe the conditions under which these concepts are given in the modalities of experience: self-to-self relation, self-to-other relations, self-and-temporal-horizon, and self-to-nature-and-God. Currently, we could say these are the architectonic assumptions of what lies behind my commitments to personalism and pragmatic phenomenology as a method of doing philosophy.
In the first, we might think of the Socratic impulse to “Know Thyself,” and perhaps Kant’s duties of self-perfection. Next, the self-to-other relationship is at the heart of it a commitment to the radical belief about the absolute uniqueness of every person that resonates in Scheler, but ever more lively in Levinas’s phenomenology of the face-to-face relation, and what Buber called the I-thou relationship. An entire work could be done on this level of philosophical engagement with the ethical. The self-and-temporal horizon is what limits our ability to transcend the very conditions of being subjects unfolding and living out the structures of experience in time. To some extent, Heidegger, but more importantly, James’s radical empiricism articulates this within-time-ness the best.
Finally, I put self in relation to nature-and-God. Nature and God can stand in for ideas of unified totality, and if these two are exclusive then we should try to find out exactly what it means to relate to the entire whole. Philosophical anthropology, then, is an attempt to articulate the most general interpretation of human beings in relation to a conception of the totality of reality within the bounds of unified experience. Questions of philosophical anthropology are not settled, and I am cautious when talking about really big ideas of totality and unity. Practically speaking, the manner in which someone believes they are in relation to reality of the whole—whether that is Nature or some ideas of the Divine like God (and what could be meant by God and even collapsing the distinction between Nature and God), these are metaphysical interpretations that become culturally sedimented in human practices and daily life, which is the brilliance of Husserl’s Crisis in the European Sciences. Imagine various interpretations of human beings and the cosmos as a whole: Greco-Roman humanism, Judeo-Christian traditions, and the scientific materialism of the human person. Scheler rightly understood that in the 20th century we’ve forgotten ourselves much like Heidegger thought we have forgotten the question of being, but also how to frame the very question of our being—being a person. The success of Scheler over Heidegger is that values saturate our very existence, and Heidegger so divorced values from action that his Nazism is no surprise to me. His fundamental ontology does not have a place for the absolute uniqueness and dignity of persons to be felt at all, and every Heideggerian I meet is guilty of a flirtation with fascism because of the dearth of values in the heart of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology.
Currently if I were to commit a digression, I might say that my colleagues in English, Cultural Studies, and more worldly engaged humanities are thinking through the devastation of the environment. For them, this is the age of the Anthropocene, a term invented to signify that human civilization has altered the very geophysical situatedness of the planet, and a thorough exploration of how we got here can be traced to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition in thinking that God provided nature for human beings to do with what they saw fit with it rather than perceiving the interdependency of all living things. Christianity and capitalism proved to be a dangerous combination. In this way, a proper pragmatic phenomenology might align itself with those engaged in philosophical genealogies of Nietzsche and Foucault and try to understand both how the Anthropocene started philosophically in the habits of the past and what new possible understandings of the human person in relation to the cosmic whole are necessary to affect change. If the environment is already ruined, then it stands to reason we should lessen our impact. I know that I have left us far afield from where I started so let me return now to the discoveries I previously mentioned.
Third, unlike Husserl, Scheler regards moral values and non-moral values to be rooted in intentional feeling. Intentional feeling is itself not a type of rational logic motivated by epistemic concerns that inaugurated the development of both the epoché and reduction in Husserl’s thought. Instead, the ordo amoris, as Scheler called it, has its own logic, and it precedes all other epistemic motivations. In this way, Scheler’s interpretation of phenomenology is that it discerns essences in the interconnections between feeling acts and the value-qualities that form the object of those feeling acts. To understand, then, the metaphysics of value, which is the heart of my current thinking and what Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology is about, is to understand the very phenomenological relation with the world. For me, Scheler’s affective intentionality is the answer both to the metaphysics of value question but more importantly a guiding principle to answer how phenomenologies always become ontologies themselves. I also see this in Scheler’s later concern with philosophical anthropology and his sociology of knowledge. The very core of his phenomenological ethics is never abandoned, the same value-rankings and respective hierarchy are maintained. It’s a more difficult question about whether or not he is phenomenological in his later works.
Fourth, the type of ontologies you get in pragmatism tend to be a metaphysics where phenomenological essences activate in relation to the objects of experience. I know that sounds a bit vague, so let me explain. If all ideas functionalise as Scheler put it, then they unfold in relations, the metaphysics of value are what phenomenologists describe, but we shouldn’t just take phenomenologists at their word. Part of the problem of phenomenology is that after you describe the world and open up eidetic seeing, you’re essentially done with the philosophising. Pure phenomenological descriptions are inert if we don’t ask what effects those descriptions have in our experience. These descriptions can be tested by seeing how they harmonise in action pragmatically and what their conceivable effects are. I saw this union when James and Scheler both gave primacy to felt relations and the essences and/or habits such relations entail. When I saw that, that’s when I decided to place them together in dialogue. Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology is a consequence of that insight.
The fifth and final discovery is that James’s radical empiricism might just be the best form of phenomenology ever to be developed. I have yet to explore or develop this insight, and it would require juxtaposing James in relation to every major phenomenologist to see if such a working hypothesis has any traction. As a consequence of Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology, I may be returning to James more fervently than when I started. What’s clear to me, however, is that you can do more with James, but it’s not clear that phenomenologists alone can do much without pragmatism.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

New Book by J. Edward Hackett

Vernon Press Presents

Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology
Explorations in Moral Metaphysics
by J. Edward Hackett

This book brings together the author’s overall research trajectory of the last five years of his life and the questions he has been asking himself: What is the person? And, what are values? In answering the latter question, Hackett arrived at an answer within the boundaries of Max Scheler, the German phenomenologist, but consequently started to explore the depths of which Scheler’s value ontology was predicated on certain assumptions about the person. From these questions, Hackett started to draw upon philosophical approaches that thematize experience—pragmatism and phenomenology.
Rooted in the philosophical contributions of Scheler and the American philosopher, William James, this book guides the reader through a fascinating exploration of these philosophical approaches in relation to the person and values. Through thematizing experience, this book reveals that the ontology of value for Scheler resides not only in a person’s intentionality but also in the being-of-an-act. As such, this book argues that the deficit of an ontology of value in Scheler rests on interpreting his affective intentionality in much the same way that Heidegger employed phenomenology to discern the ontological care structure of Dasein. In other words, for Scheler, the ontology of value rests on the manner in which values were realized by a person’s intentionality. Moreover, this book goes further to reveal that the intentional act life is the source of participation and can be understood as a process-based account of value, otherwise known as account participatory realism. Importantly, within participatory realism Hackett addresses how values have their origin in the process of intentionality since intentionality is generative of meaning.
As an important contribution to the field of moral metaphysics, Hackett’s critical reflection on the person and values provides a stimulating insight into some of the key debates surrounding pragmatism and phenomenology that will be of great interest to both experienced scholars and researchers, alike. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ethics: Not Just a New Way to Throw Up Wirelessly and with a Lisp

by Simon Smith 

Well, it's not easy thinking up silly titles for these things, you know; but I've committed myself now, so we're all going to have to put up with it. 

This really going on a lot longer than I had anticipated. I’ve been banging on for ages. Well, let’s see if we can’t make this the last stop on this long and rambling trail.
Last time I ended by suggesting that, while they may supply some interesting and often useful context to our moral thinking, the various subdivisions of ethics don’t really add anything to the formulation of moral principles or to the determination of criteria for applying them. This is because the kind of activity we’re engaged in doesn’t alter the basic moral requirements; neither does it present us with any new moral problems. Advances in technology, to take one example, have not created moral problems; they’ve just re-worked the old ones.
Except that may not be entirely true. A new moral quandary appears to have raised its frankly disturbing head. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it is now possible to make a sex doll in the form of a child. No, you didn’t misread that. Child sex dolls are now a thing. Several months ago (July 2017) a British man was sentenced to prison for importing and possessing a child sex doll. There was, perhaps inevitably, more to the case than that: images of sexual abuse, I think; but it’s the conviction for possessing the doll that caught my attention. Though I may be wrong, this doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that could be morally problematic without the technology to produce the doll. The technology probably doesn’t have to be modern; I doubt whether the precise manufacturing process and the materials involved are very important. The issue is whether the technology and the process have produced something that invokes moral judgement in a new way.
Let’s have some caveats before we go any further. We are not here concerned with the legality of the situation. The UK’s judicial processes have done what they needed to do in that respect. We do not here presume to judge their conclusions. No more are we concerned with the wider context of this judgement. That this individual was very likely a significant danger to children and had, given the possession of images, apparently exercised this capacity is, to some degree, beside the present point. This is because moral judgement has already been passed here: by and large, I think we might all agree that this aspect of the situation is morally repugnant.
But let’s leave all that aside for the moment and consider on the doll and its possession. Intuitively, one suspects that there is something deeply disturbing going on. The question is, what? What new kind of immorality has technology introduced into the portfolio of human corruption and viciousness? Another, worrying question: if this is a genuinely new moral phenomenon, is our ethical philosophy capable of accommodating it? Will our, more or less traditional, principles of judgement be up to the job?
For a start, I think we can be sure that both Kantian and utilitarian philosophies are going to struggle. On the one hand, and sticking to the issue of possession, the categorical imperative hasn’t obviously been breached, either in terms of universalizability of a maxim or simply by treating anyone as a means rather than an end. It’s not even all that obvious that this individual is behaving irrationally, assuming we regard that as relevant to moral judgement. On the other hand, neither is it clear that possession of child sex doll, in and of itself, causes harm to others; in principle, it might have no effect at all on anyone else. In fact, no form of libertarianism which asserts the individual’s freedom to do as they please in the absence of harm to others is unlikely to be of use.
There is, of course, a social dimension to all this, as Dr. Beauregard reminded me a few weeks ago. The doll had to be manufactured, marketed, sold, delivered, etc., hardly what Mill would think of as an utterly self-regarding action. Accepting this, however, just how it helps us clarify exactly what is morally wrong with all this remains unclear. Knowing that other people might be affected doesn’t really add anything to the attempt to understand how and why the effect is morally problematic.
It seems unlikely that any kind of consequentialist ethics is going to be much good until we have some consequences to judge. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear that intentionalist theories will be much better. We can’t, after all, say for sure – purely given the possession of the doll – that this appalling douchebag (if you’ll forgive the slip of supposed impartiality) had the intention of harming any actual child. Even if he did – and it does seem quite likely that, somewhere along the line he may well have – we can’t be sure that the intention was connected to the doll, or if it was, what sort of connection it may have been.
Given that likelihood and high risks involved, we may be perfectly happy to accept the judgement of the law, which we can only hope has prevented something terrible happening. Philosophical speaking, however, this does raise questions about how we calculate risk and likelihood in situations like this. I’m not aware of any similar events – which doesn’t mean there aren’t any, of course – but it does make me wonder how we come to a judgement of risk and likelihood.
That aside, it’s still not clear how we ground ethical judgements in intentions when no intentions have manifest themselves; or rather, the intentions which have been enacted don’t obviously point to the harm of another person as such.
One suggestion, again from Dr. B, is that there might be an issue of self-harm here, though I’m not entirely convinced by that. It isn’t clear that someone who harms him or herself really is behaving in a morally problematic way. We may not like it; we may wish to prevent it; but can we really judge it as immoral? It seems more likely that self-harm, however it manifests itself, would be judged to be a symptom of something else, a matter of emotional or psychological health rather than of moral rectitude. To make a moral case might require further theological justification; I’m not convinced that philosophical justification will do the job.
Besides which, I do not take the view that self-harm is always and inevitably wrong. Just recently, while listening to back-issues of The Bugle podcast, I was reminded of Abdullah al-Asiri, a would-be terrorist who, in an effort to blow up a member of the Saudi royal family, packed his bowels with high explosive and a detonator. At least, somebody did. That’s right, he shoved a bomb up his bumhole and tried to blow someone up. As it happens, the attempt failed; Mr. al-Asiri succeeded only in blowing his own arse off. He did not, I believe, long survive the attempt. In this case, not only do I not consider what Mr. al-Asiri did to be morally wrong; I would, most assuredly concur with Messrs. Zaltzman and Oliver in suggesting that this individual be held up as a shining example to all terrorists. Indeed, anyone who thinks that killing other people has either been decreed by their faith or is just a good idea should seek to model themselves on this brave and bizarre fellow. His is the path to follow: those bent on causing murder and mayhem must first bend over and brace themselves for impact, as it were.
Our problem – as opposed to Mr. al-Asiri’s many, many problems – may be that we appear to have adopted, perhaps unwarrantably, certainly without explanation, Mill’s basic moral criterion: viz. harm. But are we sure that harm to someone is the only point at which moral judgement comes into play? Of course, the difficulty there, as everyone knows, comes in trying to determine what constitutes ‘harm’. For example, the destruction of ancient sites of great historical importance in the Middle East by those – let’s be honest – tremendous arseholes in ISIS was a tragedy. Was anyone actually harmed by the destruction – beyond those people actually murdered in the process, I mean – did the act of destroying these markers of human history, in and of itself, did it actually harm anyone? We might say it harmed our civilisation or our humanity; it certainly made the world a worse place. But that doesn’t seem to quite capture what we ordinarily mean by ‘harm’. The very concept of ‘harm’ is being stretched and not obviously in a useful way. Surely we would want to say that something very wrong, morally wrong, was done, irrespective of whether or not anyone was actually harmed.
It seems clear from this that neither traditional Kantian nor any kind of Utilitarian ethics are going to be of use here. Focusing our moral thinking on how we treat people, what we intend, and what the consequences are or may be just leads us away from the point at issue. The question is, was there something morally wrong with the possession of a child sex doll. Those other moral theories have to look beyond this for harm or potential harm. It seems as though their proponents might actually have to say, ‘no, there is nothing actually wrong with owning a child sex doll.’ In that, I think they are mistaken. There is something very morally wrong with possessing a child sex doll.
The question is, what?