It’s not easy being evil

Lucifer sitting on a rock

Scientific American covers cognitive scientist Selmer Bringsjord’s efforts to program a thoroughly evil artificial intelligence.  As presented in the article, Bringsjord’s working definition of evil seems pretty confused.

To be truly evil, someone must have sought to do harm by planning to commit some morally wrong action with no prompting from others (whether this person successfully executes his or her plan is beside the point). The evil person must have tried to carry out this plan with the hope of “causing considerable harm to others,” Bringsjord says. Finally, “and most importantly,” he adds, if this evil person were willing to analyze his or her reasons for wanting to commit this morally wrong action, these reasons would either prove to be incoherent, or they would reveal that the evil person knew he or she was doing something wrong and regarded the harm caused as a good thing.

Parts of that paragraph read as describing a sadist, a psychopath, or someone who is badly confused. None of these things seem like a good stand-in for evil. But, then, evil is a notoriously difficult idea to define.

I wonder if this general approach– skip the rigorous definition, instead try to recreate the behavior– might appeal to experimental philosophers. Is there anything to be gained from trying to model confusing psychological phenomena like weakness of the will or self-deception? If we could program a computer to behave as if it were deceiving itself, could that possibly give us any insight into what’s going on when we deceive ourselves?

Related articles:

£1.99 - small Neuroethics: Ethics and the Sciences of the Mind
By Neil Levy, University of Melbourne (December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

A Case of Miscalculation?

Cell_phone_use_while_drivingU.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, announced earlier this week that federal government will crack down on drivers’ cell phone use. The announcement comes a week after the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute issued a press release of a study that shows that texting and talking while driving dramatically increases the risk of collision. This is just one among many studies pointing to similar conclusions (including the infamous study that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn’t publicize for allegedly political reasons). The results are hardly surprising. As Secretary LaHood commented, “We all know texting and driving is dangerous.” So, then, if it is so dangerous and we know it, why do we do it?

Philosophers of action might be inclined to say that this is a textbook case of akrasia. Indeed, when you answer your cell phone behind the wheel you seem to behave like the dieter who, giving into temptation, accepts a second helping; or, the unhappy spouse who has a one-night fling. Some predominant desire of yours (e.g. to answer the phone right then) takes over, motivating you to act contrary to your better judgment.

Yet, is this right? When you answer the phone are you really acting against your better judgment? Don’t you, instead, act under the impression that, if you make the effort, you can do well both things, talking and driving? And isn’t this, rather, a textbook case of miscalculating one’s abilities.

However, if this is true about this case, then it also seems true about most alleged instances of akrasia. You know what you are doing is wrong. Yet you do it, because you over-estimate your capacity to compensate for it, or you under-estimate the impact that your decision will have. You say to yourself: “I can burn all these calories tomorrow,” “My spouse will never find out,” etc.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Desire
By Tim Schroeder, Ohio State University
(Vol. 1, October 2006)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small The Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, Februrary 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Don’t mention the war: or, doing what you didn’t want to do

In last week’s issue of Science Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, summarised his research into a peculiarly incompetent example of agency. There are various actions we perform. We fix on our goal and act in a way that will bring it about. But sometimes we go about trying to not do something. Ever make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, only to bring it up? Wegner calls these phenomena “ironic effects” and proposes that they are the effects of a monitoring process the brain undergoes when we try to avoid thinking about or doing something. Unsurprisingly, he found that “effective strategies include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them.” I.e. the best way to not do something is, sometimes, to stop trying to not do it. In the same way one does not maximise one’s pleasure by trying to maximise one’s pleasure (the paradox of hedonism), successful exercises of agency do not always follow the simple model of directing one’s thought or will toward one’s goal.

For an interview with Daniel Wegner go here.

Related articles:

$1.99 - smallThe Phenomenology of Agency
By Tim Bayne, University of Oxford
(Vol. 3, January 2008)
Philosophy Compass

$1.99 - smallThe Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass