Love Drugs

By Ashley Owen

There are so many interesting topics in the area of human enhancement that it’s hard to pick just one to write about. One issue that prompted a lot of discussion in a recent seminar was regarding ‘love drugs’, touched on briefly by Allen Buchanan in his book ‘Beyond Humanity?’ but covered in greater detail in articles by Julian Savulescu and many others.

The idea is that in the near future we will be able to use chemical/biological enhancements to affect our relationships, for example by enhancing the bond between two people, or reducing the possibility of one partner (or both) being unfaithful. Several studies (on oxytocin in particular) indicate that this is a genuine possibility. Many people in the seminar were uncomfortable with this type of enhancement, but couldn’t quite pin down precisely why. In this post, I hope to elucidate those worries, and examine whether or not they are well grounded.

One idea that arose was that these types of drugs pose a threat to free will (assuming we have it). I’m not convinced this worry is well-founded however. The types of intervention at issue are not so strong as to compel someone to unavoidably act or feel a certain way (like ‘love potions’ in films). Instead, they increase the likelihood of certain behaviours or emotions – behaviours or emotions that the person taking the drug wants to do or feel. Consequently, the possibility to not act that way still remains open. In this sense, such drugs wouldn’t be a shortcut to a perfect relationship, but just another tool people could use if they felt it appropriate, like marriage counselling or date nights. We’re generally comfortable with people taking measures to try and influence their future behaviour, including their behaviour in relationships, without thinking that it removes our free will, so we would need a reason to think that the biomedical nature of the enhancement makes these cases different.

Moreover, the relevant cases are ones where the person choosing to take the drug – assuming she is in a position to make a rational, informed choice – is doing so because she wants her life to turn out a certain way, and is taking the drug in order to help her achieve that goal. That appears to be a free choice. In contrast, generally in relationships, the way we feel and act doesn’t seem to be entirely the result of our own free choice, as it is in part determined by biological factors – most of which are outside our control and have evolved through natural selection. Evolution is only concerned with survival and reproduction, whereas we have a multitude of values and goals that may well override at least reproduction (and most of us in the affluent world don’t have to worry too much about survival). The availability of love drugs could be seen as giving us the opportunity to guide our lives in accordance with our values, rather than be subject to outdated adaptations that are not relevant to our values.

Perhaps what makes people more concerned about love drugs than other enhancements, such as drugs to improve cognition, is that they have a significant impact on someone other than the person taking the drug – namely that person’s partner. While this wouldn’t be a problem if both parties felt the same way and were both taking the pill, it’s not hard to imagine that some people might react badly to finding out that their partner was taking such a drug. They might feel that it reflected badly on them and how their partner felt towards them, or that it rendered their relationship inauthentic somehow.

I think authenticity is more of a concern, although perhaps not insurmountable. If being authentic is understood as being somehow ‘true to ourselves’, it’s not clear that two people choosing to take a chemical to enhance their relationship would necessarily be rendering that relationship inauthentic. It would probably depend on the exact nature of the enhancement being used. For example, taking oxytocin in couples therapy to promote trust and communication in order to increase the chance of the therapy being successful seems to align with the authentic desire of the couple to overcome the problems in their relationship. On the other hand, if the only way someone could stand to be in a relationship with their partner was by taking a drug, that would be problematic. Although that person could be said to genuinely want to love their partner, it might not be so easy to describe the resulting love they feel having taken the drug as authentic. Certainly their partner would probably not feel it was. Having said that, the literature suggests that despite being referred to as ‘love drugs’, such pills would not create love out of nowhere, but instead enhance love that already exists – which could diffuse at least some of the worries about authenticity, as presumably the drugs wouldn’t work in cases such as this one.

Attraction and attachment are affected by a multitude of factors, many involuntary. For example, an increase in adrenaline, such as from being in a frightening situation, makes it more likely that you will feel attracted to someone. We don’t tend to consider such involuntary biological changes to render relationships inauthentic, but perhaps that’s just because we’re not consciously aware of them, which is part of what makes love so mysterious. By making the option available to voluntarily induce certain feelings, perhaps we risk losing what makes them so valuable to us.

In our drive to understand love, we may well be stripping away some of the mystery. However, if we can use that understanding to improve our relationships – which are so important for happiness, longevity, health etc – then perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if ‘love drugs’ can help us to enhance relationships that we value, perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing either – but I think that the circumstances and motivation under which they were taken would have to be quite specific in order to overcome the concern about authenticity.


Allen Buchanan. 2011. Beyond Humanity? Oxford University Press.

Savulescu J , Sandberg A. 2008. Neuroenhancement of love and marriage: The chemicals between us. Neuroethics 1 ( 1 ): 31 – 44.

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Mind | Tagged | Leave a comment

Conceptions and Knowledge-How

My work on the a priori has recently led me to start looking at the literature on knowledge-how. The connections might start to become apparent as we go. The central questions here regard the nature of knowledge-how and its relation to knowledge-that—to propositional knowledge. There are two dominant views. Intellectualists have it that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. Dispositionalists have it that knowledge-how is a kind of its own to be captured in terms of dispositions or abilities. I’ve become convinced that intellectualism, as stated, is false. Knowledge-how is not a species of propositional knowledge. I’m just going to assume that here. Instead I’m going to say why I think dispositionalism is problematic and gesture at another view.

Dispositionalists get into trouble given their claim that knowing how to do something just is to have some complex of dispositions. If complexes of dispositions are to be constitutive of knowledge-how, Ryle realises, they will need to be “indefinitely heterogeneous” (1949, p. 42). This is how—contra Stanley and Williamson (2001, p. 416)—dispositionalists can allow that a ski instructor can know how to do a trick that she is unable to perform. She may not be disposed to perform the trick. Still, she may be disposed to informatively explain how to do the trick in such-and-such a way, to accurately imagine performing it thus-and-so, … . Such a complex of dispositions can constitute the ski instructor’s know-how. However, the problem now is that if knowledge-how is understood in this way it becomes no good for explaining our capacities to achieve things. An object’s being round explains its being disposed to roll, to leave round impression, to fit snugly through round holes, … . If instead we say that its being round just is its having this indefinite complex of dispositions then its being so disposed cannot be explained by its being round. Similarly our skier’s knowing how to do a trick explains her being disposed to informatively explain how to and to accurately imagine performing it. If we instead say, with the dispositionalist, that her knowing how just is her having such dispositions then her being so disposed cannot be explained by her know-how as it should be.

It instead looks like knowledge-how needs to be constituted by states which are apt to guide action and to be active in bringing about behaviour. By playing such a role knowledge-how would be apt to explain our dispositions. What could play such a role except knowledge-that as the intellectualist has it? Bengson and Moffett (2011) attempt to deliver here by suggesting that “conceptions” are constitutive of knowledge-how. Conceptions are contentful mental states which we are not conscious of (they are subdoxastic states) and are apt to guide action. But if having conceptions is constitutive of someone’s knowing how to do a trick what one Earth is their content? Bengson and Moffett, understandably, don’t have anything to say on this matter.

It seems like knowledge of how to do a trick would be a bad place to start anyway. A vast amount of knowledge-how will be involved such as the knowledge-how it takes children a long time to acquire: how to control one’s limbs and navigate one’s environment. There is a much simpler case of interest to me: inference. Knowing how to do tricks facilitates skiers’ doing so. Similarly knowing how to infer facilitates our transmitting warrant with inferences and coming to know the consequences of our suppositions. Being warranted to employ an inference such that one can transmit warrant with it is to have a kind of knowledge-how. What the content of the relevant conceptions in such cases might be is still hard to say. Peacocke (2003) has it that the conceptions which guide our inferences are those that are constitutive of our possessing the concepts involved. He gives these a definition-like structure. Possession of chair, he suggests, is constituted by possession of a conception with content that x is a chair iff x has a back; has a seat; … . But if conceptions need to be such definition-like states to play the guiding role in question then they will rarely be plausible posits. Fortunately it seems like we needn’t go so far. What follows is a toy example of how things might go instead.

Suppose that some subdoxastic state of mine associates ‘scarlet’ with some remembered or imagined paradigm scarlet things and some similarity considerations. This state is what (usually) determines whether ‘scarlet’ seems to apply in a case and thereby looks apt to explain my largely correct use of ‘scarlet’. The state makes attribution of the concept scarlet look appropriate and is thus plausibly constitutive of my possessing the concept. The same goes for red. (This isn’t completely speculative—it’s rather borrowing from one approach to concept possession in cognitive science: prototype theory). These states also look apt to secure warranted inference and thus to be a constitutive of knowledge-how to infer. Suppose I believe that a is scarlet and consider whether a is red. a will subdoxastically have been taken to be like my scarlet paradigms, all of which will be red, and thus the conception constitutive of red possession could make it seem like a must be also red. This could bring about the inference from a’s being scarlet to a’s being red. If it does this it could do so in a way that is pretty reliable. You might think more is required for the inference to be one I transmit warrant with. I might need some conscious appreciation of the inference’s legitimacy. But there is scope to accommodate this on the view in question too. The subdoxastic states which bring about the inference could make it seem appropriate. Such seemings, when appropriately caused by states constitutive of concept possession, look apt to amount to conscious appreciation of the force or legitimacy of my inference.

I’ve presented a speculative and simplified sketch of how a conception could bring about warrant transmitting inference—a phenomenon I take to be an instance of exhibition of knowledge-how. On this sketch knowledge-how isn’t a species of knowledge-that. But we can see nonetheless see how knowledge-how is apt to bring about intelligent action and thus to explain our being disposed to exhibit it. Knowledge-how is constituted by contentful subdoxastic states apt to explain its manifestations.


Bengson, J., & Moffett, M. A. (2011). Nonpropositional Intellectualism. In J. Bengson & M. A. Moffett (Eds.), Knowing How (pp. 161–195). Oxford University Press.

Peacocke, C. (2003). Implicit Conceptions, Understanding, and Rationality. In M. Hahn & B. Ramberg (Eds.), Reflections and Replies: Essays on the Philosophy of Tyler Burge (pp. 117–152). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Stanley, J., & Williamson, T. (2001). Knowing How. Journal of Philosophy, 98(8), 411–444.


Copyright © David Russell Jenkins

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy of Action | Tagged | 2 Comments

Williams, Pluralism, and Evil People

Hello all, I’ve written something about ethics and value pluralism. Before I get started, thanks to Charles for trying to get this blog going again, because it is an excellent idea.

I want to sketch out a familiar idea from Bernard Williams’s ethics, and then offer a problem, alongside some things we might say in reaction to it. I’m far from well versed on the literature here, and the earlier stuff, which I present in a fairly brief manner, is what I know more about – but I don’t think that people will be as interested by a fairly arcane piece about the distinction between commitments and ground projects. So, although I won’t say much new here, I think it opens up plenty of avenues for debate. The sort of problem I’m considering, which turns around value pluralism, could affect others, such as Isaiah Berlin, and if anyone could point out avenues to explore, that would be good. But, really, the point of this is meant to be getting some discussion going – so that’s what I hope to do.

In his critique of utilitarianism, Bernard Williams offers a couple of examples. Jim can shoot an Indian to save nineteen, or not shoot and twenty will die. I think his other example, George, gets the point across in a slightly clearer way, so let’s go with that. George is a scientist, he’s just finished his PhD, and he’s pretty poor. He’s offered a job. If he takes the job, he’ll be able to support his family (his financial straits are causing problems for them), but the job is in chemical and biological weaponry, and George is fundamentally opposed to working in that industry. If he takes the job then he’ll not only be able to support his family, but will prevent it going to a warmongering zealot – who would greatly profit the cause of chemical weaponry by working overtime (which George could avoid). So, the utilitarian says George obviously should take the job, since it will maximise happiness: his family will do better, and fewer people will die since the zealot won’t be making chemical weapons into even greater killing machines.

williams_bernard-19931118042R.2_png_300x411_q85But Williams thinks that George should be able to say “No” to the job. George has a commitment to pacifism, and that’s not the sort of thing he can just throw away. (Elsewhere he talks of ground projects, and categorical desires, but the distinction between these three things is messy at best, so let’s just work with commitments.) In short, commitments are vital to anything like a valuable human life. Without them, life is not worth living. (Elena Makropulos, in his famous paper on Death, has no commitments, and is utterly bored.) Basically, and this is far more complex and deserves far more space than I’ll give it, Williams’s point is that utilitarianism doesn’t deal with proper human agents. Utilitarianism doesn’t let you keep any commitments, because anything you might seem to be committed to cannot really be something you’re committed to, since as a good utilitarian you have to be willing to abandon it whenever doing so would increase happiness – and commitments aren’t abandonable in such a way. But commitments are a vital part of a valuable human lives, so utilitarianism cannot really account for valuable human lives.

There are two other things in Williams that are relevant here. First off, his internalism about reasons. This is the thought that one cannot have a reason to do something, unless one, in some way, wants to do it. So, if Owen doesn’t want to join the army (nor does he have any desires that, to be satisfied, require him joining the army), then he has no reason to. Second off, you get throughout Williams the idea that there is a plurality of values, and that there can be tragic conflict between values – such that there is no way of avoiding awful problems (see, for instance, Moral Luck). The plurality about values gives us something else: that it’s fine to go against these purportedly-moral demands. There are more values than the merely moral, and we would much rather live in a world full of many different values than just the one: be that moral, aesthetic, or whatever. So, sometimes we might do something that is morally bad, but aesthetically good – but that’s better (in some sense) than always doing the morally good thing.

But then we get some sort of problem. It’s supposedly fine for George to go by his commitment to pacifism, against the moral demand for the greater good. But what about a Himmler figure? Himmler had a commitment to antisemitism. Why might we think it is ok for George to stick to his pacifism, for Anna Karenina to abandon her child in the name of Love, and for people to spend their time in galleries rather than working for the poor, but be repulsed if someone like Himmler offered the thought: “Ah, but genocide is what makes my life worth living!”? What’s more, we want to be able to say something to Himmler – what can the Williamsian say?

Now, one line I used to think was worth pursuing, but am no longer so sure of, focuses on Jim. Jim, if he sticks to his pacifism, condemns twenty people to death. Himmler, if he
sticks to his form of antisemitism, condemns millions. Perhaps we might want to say something about expected-sacrifice. We might say that abandoning one’s commitment is something like suicide. Now, sacrificing yourself to save twenty people might be the sort of thing we think is supererogatory – but we might think it’s expected that you would do so if it were to save hundreds, thousands, or millions; so this might legitimate Jim’s actions, but not Himmler’s. But that won’t do – since it would rule out George refusing the job, since his actions might, in some sense, lead to the deaths of many people (think Oppenheimer). So, I’m not sure this is the way we can go.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-S72707,_Heinrich_HimmlerNow, although there can be no recourse to some free-floating external reason that bans Himmler from setting out on his genocide, we might be able to show that Himmler has a clash of desires, or has got the facts wrong. Perhaps he wants to do the best by the human race, and also eliminate the Jews. If we can show him that Jews are part of the human race, and that his desire to do best by the human race outweighs his desire to kill the Jews, then we might be able to get him to cease his evil ways.

But if he’s utterly set on genocide, and there are no competing desires, and we can’t show our Himmler that he’s gotten something factual wrong, then what might the Williamsian say? Well, we can’t reason with Himmler. But we might be able to use other persuasive techniques – like calling him “cruel”. Though, this will only work if Himmler cares for what we say to him. But, perhaps we don’t even want to reason with this sort of figure. If we can’t reason, and he goes off and tries to complete his project, what can we do? So long as there’s one of us who doesn’t much mind it – who doesn’t have some very strong commitment against just-killing – we might find someone willing to put a bullet in Himmler: would there be anything wrong with that?

But what gives us a right to decide which other commitments we want to exist alongside? What I’ve just said concerns motivating Himmler, trying to get him back to the right side. What justifies our insistence on our values over his? And that seems to be a real problem: once you get rid of the idea that there might be one overarching value, then how to decide between others, and how to decide whether or not something is valuable or is utterly awful and should form no part of the things we pursue, becomes really, really, hard.

Someone of an Aristotelian frame of mind might want to say that we could look to a plurality of values that are constrained by what it means to be a good human – there are plenty of questions to be begged here, but it’s a path that might be worth pursuing. Or, and this is something I want to look at more, we might want to say that some things might be worth pursuing even if they cause great harm, but what we can’t do is something evil. Perhaps some bad things realise other values, or even are just bad, but aren’t the sort of thing that pose much overall threat; but evil things are totally abhorrent and in some way infect other things. But that, as it stands, sounds a bit twee and needs a lot of work – and it seems like it might fall back on some Aristotelian considerations.

Or maybe there just is no way to decide. There’s nothing that makes our values better than Himmler’s. So if we were to appeal to some independent omniscient court, there would be no settlement. The only thing we can do is persuade, cajole, and fight. But that doesn’t do justice to our view that we’ve got something right and he’s got something wrong – though, nor does it do justice to his view that he’s got it right and we’ve got it wrong. Unsettling. But perhaps it’s a bullet I might bite.

Anyway, I think the Williams line against utilitarianism (and, really, all moral systems) is persuasive. And I’m a big fan of a plurality of values. But I’m still a little stuck, and not sure where to go when we face a Himmler figure. What puts us in a better position than someone who seems to say “Evil, be thou my good.”?


Williams, B A O. “A Critique of Utilitarianism.” In Utilitarianism for and against, by B A O Williams and J J C Smart, 75–150. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

———. “Internal and External Reasons.” In Moral Luck, 101–13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. “Moral Luck.” In Moral Luck, 20–39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. “Persons, Character and Morality.” In Moral Luck, 1–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” In Problems of the Self, 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Posted in Ethics, Metaethics | Tagged | 10 Comments

Defining Fiction without Imagination or Authorial Intention

In Mimesis and Make-Believe, Kendall Walton (1990) defines fiction as “any work with the function of serving as a prop in game of make-believe” (p. 72). Make-believe is the prescribed imagination for making sense of what an object is, like taking a doll to be a girl in a children’s game. Walton’s definition of fiction renders imagination as a central notion of the debate on the definition of fiction. Another focus of this debate is the relation between authorial intention and the categorisation of speech-act. I argue neither imagination nor authorial intention is necessary for defining what fiction is, despite the widespread practice of considering them, as can be seen in Gregory Currie’s influential work on the subject.

Currie’s Definition

Currie (1990) defines fiction with both points in mind: “a work is fiction iff (a) it is the product of a fictive intent and (b) if the work is true, then it is at most accidentally true” (p. 46). The “fictive intention” is the intention to prescribe imagination. The first condition of Currie’s definition incorporates both the notion of imagination and the emphasis on the author’s intention. His definition sometimes may get taken out of the context of his other aesthetic theories, particularly his theory of authorship.

Arguing Against Imagination

Imagination is not a necessary condition of a narrative being a fiction. Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (2007) is regarded as a work of fiction – it won the Booker Prize as a novel. Yet, this novel satisfies neither of Currie’s conditions, since it is a historically accurate narrative. Thus, it was neither intended by the author to provoke any imagination of the readers nor is it accidentally true.

I do not intend to go through all the theories that define fiction in terms of authorial intention and imagination here, because my goal is to argue that these two points should not be the foci of the discussion. I mention Currie’s definition as a paradigm of the definition of fiction that has both of the foci, which I shall “the imagination-intention approach”. This type of definition is certainly influential, because many philosophers are the subscribers of this type of theory, including David Davies (1996). Nevertheless, the popularity of this type of theory does not ensure its plausibility.

For the imagination bit, this comes from a mistaken understanding of Walton’s definition of fiction. Stacie Friend rightly notices that Walton does not aim to define fiction in the ordinary sense; instead, he tries to create a definition for the representation arts (p. 182). This understanding of Walton is seen in his words “we could use ‘representation’ and ‘work of fiction’ interchangeably” (p. 72).

The imagination-intention approach takes Walton’s definition of fiction out of its context, and uses it to define non-Walton-fiction. If that works, such an application is fine. It is sometimes plausible for philosophers to apply theories from one philosophical discussion to another one, but not in this case. Consider this quote from Walton (1990):

“Viewers of a film are in the presence of nothing by imagines on a screen. The imagines prompt them to imagine people robbing stagecoaches, falling I love, and so on” (p. 26).

Walton aims to apply his theory of fiction as prescribed imagination to all films, despite the fact that some films are non-fictional, such as Tammy Cheung’s Secondary School (2003), which is a documentary film about the secondary schools of Hong Kong. Walton’s so-called theory of fiction can be applied to the documentary film because he mentions films in general instead of just fictional films. The bit of exegesis shows his attempt to apply his theory of representational arts to both fictional and non-fictional representations. Thus, founding a theory of fiction on Walton’s theory is implausible. If Walton’s theory is accepted, imagination is definitely not crucial in defining fiction, since the task of defining fiction is to draw the line between fictional and non-fictional representation. If Walton’s theory is rejected, then the theory of fiction that is founded on Walton’s theory will also fail.

Arguing Against Authorial Intention

After trivialising the role of imagination, I move on to argue that authorial intention is also not a necessary condition for defining fiction. The reason for rejecting authorial intention is simple: there is no authorial intention in certain cases of fiction or representation. Paisley Livingston (2005) mentions a case that he calls the “traffic-jam” movie. A traffic jam happens if and only if many people in a particular time use the same road. But no one there plans to produce a traffic jam, so this traffic jam is an unintended event. Traffic jam movies are the films that are produced by this kind of unintended event: if no one has any means or any shared plan of how a film is going to be made, this movie has no author.

Livingston provides an example of this. Jeanne is a film student who has a plan in her mind for making a film and has the decision making power of making the movie in question in the beginning. After her producer saw the preliminary version, she is convinced to change her film in accordance with the producer’s advice. If the film has been changed a lot by her seniors without her agreement, then Jeanne cannot be regarded as the author of that film. In precise, Jeanne cannot be regarded as the author of that film, if there are many parties contributing to making the film without any co-ordination and no one has any overall plan for how to make the film. For example, the producer may change many details of Jeanne’s story but still not initiate the production of that film or have any overall idea of what he wants the film to be made. Afterwards, he lets a director do what he wants to the movie with vague guidance that does not include instructions about narrative or audio-visual elements. As such, there is a movie with no author (pp. 69-83).

Currie and other imagination–intention supporters cannot exclude the possibility that some genre movies are made in this way. These movies can be either fictional or non- fictional, but they do not have authorial intent, since they have no author. Therefore, unless one can show that no traffic jam movie is a fiction, the notion of authorial intention is not a necessary condition for a representation to be fiction.


Currie, G. (1990). The Nature of Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, D. (1996). Fictional truth and Fictional Authors. British Journal of Aesthetics, 36, pp. 43-55.

Friend, S. (2012). Fiction as Genre. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 112 (2), pp. 179- 209.

Keneally, T. (2007). Schindler’s Ark. London: Serpentine Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd. Livingston, P. (2005). Art and Intention: a Philosophical Study. Oxford: Clarendon.

Walton, K. (1990). Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Copyright © Felix Ka Shun Chan All rights reserved

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Language | Tagged | 4 Comments

Ethical Pluralism as a Response to the Problem of Scope

The Problem

Who counts in ethics? Which beings deserve to be treated morally, and which do not? There are uncontroversial cases of where we should say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when answering the question ‘does being x fall within the scope of ethics?’; there are also some very controversial cases which tend to be the subject of the most intense debates in ethics.

Focusing on this problem gives us some insights into important differences between mainstream ethical theories like utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. It also reveals one of the limitations of adhering to one or another such theory, instead of combining principles from each of them: I want to discuss how attention to the problem of scope has led some philosophers to subscribe explicitly to pluralism in ethics.

Uncontroversial ‘yes’ cases: typical adult humans

Typical human adults (henceforth THAs) are uncontroversially within the scope of ethics, and there is no mainstream ethical theory that excludes them. They are the paradigm, central case of a being with moral status (a being which deserves moral consideration). An ethical theory barely counts as such unless it makes sense of the moral status of THAs.

Uncontroversial ‘no’ cases: inanimate things

We don’t normally think that inanimate objects deserve any moral consideration for their own sake. We might think that a beautiful work of art or geological formation ought to be respected, but not because the thing itself has a claim to our respect. Most would say that it’s because the thing is valued by others that it ought to be respected. Some might think that it has some intrinsic value regardless of how anyone actually feels about it. But even then, it still makes no literal sense to say that we can be cruel to a painting, or can do wrong to a rock.

Controversial cases: non-human animals

Non-human animals are controversial cases inter alia because some of the qualities or capacities which are thought to grant THAs their entitlement to moral consideration are absent or diminished in some way in non-human animals. Different ethical theories have different stories about which qualities and capacities are the most important ones for moral status, but they tend to include such things as: sentience, self-awareness, autonomy, rationality, self-worth, freedom of the will.

Whether a particular non-human animal species is included within the scope of ethics or not will depend on which features we take to ground moral status, and whether members of that species possess such features.

Single-theory approaches

Here we can look at the different ethical theories and their conceptions of moral status, and what grounds it, for some suggested answers. Utilitarianism prioritises the ability to feel pain and pleasure (often called ‘sentience’ by philosophers), and puts less emphasis on rationality, for example. They often think that any sentient creature falls uncontroversially within the scope of ethics; as long as the way we treat it has an impact on overall utility (the balance of pleasure and pain the world), such treatment will be subject to ethical regulation. Kantians, on the other hand, will have a more restricted picture of ethics to the extent that they prioritise rational autonomy and care less about sentience in its own right. We rarely think of non-human animals as possessing rational autonomy, particularly if we think that animals cannot reflect consciously on their future life and the options available to them, so the scope of ethics will not extend far beyond humanity for orthodox Kantians. However, such a restricted picture also puts into question the moral status of many humans. Humans who have severely compromised rational autonomy, due to illness, immaturity or disability, will have a compromised moral status in the Kantian system.

To the extent that these theories prioritise a single capacity, they seem to offer only a very simple way of envisioning the scope of ethics. There is a single sphere which a given creature is either included in or excluded from based on their possession (or lack thereof) of the relevant capacity, and are either protected by all the same moral principles that govern our treatment of THAs, or are protected by none. Such a high-contrast picture appears to be very distant from our ordinary intuitions and practices. In reality we think of certain beings as neither wholly exempt from moral concern, nor entitled to the same kind of protections that THAs are.

At least in our society, we think that hurting animals is morally wrong. Having said that, most people don’t object to animals being owned as household pets or even exploited (for food, sport or experimentation). Yet they strongly object to humans being treated in such a way. The mainstream opinion is that, as long as you don’t cause an animal pain and distress, you can own them and use them for various purposes.


Combining ethical theories into a pluralistic conception of moral status can give us a more nuanced picture of the scope of ethics than the one provided by single-theory approaches. On this view, what gives THAs their moral status is not one particular capacity or another; they have a number of capacities which are morally relevant in different ways. On the one hand, THAs are sentient and can feel pleasure and pain, which entitles them to be treated in ways which increase their pleasure and reduce their pain, or at least don’t increase their pain. On the other, they have rational autonomy, and ought to be respected in the ways that theories of the Kantian tradition suggest – by not using them as a means to an end, for example.

We don’t have to think of each being as either fully within ‘the’ moral sphere or entirely excluded if there are a number of overlapping spheres with different ethics governing each. THAs are at the centre of this Venn diagram, where all spheres overlap. An animal which was sentient, but lacking rational autonomy, would be in one sphere and deserve some kinds of consideration, but outside of other spheres and so their treatment would not be regulated as strictly as in the case of a THA. This pluralistic approach has the advantage of allowing us to stay closer to ordinary intuitions and practices, and the moral philosophers Thomas Scanlon and Jeff McMahan have utilised versions of pluralism in dealing with questions of scope[i]. Scanlon has suggested, for instance, that while it is wrong to hurt animals, it might still be permissible to harmlessly restrict their movement or reproductive behaviour so that they don’t inconvenience us[ii]. Treating humans in this way would obviously be objectionable.

A utilitarian reply

A defence of the utilitarian approach to the problem of scope might run as follows. Humans have different and greater capacities for pleasure and pain than animals: they are more vividly self-aware, they have clearer memories and imagination, can think about their past and contemplate the future. So humans can experience intellectual satisfaction, escapism, hope, despair, existential terror, and so on. This gives the utilitarian two ways of insisting their conception of moral status is not ‘all-or-nothing’ and hence can be extended in more complex ways than I have so far suggested.

Firstly, there are degrees of sentience based on intensity of subjective awareness as well as the range and strength of preferences/interests one might have. Applying the principle of utility in light of this consideration would mean assigning species lower and higher de facto moral statuses due to their different contributions to overall utility. Secondly, there can be ways of experiencing pain and pleasure that are inaccessible to another species; for example, predicting how one’s treatment of another human will affect overall utility will have to take into account the complexity of the human intellect and social interactions, unique human aspirations/fears, and long-term psychological impact. Predicting how one’s treatment of (say) a frog will affect overall utility will not. Applying the principle of utility in light of this consideration could give rise to secondary ethical principles which govern our treatment of humans but not our treatment of other species (e.g. ‘do not cause unnecessary offense’ could govern our treatment of humans but not our treatment of frogs).

My response is that this still doesn’t fit as neatly with ordinary intuitions as the pluralistic picture does. There are some deeply-held moral intuitions about the differences between humans animals which the utilitarian view still fails to make sense of. Consider the issue of ownership; to own an animal is fine, absent cruelty. To own a human is slavery, which is considered morally objectionable regardless of whether it is ‘humane’. The orthodox Kantian view is that this is because slavery treats humans as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves. For an act utilitarian, as long as the principle of utility is satisfied, any act is permitted. And if humane slavery was possible it would almost certainly satisfy that principle. Act utilitarianism alone lacks the resources to object to painless violations like humane slavery[iii]. So pluralism is to be preferred if we want a closer fit with ordinary practices and intuitions.


Lyons, D. (1965). Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McMahan, J. (2002). The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quinn, W. (1984). Abortion, Identity and Loss. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 13, 24-54.

Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What We Owe to Each Other. London: Belknap Press.

[i] Cf. Thomas Scanlon (1998) What We Owe To Each Other (Cambridge: Belknap Press), p. 178; Cf. Jeff McMahan (2002) The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: OUP), pp. 245-66. McMahan’s “two-tiered” theory follows the example of Warren Quinn (1984) ‘Abortion, Identity and Loss’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13, 24-54.

[ii] Scanlon, op. cit. pp. 182-3

[iii] The objector might therefore subscribe to a version of rule utilitarianism according to which one ought to adhere to secondary principles (rules) even where the primary principle (the principle of utility) is violated, and in which there is a rule to the effect that one ought not to practice slavery. An obvious problem with this is that sufficiently specific rules, incorporating exception-clauses, ought to be sensitive to the difference between cruel slavery and humane slavery (e.g. ‘do not practice slavery, unless it is humane’), and there is no theoretical motivation for a utilitarian to avoid this kind of specificity (cf. David Lyons (1965) Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford: OUP).

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Living Longer, Staying Human

Nicholas Agar has come up with an interesting objection to the idea of radical life extension (RLE), a prospective set of technologies that aim to significantly extend our lifespans by preventing us from ageing, thereby making us “negligibly senescent” (NS). Agar recommends a ‘species-relativism’ about value that he thinks speaks against RLE. Essentially, things that have value for one species may lack value for another species. I can acknowledge that a dog is very happy, perhaps happier than I am, but still be glad that I am not a dog because certain things that I currently value are only valuable to humans. Crucially, this argument is supposed to apply if we improve rather diminish our capacities. A hyper-intelligent alien might find the great works of human literature to be trite and unimaginative, but it would be a genuine loss for me to come to such a conclusion about something that I currently value by enhancing my own intellect, even if I would have objectively more valuable experiences in such a state. Agar suggests that RLE will make us ‘posthuman’, and that species-relativism shows that this is a bad thing.

Clearly, the argument only works if Agar can demonstrate that RLE makes us posthuman, and so if we adhere to Agar’s definition of what it is to be in, and thus to leave, the human species. He starts by defining species as a “group of populations whose members are capable of interbreeding successfully and are reproductively isolated from other groups”. To leave a species, then, one must face “reproductive barriers” between oneself and members of the species. Although we are very similar to gorillas, we cannot reproduce with them, and so we are separate species.

The effects of RLE that constitute reproductive isolation are fourfold. First, Agar believes that long lives will make us extremely risk averse. We will have much more to lose through death (since we would have much more life ahead of us). So we will eschew many activities that humans enjoy, namely activities that would lead to sudden death (e.g. a car crash; drowning; being struck by lightning) rather than gradual death (accumulated damage that will be reparable by RLE techniques e.g. smoking; eating fatty food). Our interests will thus realign towards gradually damaging activities, and away from potential sudden damage. We should note that the activities that will be too risky for NS persons are things that we do without a thought today, such as going for a drive or swimming in the sea; NS persons will thus retreat from the world.

Second, Agar thinks that NS persons will be much more prone to illness; their unchanging genetic makeup will mean that their immune systems cannot adapt to viral, bacterial and fungal evolution, as accompanied by genetic reconfiguration in sexual reproduction. As such, NS persons will avoid contact with others, for fear that they will be exposed to an illness that their bodies cannot fight off. Third, people with indefinite life spans are less likely to want to engage romantically with people who will grow old and die. Finally, for various motivational and biological reasons, Agar suspects that NS persons will be unwilling, and possibly incapable, of having children. These aren’t the only costs of RLE, but they are the four that seem to form Agar’s argument for NS persons being posthuman.

To see why Agar thinks these problems divorce NS persons from humanity, consider a further aspect of his species-theory, that “reproductive isolation can be a partly psychological matter”. He notes that while humans and Neanderthals might have had significant chromosomal differences that made them unable to reproduce, there were probably also substantial psychological barriers that made them mutually unattractive. Agar suggests that we can distinguish between psychological aversions that are cultural, such as racism, and a “hardwired” aversion to “things that appear human but aren’t really”, an indicator of a suboptimal or even useless reproductive partner.

Agar defines reproductive compatibility in slightly broader than biological terms, as being partly “about having offspring that can be acknowledged as children and successfully raised to adulthood”. If the four effects he describes are accurate, it does seem unlikely that a NS person would reproduce with someone who hadn’t undergone RLE. Agar seems to think that this makes NS persons part of a different species.

There are problems with this claim. Psychological barriers can contribute to biological species-difference, by creating divides that lead to reproductive bifurcation of a species, or can simply warn us against attempting to reproduce with sub-par partners, as in the human-Neanderthal divide. Yet it seems implausible that we could separate groups into distinct species based solely on psychological barriers, so long as there remains a capacity to reproduce. As Agar acknowledges, various cultural barriers to reproduction – such as racism – do not lead us to identify multiple species. NS persons’ hermetic tendencies, and their preference for people of their ‘own kind’, do not seem sufficient to establish a species distinction, even if that means there are two groups who do not reproductively interact with one another.

This issue becomes clearer if we consider Agar’s explanation of those who are currently reproductively isolated. One example he offers is those who exist in self-imposed isolation, such as members of monasteries. These individuals qualify as human because of “potential or counterfactual reproductive connections with other humans”. When explaining this monastery example, Agar focuses on what individuals could do. However, when looking at the NS, he focuses on what will happen. Making the account consistent, in either direction, undermines his argument that RLE will lead to posthumanity.
Consider first what Agar would have to say if he considered actual behaviour in both instances. Assume he is right that NS persons would have psychological reasons to avoid reproduction, and even contact, with those of a normal lifespan. It is equally true that a committed monk, or lifelong prisoner, will not have any reproductive activity with the majority of humans.

The more plausible option, which Agar takes, is to acknowledge that the monk is still capable of reproduction, were his circumstances to change. The monk’s circumstances may include his desires and preferences – he may consider it morally wrong for him to reproduce, and this would need to change in order to end his reproductive isolation. Yet the very same consideration applies to the NS person. As Agar defines her, she is very risk-averse, has no interest in reproducing at all, let alone with someone whom she will outlive by centuries. But she still seems capable of reproduction, in the broader social sense that Agar uses. She could decide that the emotional and mortal risks are worth it. Even if we accept Agar’s assertion that she almost certainly won’t, we need some reason to focus in this case on what the NS person will do, when we see that the most reasonable option in the monk case is to look at counterfactuals of what he could do.

Agar has a final argument up his sleeve. He claims that RLE “is more likely…to result in beings who represent some kind of new beginning” because NS persons’ “evolutionary futures are less likely to depend on any contributions that they might make or might have already made to the human species”. Perhaps Agar would note that the monk will die without passing on any genetic material, and so no ongoing group barrier is established. Conversely, NS persons continue over time; if their preferences remain stable, psychological reproductive barriers will divide humanity into two well-defined groups. At this point, Agar might suggest, we have separate species.

We can imagine reproductively isolated groups that are importantly different from the ones Agar considers. Consider a religious order much like Agar’s monastery, aside from a couple of details. The order is not gender-exclusive, and members are not celibate, but may only reproduce with one another. We thus have two groups: the order and the rest of humanity. The evolutionary prospects of members of the order do not depend at all on sexual reproduction with outsiders, and vice versa.

I think it is clear that members of the order are still humans. Yet their reproductive isolation differs in no significant way from that of NS persons. It is self-imposed, based on certain uncommon preferences, involves social isolation, and is potentially reversible. Absent a stronger argument to the contrary, I conclude that a negligibly senescent person, even if they were isolated in all the ways Agar predicts, would remain human. This conclusion does not deny the serious costs of Agar’s suggestions, but it does mean that even if NS persons enjoy very different pleasures from those we enjoy today, those would still be human pleasures. So Agar cannot apply his species-relativist argument to this form of enhancement.

N. Agar (2010) Humanity’s End. MIT.
N. Agar (2010) ‘Thoughts about our species’ future’ in Journal of Evolution and Technology 21(2).

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The Timing Puzzle

One of the uncertainties around death is how it could be bad for us. This problem relates to Epicurus’ observation that ‘when death is, we are not’; since death simply is the annihilation of the self, it doesn’t seem as though it could be bad for us in the ordinary way that stubbing my toe or losing my phone are bad for me. One facet of this is the timing puzzle: when is my death bad for me?

With ordinary bads, I can locate times at which they are bad for me. A typical example is the stubbed toe. It starts being bad when I stub it, or perhaps when I notice that I have stubbed it, and continues to be bad until the pain subsides. Being dead isn’t like that, because it has no experiential quality. It seems as though there are five possible answers to when death is bad for us (six, if you count ‘never’). These are that death is bad for us

(1)   before it happens, maybe beginning with our birth (priorism);

(2)   at the time it happens (concurrentism)

(3)   after it happens (subsequentism)

(4)   at all times (eternalism) and

(5)   at no time (atemporalism).

I want to make a brief, incomplete case for concurrentism. This option has been given rather short shrift (in the recent Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, Johansson devotes just eight lines to rejecting concurrentism), but I think dismissals may rest on a misunderstanding of the position.

Note that we are considering the badness of the event of my dying, not the fact that I am going to die, not my being dead, and not the process of dying. So for concurrentism to be correct, death has to be actually bad for me as it occurs; it is not enough that it is true, or made true, that ‘death is bad for me’ when my death occurs. Perhaps critics assume that this kind of mistake is being made by all concurrentists (not that there seem to be many of us). I don’t think it is.

Here’s my account. Death is bad because it involves a significant loss. Without getting into other issues around variable badness, I think it is the most significant loss any of us will ever face, because it involves losing everything: your capacities, your inclinations, your possessions, relationships and mundanities, i.e. the rest of your life. So I think the appropriate comparison isn’t really with an experiential bad like stubbing one’s toe, but with my other prosaic example, of losing my phone.

When is it bad for me that I have lost my phone? Well, obviously there is an experiential element to this fact. There is that moment when I go to call someone and have that infuriating realisation that my phone is gone. So clearly losing my phone is bad for me after I lose my phone. But let’s tell a story about my missing phone. I lose it as precisely 530pm, as it falls from my pocket on my way home. I don’t go to use it until 6pm. Is it bad for me that I’ve lost my phone in that half hour between my losing it and my experiencing the loss as bad (let’s say ‘suffering the loss’)? I think so, because my phone is a useful (albeit not irreplaceable) capacity. It’s bad for me that I have lost the capacity to make calls, even if at any moment I don’t want or need to make a call. Now most of these moments, most of the half hour, is still a point after the event ‘Ben loses his phone’. But the first moment when it is bad for me that I have lost my phone, when I no longer have the capacity to easily make calls, is the time at which I lose my phone.

My death will not be much like losing my phone. There is no experience of loss, and there is no time after the event at which I will lack capacities even though I don’t realise it – I won’t exist. But if death is the loss of all my capacities, then here is a way in which it is like losing my phone: there is a point of loss. There is a point at which I both lose my final capacity, and the chance to ever have any capacities again. And that’s when death is bad for me. Losses are bad for you at all times when they involve a lost capacity. For most losses, that includes the time of the loss, and all times after at which you lack the relevant capacity. Since death lacks this latter element (since you no longer exist to lack the capacity) it is bad, and only bad, at the time it occurs.

P.S. There is a complication that I haven’t fully worked out, and which I am willing to admit may undermine the whole argument: at my last moment of existence, I haven’t yet lost all my capacities. So perhaps there is no ‘moment of loss’. This might be problematic

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