The Problems of Philosophy - The Value of Philosophy

Russell ends with a brief chapter on how philosophy helps one to find truth etc. etc. I will take a different tact.

We saw that it is fruitful to only talk about the abstraction layer. I say that I have a collection of things, what you should take from that is not any insight into what the things in themselves are, but rather that this collection has a size, things can be added to or removed from it, etc.

Now, when I have my collection, you know that it has a size, but you don't know how that size is calculated. Maybe I keep a running count as things are added and removed, or maybe I count the number of objects in my collection every time you ask. Furthermore, you don't know anything else besides the fact that it is a collection, and you don't need to - you can iterate over a list of people as easily as over a list of rocks.

The fundamental question in ethics is, then, what things do you have to implement before we can say that you have moral worth? Must you have basic reasoning skills, addition and so forth? Then many children and television networks have no moral status. Do you just need human DNA? Then not only is abortion immoral, but the loss of skin cells is a tragedy.

Polymath Jeremy Bentham gave a great example of separation of concerns when he said: "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but rather, 'Can they suffer?'" You may implement any number of interfaces: you can read, talk, reason etc. - this is irrelevant to the ethicist. If I am writing an ethics evaluator, all I need to know is whether you can suffer.

//Incorrect
public EthicsEvaluator(WhiteHumanMale H) { }

//Correct
public EthicsEvaluator(ISufferable H) { }

Bentham used this separation of concerns to argue for the rights of children, women and the abolition of slavery, among other things. When someone would object that women or slaves weren't as smart as white men he could respond, "So what?" As long as a slave was feeling pain from his slavery, then the slavery was immoral.

Peter Singer used the concept of interfaces to argue that some non-humans have moral status. He argued that there is no criterion which all humans, and only humans, have. Therefore, either some humans must not have moral status, or some non-humans must have moral status.

For example, you can argue that only humans have the ability for higher mathematics, such as calculus. This may be true, but young children and the mentally handicapped (much less those in a coma) don't have the ability to do higher math; thus any interface requiring an ability to do calculus would leave them out in the cold. Given that we are against killing children willy-nilly, the ability to do math must not be part of the interface. This can be repeated with any of the "higher" reasoning skills, until we are forced with the conclusion that many animals (at least most vertebrates) have moral status.

This argument has been very successful (Wikipedia says "there is little criticism against the argument although it was first put forward in the third century AD."); you can't throw a stone in a philosophy department without hitting a vegan.

An interface for ethical personhood (i.e. the criteria for a being to have moral status) was developed by Mary Anne Warren. Her requirements are the following:

The being must have some subset of the following:
1. Consciousness (capacity to feel pain)
2. Reasoning (ability to solve new problems)
3. Self-motivated activity (not motivated solely through genetics)
4. The capacity to communicate messages on indefinitely many concepts
5. The presence of self-concepts and self-awareness

She argued that foetuses cannot be said to have any of these things, and therefore abortion cannot be immoral. We know that many animals can count, dolphins, pigs and magpies can recognize themselves in the mirror while young humans can't[1], and many animals like pigs can solve problems like opening a box to get food. Accepting Warren's criteria then would require us to give fewer rights to certain humans than we currently do, and more rights to non-humans than we do now.

Which interface we accept has great impact on how we live our lives; thus, the question of "Where's the WSDL?" while seemingly esoteric, is of utmost importance.

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