Dangers of moral words

December 11, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe philosopher Bernard Williams distinguished between thick ethical concepts such as “brave” and “brutal,” which have both descriptive and evaluative content, and thin ethical concepts such as “right” and “wrong,” which are purely evaluative. “Murder” and “exploitation” are thick ethical concepts that sometimes play a central role in ethical debate. They have descriptive content combined with a negative evaluation: murder and exploitation are wrong.

This duality of thick moral words, their descriptive/normative Janus face, makes them an impelling part of the vocabulary of most, if not all, ideological movements. If you oppose X, and can demonstrate that X, in fact, involves murder or exploitation (descriptive aspect), then you have immediately demonstrated that X must be opposed (normative aspect). Thick ethical concepts are often used in conflictual situations to legitimize violent actions against people who are described as intriguing, murderous, exploitive, and much else. Since the words are taken to describe reality as it is, such bad individuals must be watched over and, if necessary, acted against.

Thick moral words thus easily lend themselves to functioning as ideological firearms. Their descriptive aspect allows taking aim. Their evaluative aspect says, “Fire!” I want to mention three further dangers of thick ethical concepts.

Dogmatism. The first is that it is difficult to raise questions about their applicability, since it can appear as if you questioned the evaluative component. Let us say that you raise the question if embryo destruction really constitutes murder. In the eyes of those who take this description for reality, you appear like a treacherous person who shrewdly argues that murder might be right! Simply raising the question, no matter how open-mindedly you do it, places you in the firing line. Your very open-mindedness speaks against you: “Murder is not something to be open-minded about!”

Righteousness. A second troublesome feature is that thick ethical concepts produce instant goodness in any ideological movement. Any ideology is on the right side, regardless of which side it is on, since it fights for what its moral vocabulary unites with the good, and fights against what its vocabulary unites with the bad. Any ideology has the right and the duty to act resolutely against what its dualistic vocabulary picks out as impermissible features of reality. – Which side for peace are you on?

Suffering. A third problem is that thick moral words produce suffering in the form of gnawing suspicions and fears. Since we are not omniscient, there is much we do not know, for example, about embryonic stem cell research. Thick ethical concepts here tend to appear in our heads as stand-ins for reality. They appear in the form of an inner voice that tells us what stem cell research is. This is not a purely descriptive “is,” but a double-edged one, for what the voice in the head says the research is can be a nightmarish, “It is murder.” Since we are ignorant of much, but not of our anxiety, we cannot shake off the worrying double-edged concepts that spin in the head. They seem validated by the gnawing anxiety they produce, and we suffer without end, caught in a whirlpool of thick descriptive/normative moral language.

In pointing out dangers of thick moral words, I am not questioning their descriptive or evaluative content. Murder is a reality and it is a serious crime; the same is true of exploitation. I am just pointing out that the dual nature of thick moral words can turn our heads. Moral language can make us violent, dogmatic, righteous, and anxious about issues that perhaps exist mainly in our descriptions of reality.

I think most of us have fallen into such dark pits.

Pär Segerdahl

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Contemplative conversations

November 19, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWhen we face new sensitive and worrying issues, there is an instinctive reaction: this must be debated! But is debate always the right way, if we want to take human concerns seriously?

That some are worried about new research and technology, is a fact. That others are not worried, is also a fact. Suppose these people handle their differences by debating with each other. What happens?

What happens is that they leave the actual world, which varies as much as people are different, and end up in a universal world of rational reasons. Those who worry must argue for their concerns: All sensible people should feel worried! Those who are not worried must provide weighty counter-arguments: No sensible person should feel worried!

Debate thus creates an either/or conflict from what was only a difference. Polarization increases the fear, which amplifies the desire to be absolutely right. Everyone wants to own the uniquely compelling reason that everyone should obey. But since we are different, the debate becomes a vertiginous hall of mirrors. It multiplies exaggerated world images in which we lose ourselves and each other.

The worry itself, as trembling human fact, is forgotten. The only thing that engages us is the weighty reason for, or against, being worried. The only thing that interests us is what everyone should feel. Is that taking human concerns seriously? Is it taking ourselves seriously?

If a child is worried, we do not ask the child to argue for its worries, and we do not comfort the child by refuting it. We take care of the child; we take care of its worries, as compassionate parents.

I play with the idea that we and our societies would be in better shape if we more often avoided the absolute world of reasons. Through its universality, it appears, of course, like a utopia of peace and unity among rational beings. In fact, it often creates polarization and perplexes us with its exaggerated images of the world. Arguing for the right cause in debate is perhaps not always as noble as we take it to be.

We are, more often than we think, like children. That is, we are human. Therefore, we need, more often than we think, to take care of ourselves. As compassionate parents. That is another instinct, which could characterize conversations about sensitive issues.

We need to take care of ourselves. But how? What is the alternative to debate? For want of better words: contemplative conversations. Or, if you want: considerate conversations. Rather than polarizing, such an open spirit welcomes us all, with our actual differences.

Perhaps that is how we become adults with regard to the task of living well with each other. By tenderly taking care of ourselves as children.

Pär Segerdahl

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Intellectual asceticism

August 7, 2018

Pär SegerdahlWe dismiss the magician’s claim to be in touch with the spirit world. We dismiss the priest’s claim to be in touch with the divine. We do not believe in supernatural contact with a purer world beyond this one!

Nevertheless, similar claims permeate our enlightened rationalist tradition. Even philosophers promised contact with a purer sphere. The difference is that they described the pure sphere in intellectual terms. The promised control of “concepts,” “categories,” “principles” and so on. They lived, like monks and magicians, as ascetics. They sought power over life itself, but they did it through intellectual self-discipline.

If you want to think about asceticism as a trait of our philosophical tradition, you may want to take a look at an article I wrote: Intellectual asceticism and hatred of the human, the animal, and the material.

In the article, I try to show that philosophy’s infamous anthropocentrism is illusory. Philosophers never idealized the human. They idealized something much more exclusive. They idealized the ascetically purified intellect.

Pär Segerdahl

Segerdahl, P. 2018. Intellectual asceticism and hatred of the human, the animal, and the material. Nordic Wittgenstein Review 7 (1): 43-58. DOI 10.15845/nwr.v7i1.3494

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Can neuroscience and moral education be united?

June 4, 2018

Daniel Pallarés DomínguezPeople have started to talk about neuroeducation, but what is it? Is it just another example of the fashion of adding the prefix neuro- to the social sciences, like neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing and neurolaw?

Those who remain sceptical consider it a mistake to link neuroscience with education. However, for some authors, neuroscience can provide useful knowledge about the brain, and they see neuroeducation as a young field of study with many possibilities.

From its birth in the decade of the brain (1990), neuroeducation has been understood as an interdisciplinary field that studies developmental learning processes in the human brain. It is one of the last social neurosciences to be born. It has the progressive aim of improving learning-teaching methodologies by applying the results of neuroscientific research.

Neuroscientific research already plays an important role in education. Taking into account the neural bases of human learning, neuroeducation looks not only for theoretical knowledge but also for practical implications, such as new teaching methodologies, and it reviews classical assumptions about learning and studies disorders of learning. Neuroeducation studies offer possibilities such as early detection of special learning needs or even monitoring and comparing different teaching methodologies implemented in school.

Although neuroeducation primarily focuses on disorders of learning, especially in mathematics and language (dyscalculia and dyslexia), can it be extended to other areas? If neuroscience can shed light on the development of ethics in the brain, can such explorations form the basis of a new form of neuroeducation, moral neuroeducation, which studies the learning or development of ethics?

Before introducing a new term (moral neuroeducation), prudence and critical discussion are needed. First, what would the goal of moral neuroeducation be? Should it consider moral disorders in the brain or just immoral behaviours? Second, neuroscientific knowledge is used in neuroeducation to help design practices that allow more efficient teaching to better develop students’ intellectual potentials throughout their training process. Should this be the goal also of moral neuroeducation? Should we strive for greater efficiency in teaching ethics? If so, what is the ethical competence we should try to develop in students?

It seems that we still need a critical and philosophical approach to the promising union of neuroscience and moral education. In my postdoctoral project, Neuroethical Bases for Moral Neuroeducation, I will contribute to developing such an approach.

Daniel Pallarés Domínguez

My postdoctoral research at the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics (CRB) is linked to a research project funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in Spain. That project is entitled, Moral Neuroeducation for Applied Ethics [FFI2016-76753-C2-2-P], and is led by Domingo García-Marzá.

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When fear of obscurity produces obscurity

April 25, 2018

Pär SegerdahlObscurely written texts make us angry. First, we get annoyed because we do not understand. Then comes the fear, the fear of being duped by a cheat. Our fear is so strong that we do not dare to acknowledge it. Instead, we seriously suspect that there are madcaps who for some inscrutable reason write tons of nonsense. We had better take shelter in the house of reason!

Certainly, there are chatterboxes who talk nonsense. My own fear in this post is that fear of the obscure will make us shallow. Insightfulness easy appears as obscurity. It takes time to understand insightful texts. We often reread them; we age with them. If we do not give us that time, but demand immediate gratification, we might reject insightful texts as obscure and perhaps even dangerous.

There is an ideal of eradicating all obscurity: Write verbally explicitly, without any holes in the chain of reasons! The works of great thinkers are often scrutinized according to this ideal: Are there overlooked holes in their arguments through which truth might slip out? Can the holes be repaired, or will the ship sink with its cargo of truth claims?

A problem with this ideal of reason is that it can undermine our own literacy. The ideal can make even plain texts seem obscure, which reinforces the fear of being duped by cheats; hordes of them. Suddenly, one wants to correct all humanity, who apparently has not yet learned to be reasonable.

The ideal of reason becomes a demand for a small circle of intellectual ascetics who write intricately argued texts to each other: texts that, however, become incomprehensible to the rest of humanity. Like impregnable walls, protecting the house of reason.

Fear of obscurity risks making us both shallow and obscure. Therefore, take care of your fear! That is also a way of being reasonable. Perhaps a more insightful way.

Pär Segerdahl

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To become aware of something

March 29, 2018

Pär SegerdahlThe phenomenon I want to highlight in this post has many descriptions. Here are a few of them: To become conscious of something; to notice; to observe; to realize; to see; to become aware of something.

We all experience it. Every now and then, what these descriptions indicate occurs in us. We realize something; we become aware of something. It can be elementary, such as being struck (another similar description) by how blue the sky is. It may be painful, such as realizing how self-absorbed we are or how ungenerously we treat someone.

What is the point of living if we do not occasionally become aware of living?

Insights can also be philosophical, such as becoming aware of what it means to forgive someone. We cannot order someone to forgive, just as we cannot order someone to be happy. The words “I forgive you” may resemble an act of volition that a person can be ordered to perform; but only deceitfully empty words will obey the order. Genuine forgiveness comes spontaneously, or not at all. I say, “I forgive you,” when I notice, with relief, that I already have forgiven you; that I no longer harbor unforgiving thoughts about you, etc.

What would human life be without these insights into how we live? What would ethics be?

Just as forgiveness cannot be enforced, awareness cannot be demanded. “Realize this!” is not an order, but sheer desperation. Awareness is as shy as forgiveness. It comes spontaneously, or not at all. As soon as a certain form of awareness is required, enforced, or presumed, it contracts to a mere norm of thought. That is how communities of ideas arise, or churches, or philosophical schools: through narrowing consciousness. Loyal members will confirm each other while they deride “the others” who supposedly lack insight and must be rejected.

Considering how awareness does not obey orders, it can be seen as radical, as revolutionary. It takes us beyond all norms of thought and all communities of ideas! Suddenly we realize something that surpasses everything we thought we knew. However, if we try to force our insights onto others by proving them as facts, we reduce our spacious awareness to narrow binding norms. Our radical freedom is unnoticeable on the surface; we cannot display it without losing it.

If awareness is free and impossible to catch as a fact, do we have to remain quiet about these shy insights? No, philosophical work aims precisely at attracting shy insights into the light. By using fresh examples, considerations, similes and striking words, we try to entice what does not obey orders. This is the secret of a genuine philosophical investigation. It does not prove truths, but attracts truths. Whether the investigation succeeds, each one must assess for him- or herself. In philosophy, we cannot say, “Elementary, my dear Watson”. Nevertheless, many professional thinkers dream of saying it. They dream of the pure authority of binding norms of thought. Faith in reason is sheer desperation.

This post may seem to contain quasi-oracular pronouncements about forgiveness (and other matters). However, the intention is not that you should believe me or use the post as a norm of thought. Ultimately, my statements are queries from human to human: Do you also see the features I see in forgiveness and awareness? Otherwise, we continue the investigation together. For in philosophy we can never enforce the truth, we can only attract it. It comes spontaneously, or not at all.

Pär Segerdahl

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Beyond awareness: the need for a more comprehensive ethics of disorders of consciousness

October 23, 2017

Michele FariscoDisorders of consciousness like coma, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, and what is known as minimally conscious state, are among the most challenging issues in current ethical debates. Ethical analyses of these states usually focus on the ‘residual’ awareness that these patients might still have. Such awareness is taken to have bearing on other factors that are usually considered ethically central, like the patients’ well-being.

Yet, when we take a look at recent scientific investigations of mental activity it appears that things are much more complicated than usually thought. Cognitive science provides empirical evidence that the unconscious brain is able to perform almost all the activities that we (wrongly) think are exclusive of consciousness, including enjoying positive emotions and disregarding negative ones. To illustrate, people that are subliminally exposed to drawings of happy or sad faces are emotionally conditioned in their evaluation of unknown objects, like Chinese characters for people who don’t know Chinese. If preceded by subliminal happy faces, these characters are more likely to elicit positive feelings when consciously perceived. This means that unconscious emotions exist, and these emotions are (plausibly) positive or negative. This in turn suggests that consciousness is not required to have emotions.

Accordingly, people with disorders of consciousness could also have unconscious emotions. Even though they are not capable of external behavior from which we could infer the presence of positive or negative emotional life, we cannot rule out the possibility that these patients’ residual brain activity is related to a residual unaware emotional life, which can be either positive or negative.

We should try to avoid becoming biased by the sort of “consciousness-centrism” that impedes us from seeing the total landscape: there is a lot going on behind (and beyond) the eyes of our awareness.

What does this imply for the ethics of caring for and interacting with people affected by severe disorders of consciousness? Well, as previously said, the ethical discourse surrounding the care for and the relationship with these people has usually focused on their residual awareness, scrutinizing whether and to what extent these people could consciously experience good and bad feelings. Yet if it is possible to have these experiences at the unaware level, shouldn’t this be a relevant consideration when engaging in an ethical analysis of patients with disorders of consciousness? In other words, shouldn’t we take care of their residual unconsciousness in addition to their residual consciousness?

I believe we need to enlarge the scope of our ethical analyses of patients with disorders of consciousness, or at least acknowledge that focusing on residual consciousness is not all we should do, even if it is all we presently can do.

Michele Farisco

Winkielman P., Berridge K.C. Unconscious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13(3):120-3

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