Making philosophy fun again

[Review of “Jerks, zombie robots, and other philosophical misadventures” (MIT Press, 2019) by Eric Schwitzgebel.]

Professor Schwitzgebel’s beautiful new book (pictured below and available here via the MIT Press) consists of 58 short philosophical reflections. Like a modern-day Montaigne, Schwitzgebel reflects on and ruminates over a wide variety of eclectic topics in no particular order. He concedes in his preface (p. 3) the lack of a unifying or overarching theme; instead, the chapters are organized in five parts as follows (note: all page and chapter numbers refer to the Dec. 5, 2018 draft of Schwitzgebel’s book):

  1. Jerks and excuses (chs. 1-13),
  2. Cute AI and zombie robots (chs. 14-23),
  3. Regrets and birthday cake (chs. 24-36),
  4. Cosmic freaks (chs. 37-45), and
  5. Kant versus the philosopher of hair (chs. 46-58).

In place of a comprehensive review, then, I will select my favorite chapter from each part of the book, and I will then review, in reverse order, only those five chapters in the hopes of persuading you to read the entire tome for yourself. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in … My favorite chapter in part five of the book was the chapter on “The Philosopher of Hair” (Ch. 50). Here, Schwitzgebel poses a series of philosophical questions about the nature of haircuts (pp. 222-223, edited by me for clarity):

What exactly is a haircut? For example, what distinguishes a haircut from a trim or a styling? Is a good haircut timelessly good, or does the quality of a haircut depend on the currents of fashion? …. Should the nature and quality of a haircut be judged in part by the intent of the hairdresser? …. How important is it to have a good haircut, compared to other things one might value in life? Assuming it is important to have a good haircut, why is it important?

And so on and so forth. In short, Schwitzgebel thus demonstrates the universality of the Socratic method, how the domain of philosophy extends not only to such deep problems as truth, justice, and beauty, but also to such mundane things as haircuts. Implicit in this chapter is the importance of asking good questions. That spirit of good-faith philosophical questioning is what I love most about Schwitzgebel’s work: even when I disagree with his analysis of a given topic, I have to concede that he is asking the right questions.

Continuing now in reverse order, my favorite chapter in part four of Jerks, Zombie Robots, Etc. was the chapter on garden snails (Ch. 45). Schwitzgebel not only poses a strange question–Are garden snails conscious?–he also provides a lucid and patient step-by-step demonstration of the various ways in which we might attempt to provide a coherent answer to that difficult question. In addition, Schwitzgebel offers an original and intriguing possibility. Instead of being a dichotomous, yes-or-no thing, there might be varying degrees of consciousness, but at the same time, Schwitzgebel also acknowledges potential difficulties with his idea, or in his own words (p. 203): “So while in the abstract I feel the attraction of the idea that consciousness is not a dichotomous property and garden snails might occupy the blurry in-between region, [this] view requires entering a theoretical space that has not yet been well explored.”

Let’s proceed to part three. Although my favorite chapter in this part of the book was the one on the game of dreidel (Ch. 24), after reading the preface, where Schwitzgebel himself invites his readers to “[r]ead only the chapters that appeal to you, in any order you like,” I accepted this invitation and began with the chapter “On the Morality of Hypotenuse Walking” (Ch. 35). As a serial “hypotenuse walker” myself, I just had to begin here. To restate Schwitzgebel’s example, the shortest distance from point A to point B on my college campus is a diagonal shortcut through a patch of grass, but what should we do if there is a sign telling us to “keep off the grass”? Which choice is more morally wrong? (i) The decision to simply disregard this “keep off” admonition and walk the hypotenuse to save time and energy, or (ii) the college’s decision to protect the patch of grass, which prevents people from saving time on their daily walks?

This chapter thus highlights the awful tension between our general Kantian duties on the one hand (such as our duty to follow the rules of our college, in this case the rule to “keep off the grass”), and Schwitzgebel’s persuasive consequentialist reasoning on the other (all the aggregate time lost by following the “keep off” rule). This simple example thus poses a deeper moral and philosophical puzzle: when moral principles collide, how to do we resolve the resulting moral conflict in a good-faith or principled way?

Moving on, one of my favorite chapters of part two of the book was the chapter on on what moral obligations are owed to conscious robots (Ch. 19). (Honorable mention also goes to chapter 16, a haunting short story titled “My daughter’s rented eyes.”) Imagine a future time like the world in the movie Blade Runner, which is populated by conscious replicants who are “more human than human.” In the words of Schwitzgebel (p. 92, emphasis in original), “if we someday create robots with human-like cognitive and emotional capacities, we owe them more moral consideration than we would normally owe to otherwise similar human beings.” Why? Because we will have been their creators and designers. As a result, “Our moral relation to robots will more closely resemble the relation that parents have to children, or that gods have to the beings they create … than the relationship between human strangers” (ibid.).

For my part, what I found so persuasive about this chain of reasoning is that it resembles many of the doctrines of the common law. Broadly speaking, there is no legal duty to rescue among strangers, but if you are in special relationship–such as the relationship between principals and agents, between common carriers and their passengers, or between innkeepers and their guests, just to name a few standard examples–a deeper set of legal duties apply; in a word, special relationships can override the no rescue rule.

Last but not least, my favorite chapter in part one of the book was Schwitzgebel’s powerful critique of the pleasure principle (Ch. 5). In fewer than 150 words, Schwitzgebel refutes an entire school of modern philosophy (p. 40, footnotes omitted):

It used to be a truism in Western, especially British, philosophy that people sought pleasure and avoided pain.… I’d guess quite differently: Although pain is moderately motivating, pleasure motivates us very little. What motivates us more are outward goals, especially socially approved goals–raising a family, building a career, winning the approval of peers–and we will suffer immensely for these things. Pleasure might bubble up as we progress toward these goals, but that’s a bonus and side-effect, not the motivating purpose, and summed across the whole, the displeasure might vastly outweigh the pleasure. Evidence suggests that even raising a child is probably for most people a hedonic net negative, adding stress, sleep deprivation, and unpleasant chores, as well as crowding out the pleasures that childless adults regularly enjoy.

This succinct critique is significant because it also debunks many of the unstated assumptions of a whole host of academic disciplines, including “happiness” research, population ethics, and welfare economics. All these fields purport to study aggregate well-being, but what is well-being? Without a good definition of human well-being, what good is all this research? To sum up, I strongly recommend “Jerks, zombie robots, and other philosophical misadventures.” In six words: Professor Schwitzgebel makes philosophy fun again!

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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