This week’s reading was an article by Baumeister et al., entitled “Do conscious thoughts cause behavior?” In this article, the authors review a number of psychological studies which collectively suggest that conscious thought is causally involved in producing behavior. This is in contrast to an alternative view, which suggests that conscious choice is an epiphenomenon with no causal power or utility, and that the experience of conscious choice is a post-hoc phenomenon that occurs after a choice has already been made via unconscious neural processes. Proponents of this second view often point to a set experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet as evidence. In these experiments, brain activity that correlated with a decision to act was measurable prior to the times when subjects reported making a conscious choice to act.  In contrast, Baumeister looks at several examples that seem to indicate a role for conscious thought in initiating, preventing or modifying behavior. Examples include (but are not limited to) mentally rehearsing and simulating actions, planning, reflecting on past actions, counterfactual reasoning, and overriding automatic behaviors. The conclusion ultimately reached by the authors is that conscious thinking can in fact influence behavior in a variety of ways, many of which are beneficial, with the caveat that unconscious factors also influence behavior and interact with conscious decision-making,

After briefly summarizing the article, we began to outline different possibilities for the role that conscious thought might play in affecting behavior in the form of diagrams drawn on the board. These initial diagrams were subsequently debated, modified and refined over the course of the discussion, so I mention here a rough outline of two pictures that emerged, in the context of the reading.

In one scenario, unconscious neural processes lead to both the experience of conscious choice and behavior, but the experience of conscious choice has no influence over behavior. In this scenario conscious thought and choice are epiphenomena, like the steam whistle analogy presented in the article. This is the view that Baumeister et al. are attempting to counter in his article, by providing examples of ways in which conscious thought does actually influence behavior.

In a second picture (which is more in line with the view set forth in the reading), both conscious thought and unconscious neural processes can, either independently or in concert, produce behavior. This view in particular was refined and debated over the course of the discussion in light of various pieces of evidence. For example, there is abundant evidence suggesting both that conscious thought can influence unconscious neural processing (via learning, conditioning, synaptic plasticity, etc.), and that unconscious neural processing can influence conscious thought and choice, via priming or related mechanisms. Consequently these interactions were added to the picture. It was also pointed out that if one accepts a dualistic theory of mind, an additional possibility arises that the influence of conscious thought over unconscious neural processing might be non-physical. Additional factors were included as well, one being the influence of genes and environment over neural processing (which the group found uncontroversial), as well as the (much more controversial) possible role of agency in conscious thought. Finally, we noted that ultimately all of the factors that produce behavior, whether conscious or not, must be filtered through unconscious neural processes simply by virtue of the fact that instructions from the brain must flow through the motor cortex and peripheral nervous system in order to produce a behavior.

Toward the end of the class we began discussing whether consciousness itself was a necessary component of the mental activities we associate with conscious thought, or if in principle all the functions of conscious thought listed in the article could be performed just as well by a being with no internal experience. This led to a discussion on “philosophical zombies” or p-zombies, which are hypothetical beings that are identical to humans in every way except in that they have no consciousness or subjective internal experience. We also touched on an argument against the existence of p-zombies on evolutionary grounds, which says simply that since consciousness is metabolically expensive, it is likely that either it is adaptive in some way, or that it is an unavoidable consequence of some other brain process that is adaptive.

-David Lyttle

(edited and re-posted 12 Oct 2012)

We read two articles: “Mistaking randomness for free will” by Jeffrey Ebert and Daniel Wegner, and  “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will” by Shaun Nichols. Shaun Nichols of the UA Philosophy department joined us this week, and we discussed his article and also definitions of determinism, indeterminism, and stochasticity.


Ebert and Wegner describe key press experiments in which subjects were asked to describe whether they felt they could have acted otherwise, and experiments where subjects were asked whether an alien actor could have acted otherwise. The studies found that subjects identified randomness of action as agency of action, and speculated that non-predictability could be a criterion for us in attributing agency.


Nichols’ article explores the problem of free will through experimental philosophy, focusing on the psychological aspects of the problem. People’s perceptions and intuitions about agency are highly variable, depending on the level of abstraction of the question, with abstract questions about the universe in general or other universes generating incompatibilist responses, and questions about specific situations or about our specific universe generating compatibilist responses. Experimental philosophy explores the metaphysics of agency: why people have these beliefs about their actions, and asks whether these reasons are sound or not.



According to Mill and others, most people think that they have agency, believing they “could have done otherwise”, but think ‘hypothetically acting otherwise’ relates to a difference in the antecedent conditions; i.e. the traffic light was green instead of red, my favorite food was broccoli, etc. rather than actual agency.


However, most people’s intuitions track indeterminist agency/free will. The Libertarian explanation for this is that a theory of agency appeals to us because it captures the way we experience our actions. These experiences lead to our beliefs about our agency. Up to the point of the decision, all events in the past are the same, and they feel the same, so there is no difference in antecedents. At the precipice of the decision, as we are about to decide, we have the experience that we have the option to choose differently. This tracks surveys in which people are asked to explain why determinism is false. The responders cite experience as supporting indeterminism (responders also cite religious teachings as telling them that indeterminism is true).


There are several problems with appealing to our beliefs and experiences as justification for indeterminism:

– Our experiences themselves could be informed by determinism.

– We could have learned an indeterminist perspective from so early of an age that it seems true to interpret our experiences as supporting this view.

– Raw experience as a counterfactual “I could have done otherwise” is not really possible. We have experiences, like toothaches, that are primary: they are not second-order ideas and analysis. Counterfactuals are a second-order analysis of primary experiences.


According to Spinoza, we believe in indeterminist free will because we are ignorant of the actual causes of our actions. Since we perceive a causal gap, we fill in the gap with free will.


Glimcher (2005): if all inputs of a system are known, and the same inputs produce different outputs, it is reasonable to assume the system is indeterminate.

William of Ockham made a similar argument:

(1)  Factors that are introspectively accessible don’t determine my choice,

(2)  I have introspective access to all the factors that influence my choice.

(3)  Ergo, my choice isn’t determined.


Nichols has conducted some pilot studies attacking (2) of Ockham’s argument showing people that they don’t really have introspective access, to their perceptions or their decisions. When these people are presented with the results of the study, they are less likely to agree with indeterminism.


While Nichols presented (2) as a common belief, none of the forum members felt it was a reasonable assumption.  Psychology (e.g., Baumeister), economics (e.g., Kahneman, Thaler), and neuroscience all demonstrate hidden factors.


Having complete introspective access is controversial because of the “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” phenomenon: If I am extremely hungry, I go to the store and have the option of purchasing a frozen pizza or some broccoli and rice. I go for the pizza, thinking it seems like a good choice. However, when I get home, I would have rather chosen the broccoli and rice. It is only after I’m at home do I realize that it was because I was so hungry that the pizza seemed like a good idea.


During our discussion, Shaun also brought another perspective on some of the concepts we interact with regularly in this forum.


There was some discussion about the meaning of several terms.  Shaun identified what we have been calling “philosophical determinism” and “philosophical indeterminism” with “non-agency” and “agency”, respectively, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with the use of “determinism.”


From the whiteboard:

Philosophical determinism with physical determinism is classical hard determinism, (including fatalism)

Philosophical determinism with physical indeterminism is either stochasticity (moderate) or skepticism (hard) (Nichols calls these both “hard indeterminism” positions)

Philosophical indeterminism with physical determinism is classic compatibilism

Philosophical indeterminism with physical indeterminism is an expansion of compatibilism (moderate) or classical free will/classic libertarianism (hard)

-Sarah Williams

14 Sep 2012


This week’s reading was an excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” In his book, Kahneman describes two distinct modes of cognition: fast cognition, which is rapid, automatic and involuntary, and slow cognition, which is effortful, operates on slower timescales and involves reasoning and conscious decision making. These fast and slow cognitive subsystems are often referred to as System 1 and System 2, respectively.
We  began with a discussion of how theories of human choice-making have changed over time. Much of traditional economic theory is based upon rational choice theory, which assumes that humans make rational decisions in order to optimize their self-interest. However, beginning in the 1960s and 70s, researchers in the emerging field of behavioral economics began conducting psychological studies to investigate how people actually make economic decisions, and found that much of human decision making is in fact, not rational. These ideas have received a great deal of attention in recent years with the publication of several popular books. The observation that humans do not make decisions in a completely rational way has important implications, particularly in that it calls into question the results of classical economic theory, which assumes that humans are rational actors.
Our focus then moved to a more detailed discussion of the notions of fast (System 1) and slow (System 2) cognition, and how these ideas relate to the broader questions of agency and will. We began by discussing system 1. System 1 cognition uses automatic heuristics for monitoring and reacting to the environment. It operates on fast timescales, and does not require voluntary control or conscious effort. Examples of tasks primarily involving system 1 include recognizing emotion in a facial expression, orienting to a sudden loud noise, driving on an empty road, walking at a comfortable pace, or recoiling from an unpleasant or painful stimuli. A question was brought up as to whether system 1 was philosophically deterministic, i.e. whether agency could play a role in the functioning of system 1. While we typically think of system 1 as operating automatically and outside of our conscious control (and lacking agency), a potential complication is that system 2 (which we associate with more “free will-like” behaviors) can alter the functioning of system 1 through training. The related, and more difficult question of whether agency requires conscious awareness was also brought up.
In contrast to system 1, slow (system 2) cognition thinking is characterized by conscious, deliberate activity which requires mental effort. Examples of tasks requiring system cognition include complex arithmetic, long term planning of actions, and paying attention to a single speaker in a crowded and noisy environment, walking at a faster pace than normal, or monitoring the appropriateness of one’s behavior in an unfamiliar social context. In various circumstances, system 2 can effectively “override” system 1 when necessary, allowing for conscious control of actions that are typically automatic. For example, breathing typically occurs automatically and without conscious effort, but can be brought under conscious control. Similarly, experienced drivers will drive a car primarily using system 1, unless a challenging or unexpected traffic situation arises, at which point system 2 is engaged.  Interestingly, in humans, the level of mental effort required for a task was found to correlate with amount pupil dilation. Consequently pupil dilation has be used as an externally measurable indicator of the level of conscious mental effort required for a task.
An important aspect of system 2 thinking is that it is costly, both metabolically and in terms of allocating attention. First, the set of stimuli to which we can consciously attend is intrinsically limited, implying that attention is a finite resource. This can be demonstrated in the classic “invisible gorilla” experiment, in which subjects watch a video of two basketball teams, one wearing black shirts and the other white shirts, passing basketballs. Halfway through the video, someone in a gorilla costume walks through the scene. When given the task of counting the number of passes made by the white team (a difficult, attention-demanding, system 2 task), roughly half the subjects fail to notice the gorilla. In addition to attentional costs, there is evidence that conscious mental effort is metabolically costly, and that performing cognitively demanding tasks can degrade one’s self-control and performance on subsequent tasks simply as a result of low blood sugar, a phenomenon known as “ego depletion”. One example of this mentioned in the reading was a study of a group of judges showing that the proportion of parole requests which were approved spikes shortly after lunch and then decreases as a function of the time since the judge’s most recent meal. The implication is that hungry or “ego depleted” judges tended to give less careful consideration to the cases, and defaulted to simply denying the parole requests.
This observation that System 2 is both metabolically costly and slow allows one to concoct possible evolutionary explanations for why it may be useful for some animals to possess the capacities for both fast, system 1 thinking and slow, system 2 thinking. System 1 cognition sacrifices adaptability and accuracy in unfamiliar contexts for speed and metabolic efficiency, whereas System 2 cognition sacrifices speed (in some cases) and metabolic resources. Thus one can imagine that in stable, familiar, and predictable contexts, system 1 may be preferred, while system 2 provides a way of dealing with unexpected events or unfamiliar and unpredictable environments. One should note that both slow and fast modes of cognition can involve the use of heuristics. This becomes apparent when considering a number of logical fallacies and cognitive biases that are commonly observed when people are presented with certain decision-making tasks.


Meeting 6.1 What’s at Stake?

31 Aug 2012


This was the inaugural meeting of the Fall 2012 semester. This semester we will be diving into a topic that has been tangentially addressed in many previous discussions, but has not had much direct focus: free will.

If you are new to this blog, let me (Sarah Bengston) first direct you to the syllabus and the glossary. In the glossary you will find a useful collection of working definitions for terms we often hear used during the discussions. For this semester’s discussion, the following terms are likely the most important, so I will highlight them here:

Physical Determinism: The future state of the system can be predicted without error from the present state of the system.
(Physical) Stochasticity: We can predict a range of outcomes and their probabilities but cannot specify exactly what will happen.
Philosophical Determinism: Human choices are sufficiently explained by circumstances. These may be initial conditions (e.g., neurological or genetic determinism) or external factors (e.g., fatalism or providence).
Agency: a word for “the ability to have done otherwise,” choice with philosophical non-determinism built in

Terms defined specifically for this semester are:

Free Will:  agency without constraint (though there was some debate about this).

Mind vs. Brain: The brain is the physical structure in our skull, while the mind is more of a Cartesian type entity.

For more definitions about relevant topics, take a quick trip over to Lucas’s blog post about “determinism.”

A substantial proportion of the first hour was spent clarifying and defining these terms.

To begin the discussion of the readings, we asked who thought there was agency and who thought there was no agency. While there was a pretty equal split, of those who thought there was agency the majority thought that is constrained.

The discussion then focused primarily on the Harris reading. There was, again, a split of opinions. Some felt that there were contradictory aspects to the text. For example, Harris promotes the idea that our actions are all predetermined for us at the level of our neurologic framework, yet we should strive to overcome this and act morally. How can we overcome a predetermined action?

It was also noted that certain aspects of neurobiology are ignored. For example, with conditioning, such as with impulse control, this can become an internalized process and actually change how our brains respond to stimuli. In this way conscious processes can shape our neural framework and change our behavior even under the framework of no agency that Harris presents.  However, it was pointed out that perhaps it was not the response to an impulse but the impulse itself that showed limited agency.

Consciousness and self awareness:

“We are just watching what happens based on our predetermined choices.”- A suggested summation of Harris’ argument.

How does our consciousness impact our agency? Are we able to have agency because we are conscious?

While there was some confusion between self awareness and consciousness, it was generally agreed upon that consciousness was simply knowledge that you are a different entity than others.

The two main points of Harris’ argument are:

1)    Conscious choice is an illusion and the result of unconscious processes, and thus there is no unconscious agency.

2)    Unconscious processes have no agency, so again, there is no unconscious agency.

Despite this, some felt that there was unconscious agency and while choices may not be consciously apparently the ability to have done something else was present.  See Lucas’ argument presented in the previous post for a fuller commentary.

It was brought up that the level of our neurobiology seemed an arbitrary level at which to put the control of our behavior. After all, the synapses of our brain are a byproduct of chemical changes, which are a byproduct of electron changes. If there is no agency, at what level of analysis should we be looking at behavior? Some discussion about agency in the light of physics was discussed, however a longer discussion was promised for next week. With this in mind, I will reserve a summation of that discussion for the next meeting.

From a behavioral ecology standpoint, it was pointed out that the idea of limited or no agency can sometimes be called limited behavioral plasticity. It was suggested that behaving sub-optimally could be evidence for agency, as evolution would have selected for individuals who always behaved in a predictable, optimal way. However, behavior can be limited through multiple mechanisms in an individual allowing sub-optimal behavior to persist, even in the face of evolution.  This supports the idea of constrained agency.

One proposed summary suggested:

Fatalism = no preference

Determinism = no agency

Nihilism = no meaning

Though we were quickly running out of time, it was proposed that you can have any combination of these concepts though preference without agency presented difficulties. Given two alternatives, a mechanism can use heuristics to pick one, but is this the same as preference or value for one over the other?  How is the ability to imagine a non-existent alternative related to concepts of preference?


Our first discussion of the term centered around the question of free will presented in Sam Harris’ book by that name.  I (Lucas Mix) presented a summary of Harris’ argument from my perspective.  Rather than make this week’s blogger recapitulate that argument, I have set it down below.  It does not represent the consensus of the Forum.  A full and broader summary of our discussion will appear within the week.


Argument A

1) The portion of the brain that initiates action appears to fire before the portion of the brain that registers deliberation or choice.
    (See the Libet experiment, Libet et al. 1983 in Brain, and commentary by Daniel Wegner (2002) and Ebert and Wegner (2011).)
    ERGO (alpha)
2) All conscious choice is fully determined by prior unconscious causes.
    ERGO (beta)
3) There is no conscious agency.

[Statement 1 has been shown experimentally.  If 1 is true, and if we rule out the choice being made anywhere else in the brain or mind, 2 follows.  Harris sneaks in the conditional clause, but if we ignore it, then ERGO alpha appears valid.  Statement 3 does follow necessarily from statement 2 (ERGO beta).]


4) Willing is necessarily conscious.
    ERGO (gamma)
5) There is no unconscious agency.

[Statement 4 appears to be an argument by definition.  It begs the question of how “willing” relates to “choice” and “agency.”  I’m not willing to buy Harris’ definition, but if you do, statement 5 follows necessarily (ERGO gamma).]


3) There is no conscious agency.
5) There is no unconscious agency.
    ERGO (delta)
6) There is no agency.

This is a syllogism along the lines of

P(x: x = [a] ) = {NULL}
P(x: x = [~a] ) = {NULL}
P(x) = {NULL}

and appears to be valid.

So, I’m agreeing with ERGO beta, gamma, and delta, but claim the argument fails because ERGO alpha requires a hidden assumption with which I do not agree. I agree with statement 1, but not with statement 4.  ERGO alpha and statement 4 failing, I don’t buy the argument.

A parallel argument:


7) Physics admits of no agents.
    ERGO (epsilon)
6) There is no agency.

[Statement 7 is correct.  Ergo epsilon requires a hidden assumption, either that no non-physical evidence exists or that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  I cannot agree with either and don’t buy the argument.]



The first goal of this meeting was to explore why we (the human community) all disagree so much. Haidt and Graham claim that moral decisions are made on the basis of one or more of what they call the Five Foundations of Morality: harm, reciprocity, ingroup, hierarchy, and purity.

We are interested in how eugenic ideas could shape policy and behavior, and investigating different moral ontological approaches to the concept goes beyond this scope. We instead define five practical ethical principles: pleasure/pain, choice, duty/obedience, disgust (yuck factor), and harmony/virtue ethics. This brings the discussion down from the realm of the metaphysical to a practical realm more suited to the concerns of this forum.

Below is a table showing each of the five principles and thought processes or behaviors that arise when one is more concerned for the self or others. Basic philosophies are shown in green and corresponding reproductive behaviors are shown in red.



Considering that people do not agree on what defines a “person,” or if there is such thing, it becomes very difficult to determine how we should treat people. This makes practical application of eugenics policies unclear…which leads to much controversy (e.g. abortion, embryo selection, mandated sterilization) .

As a group, we shared our own thoughts and views on eugenic policies. Several were advocates of self choice with no imposed restrictions on reproduction. Others were fans of eugenic regulations such as mandated prenatal screening, mandated universal education, one child policies, forced contraception after a parent has several children removed from their care, imposed slow life history (although we are unsure how this would be accomplished), or mandated early life contraception (a couple could have the contraception lifted after applying to have a child).

Even within our small intellectual group, there was much disagreement. So who knows where the future of eugenics is headed…

In this week’s Chance, Purpose and Progress in Evolution and Religion, we discussed personhood. Historically, the concept of personhood has been a topic of interest to a wide range of fields, such as philosophy and law. Consequently, many attempts have been made over the years to define what a person is. One can easily imagine how the definition of person can be of vital importance to a field such as law, where specific laws may protect persons, but not afford non-persons the same protection.

In the landmark decision of Roe V. Wade, the United States Supreme Court weighed the rights of the mother to have an abortion against the rights of the state to protect prenatal life and protect the health of the mother. The question of personhood was relevant in that if the fetus could be considered a person, it should be protected by the same rights as the mother. In the end, the Court explicitly rejected a fetal “right to life” argument and determined that the mother has the right to abort prior to fetal “viability”. In this case, “viability” was defined as “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid”, which is typically placed at about seven months (or 28 weeks) but may occur earlier. Interestingly, the recent “personhood” law proposed in Oklahoma challenges the Supreme Court opinion rejecting the fetal “right to life” argument and seeks to grant personhood status to fetuses, thus granting them full protection as people.

The origin of the word person is the Latin <i>persona</i>, which originally meant “character in a drama, mask”, but is today thought of more as meaning “human being”. Though Christianity was the first philosophical system to use person in this modern sense, the concept of personhood had been present by the time of Aristotle. Over the years, its meaning has changed and evolved. In early Christianity, person was a technical theological term referring to the three persons of the Trinity.

By early 5th century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, writes in <i>On exodus</i> that “hominization” takes place forty days after conception and that early abortion cannot be regarded as homicide because “there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not being fully formed”. Near to a century later, Boethius refines the meaning of the word to “that which possesses an intellect and a will”.

Sometime around 1264, Thomas Aquinas writes the<i>Summa contra Gentilles</i> (On the Truth of the Catholic Faith) in which he states that”The vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without (i.e., by God).” The view of “delayed hominization” was confirmed as Catholic dogma by the Council of Vienne in 1312 and has never been officially repudiated by the Vatican. Aquinas also discusses the idea of “potential persons” who are on the path to actualization.Though the view of “delayed hominization” has yet to be repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church, Lucas informs us that the Church’s modern definition of personhood includes all conception with a full genetic component.

Although we unfortunately did not cover this extensively, other religions also have put much thought into the question of personhood. Buddhists, for example, think of persons as being sentient beings who must suffer from outer discomforts (giving birth, growing old, physical illness and the process of dying), attachment aversion and rebirth. Daniel Charbonneau suggests that it would have been interesting to discuss the views of Hinduism which does not have a centralized leadership and so a variety of views existor those of Islam, whose shares its origin with Judaism and Christianity.

Moving away from theological views on personhood, we discussed Kant’s view of persons being moral agents which are rational beings whose rationality can be demonstrated by conscience and autonomy. Specifically, this means that rational beings are capable of making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, and to change or justify practices and beliefs accordingly. As for Peter Singer, author of the assigned readingfor this week’s discussion (Chapter 6 of “Practical ethics”), he defines a person as  a rational and self-aware being, or following Locke, as “a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places”.This is contrasted with the view of a person in a biological sense where all individuals of the species Homo sapiens should be considered persons.

An interesting side note: Anna Dornhaus suggested that all of these definitions were in fact post hoc attempts to get a handle on what exactly it means to be a person and, as such, were likely to be somewhat fuzzy. She suggests that perhaps sticking to a fuzzy term to start with, such as beings with souls, might be the best definition that we can hope to achieve exactly because it is undefinable. 

Although using an undefinable term to define personhood may not be practical to further our discussion, her comment does bring up an important point.  Many of the definitions discussed include some notion of soul or rationality which are somewhat fuzzy terms and can be fairly problematic when trying to determine if something is a person or not. For instance, at what point, before conception in the form of gametes, at conception, or at any point after conception to adulthood, can “human being” be considered a person? In cases where the lines are blurred, the notion of “potential persons” is often brought up and the exact boundaries of person, non-person and potential person vary according to the viewpoint espoused. For instance, while Augustine of Hippo may consider that fetuses are persons forty days after conception, Kantmight consider personhood to beginaround two years old when children are capable begin to make rational choices. Singer, who agrees more with Kant, suggests that the definition of personhood should not be constrained to humans and goes so far as to propose that a mature gorilla has more self-awareness than a human infant and, as such, should be considered more of a person than the infant.

In this week’s reading, Singer alsodescribes an interesting thought experiment:

Imagine on the one hand, a couple with good living conditions, financial security, etc., but who are on the fence about having children or not and in the end, they might choose to not have kids.

Imagine on the other hand, parents who are pregnant with a child who has been diagnosed with some sort of handicapped fetus will likelychoose to not have the child.

Both of these scenarios are fairly realistic and are interesting because they highlight the fact that it seems as though we more readily accept negative eugenics (aborting a disabled child) while we are somewhat uncomfortable with positive eugenics (somehow coercing the parents with a  good living situation to have a child). Studies have shown that humans are genetically programmed for risk avoidance and, as such, our threshold for accepting potentially unfavorable conditions is lower than our threshold for accepting potentially favorable conditions. If you are interested by this phenomenon, Daniel Charbonneau highly suggest looking up TED Talks by Dan Ariely as well as a fascinating talk by Laurie Santos.

After having gone over a range of views on personhood, the group discussed how most people think of what is a person and what is not. Lucas suggests that the way most people think of personhood similarly to the Kantian definition where rationality and autonomy somehow fit into the equation. On the other hand, Joanna suggests this isn’t the case because Kant doesn’t think that infants are persons. Rather,she suggests that most people tend to think of person according to the biological definition.

Now that we have some sense of what can/could/should/would be considered a person, the question remains: How is this relevant to eugenics? The first thing is to think about the implications of personhood. I think a common assumption is that all people should be considered equal, but is it obvious that they should be? Typically, equality is thought to be ensured by rights, both inherent and inalienable. In Practical Ethics, Singer proposes the moral principle of “equal consideration of interests” which essentially states that rights are unimportant, and we should rather focus on the consideration of individual’s interests. Specifically, he suggests that one should “include all affected interests when calculating the rightness of an action, and weigh those interests equally”.

The idea that everyone is equal is however directly in conflict with eugenics which empirically shows that in fact, people are not equal. That said, it is not clear that existence of natural variation within a population necessarily leads to there needing to be inequality in rights or consideration. Nonetheless, this dichotomy of views illustrates why arguments in favor of eugenics tend to be consequentialist arguments, while arguments against eugenics tend to be deontological. One is a more pragmatic approach based on empirical evidence, while the other is more about philosophy and moral choices (see discussion 5.2 for more on deontological vs. consequentialist arguments against and for eugenics).

The concept of dignity is also relevant topersonhood and its implication important for eugenics. Kant states that dignity is an inherent property of personhood. He states that a person can’t be treated as means unless also treated as an end as this would be an affront to their dignity. What this essentially means is that you cannot use a person without them also benefitting. In this sense, if a fetus is considered a person, abortion goes against the dignity of the fetus. Of course, if the fetus is considered a person, it would also be considered homicide. Interestingly, though in Augustine’sOn exodus he claims that early abortion cannot be considered homicide, he goes on to condemn both abortion and contraception in <i>On marriage and lust</i> because sexual intercourse without procreation is thought to be unnatural. So, according to him, before “hominization”, abortion is fine from a homicide point of view, but unacceptable because it involves having sex without procreating.

This week was focused around a presentation by Dr. Aurelio José Figueredo, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona. The presentation was entitled Life History Strategy and the Evolution of Eugenics.

The fundamental concept behind life history theory is the allocation of limited resources within an organism. This means organisms must make trade-offs. A classic example of this is body size vs. growth rate. Resources can allocated towards a large body size with a slower growth rate or a very fast growth rate with a smaller body size. The way in which these resources are allocated can vary both interspecifically and interspecifically. Two strategies seen nearly ubiquitously across the animal kingdom is R and K selected reproduction. Both traits can be environmentally or sexually selected for.

R- selected, or fast life history strategy:

  • More energy to offspring than somatic maintenance
  • More energy to mating than parental care
  • More energy towards more offspring rather than survival of existing offspring

Fast life history individuals therefore produce numerous precocial offspring that may vary more in quality and have lower survivorship. This strategy is selected for in unstable environments where mortality is extrinsic (predation, etc.).

This tends to produce:

  • Limited attachment to kin and social groups
  • Exploitative personal style
  • Low kin-selected altruism
  • Low parental care
  • High social defection
  • High social antagonism
  • High social aggression
  • General selfishness towards social partners

K-selected, or slow life history strategy:

  • More energy towards somatic maintenance than reproduction
  • More energy towards parental care than mating
  • More energy towards survival of offspring than producing more

And therefore produce more quality offspring, with higher survivorship but fewer in number. This strategy is selected for in highly stable environments, with the largest source of mortality being intrinsic (defect, etc.).

This tends to produce:

  • More stable relationships with kin and social groups
  • Kin-selected altruism
  • High parental care
  • High social reciprocity
  • General altruism to social partners

In humans, slow life history strategies have been linked to higher levels of physical and mental health, executive functioning, emotional intelligence but not general intelligence. These, and other social indicators have been studied multiple times using different measures that correlate and interact differently. Both life history strategies are reinforced by other individuals of similar type.

Given the ways that life history strategies may influence personal relationships, it likely also drives how humans compete with their own species. Dr.Figueredo proposed that eugenics may be a competitive strategy for slow life history individuals to compete with fast life history individuals. Fast life history individuals may interfere with slow life history individuals simply as a unintentional consequences of their behavior. Fast life history individuals put forth low somatic effort, which raises socialized health and welfare costs, have a high mating effort which threatens slow life history offspring and have low parental effort which results in neglected and abused children. However, slow life history strategy individual also interfere with fast life history individuals, though it may be a more intentional effort. These interferences include requirements for health and automobile insurance, anti-teen pregnancy and socialized abortion services, and child protective services.

Dr. Figueredo ended his presentation with two questions:

Is the entire eugenics movement a competitive strategy of slow life history individuals?

Given this information, should we re-evaluate when the eugenics movement actually began?

Discussion began by deciding how eugenics fit into life history strategies. It was thought that perhaps eugenicists tend to be slow life history individuals and do not like fast life history individuals. To decrease competition they impose regulations or limitations on the reproduction of fast life history individuals and generally attempt to slow them down. Eugenics could then be considered an enforcement to prevent deviation from the slow life history strategy.

It was also noted that if we accept this possibility, we must be aware of our own life history strategy when debating the moralities attached to both strategies. The morality may also vary across societies and countries, both within and between groups.

The remaining time was primarily filled by questions that we did not have time to discuss. These included:

How do these life history strategies relate to class?

Do people have the right to defend their own life history strategy?

This week’s meeting focused on scientific and ethical considerations surrounding the heritability of intelligence. The readings for this week included excerpts from “The Bell Curve”, a famous and controversial book that, among other things, makes claims about the heritability of human intelligence. The first portion of the meeting focused on scientific aspects of the heritability of intelligence (as measured by IQ), and on long-term trends in IQ measurements. Here heritability is defined as the proportion of the total phenotypic variation in a specific population in a specific environment that can be attributed to genetic factors. Much of the available evidence used in forming estimates of the heritability of IQ results from studies comparing monozygotic and dizygotic twins, or from studies of monozygotic twins raised separately in adoptive households. Both types of studies involve certain drawbacks, in that the heritability estimates could be influenced by factors such as tendencies among parents to treat monozygotic twins more similarly than dizygotic twins  in the first case, or by the effects of having a shared prenatal environment in the second case. Another important caveat is that heritability estimates can be strongly affected by the environment in which the participants live. For example, estimates of the heritability of IQ are consistently higher in studies involving participants with high socioeconomic status compared to studies involving participants of low socioeconomic status. However, in spite of these various difficulties, a number of different studies have arrived at similar estimates of the heritability of IQ, indicating that variance in IQ may be at least partly due to genetic factors. Another important consideration is that heritability is defined as a ratio, and the actual value can be affected by both the numerator (variability due to genetics) and the denominator (total variation including variation due to environmental causes). The response to selection only depends upon the variation due to genetics (the numerator), and therefore eugenic arguments do not require high heritability, just high genetic variation with respect to the train in question.

Interestingly and seemingly counter to the predictions of eugenic theorists, studies of long-term changes in intelligence have revealed that IQ scores have actually been rising over time, a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect.” Various explanations have been proposed to account for this, including improvements in nutrition, education, and reduced parasite load. Also, while IQ scores are rising, it is not clear if the same phenomenon is occurring with respect to g, highlighting the distinction between IQ and g.

It was pointed out that the ideological commitments of people studying the heritability of intelligence can profoundly impact the way in which they collect and interpret data on the subject. For example, Samuel Morton, conducted a study measuring human skulls in the 19th century and reached conclusions with respect to human variation  in cranial volume (which he believed to be related to intelligence). Following this, Stephen Jay Gould reworked the original craniometric data in “The Mismeasure of Man” and concluded that the original study was flawed and that the original conclusions were both wrong and biased by Morton’s preconceptions regarding differences in intelligence between different human populations. However, a recent re-analysis of the data (that employed an elaborate blinding procedure in an attempt to prevent the inherent biases of the researchers from influencing the analysis) reached conclusions more in line with those of the original study. Hence, the fact that these issues are controversial and emotionally charged makes it difficult to make a high-level scientific assessment of the available data. It was also noted that proponents of eugenic thought can be found throughout the entire left-right political spectrum, implying that a person’s philosophical positions with respect to eugenic arguments do not necessarily correlate with his or her positions on other economic and social issues.

Near the end of the meeting we shifted the focus of the discussion towards addressing the various moral and ethical considerations surrounding the heritability of intelligence and the associated eugenic and dysgenic proposals that have been made. A central question is simply “what is the goal?” In other words, what is the desired outcome of any hypothetical intervention aimed at raising the intelligence of a population? For example, end goals could include higher job performance and economic productivity (g is a high predictor of job performance), high overall happiness (which is certainly not the same as economic productivity), a more egalitarian society, a society with greater economic mobility, and so forth. These goals are not always mutually compatible. For example, there is evidence indicating that high social mobility coupled with assortative mating can rapidly lead to genetic stratification along economic lines and the emergence of a caste system with high levels of economic inequality, an unintended negative outcome. A related question is that of why we tend to see intelligence as desirable or valuable in the first place, and why there is a tendency to conflate intelligence with intrinsic worth. It was pointed out that our value judgments tend to coincide with our mate choice strategies, e.g. we tend to value intelligence, beauty, athletic prowess and anything associated with high levels of resources (or high “mojo,” as we decided to refer to it). It was also pointed out that high-IQ and high desirability as a mate are not always correlated, with members of the high-IQ society Mensa listed as examples.


Post contributed by DL.

In this week’s meeting, we explored the range of eugenic thought and policies. As a preparation for the discussion, we read the “Geneticists’ manifesto”, a document written in 1939 (shortly before the war) during the 7th Genetics Congress in Edinburgh. The manifesto essentially proposes broad steps deemed necessary the group for the effective genetic improvement of the world’s population. Interestingly, the manifesto was voluntarily signed by many eminent persons at the time, such as J.B.S. Haldane, R.A. Emerson, and J.S. Huxley, to name a few. The manifesto proposes the need for social and economic equality as well as the abandonment of prejudice before any effective form of improvement could be accomplished. Measures such as birth control, dissemination of knowledge on the biological principles involved in selection and agreement of the direction of improvement are discussed as more pro-active eugenic methods.

We began the meeting by proposing our personal definitions of two key terms that will be central throughout the semester: eugenics and dysgenics. Although we have opted to formally “undefine” these terms for the remainder of the semester because of their emotionally loaded nature which would impede rather than assist discussion, this exercise served to help us think about our own biases and what elements we intuitively think should define these terms. Many ideas emerged and most of them can be fit into the following broad categories:

Intent: the idea that a conscious decision is necessary for eugenics. This essentially gets at the question of whether policies that have eugenic effects but whose goal was other than eugenic should be considered as eugenics.

Improvement: simply the idea that eugenics seeks improvement through genetics.

Necessity of institution: This relates to whether institutions (government, private institutions, etc.) are a necessary part of eugenics/dysgenics.

Positive/negative: There are two main ways in which eugenics can contribute to improvement: either through some sort of positive effect (e.g. stipends for parents with desired genes) or by mitigating negative effects (e.g. stipends for sterilization of people with undesired genes).

An interesting alternative definition, suggested by AJ, proposes defining eugenics as the attempt by those with slow life history strategies (r-selection) to lower the fitness of others with fast life history strategies (K-selection).

Although everyone agreed that improvement is a necessary component to eugenics, the direction of improvement had yet to be discussed. In the end, we used the broad definition exposed in the “geneticists’ manifesto” as an operational definition:

The most important genetic objectives, from a social point of view, are the improvement of those genetic characteristics which make (a) for health, (b) for the complex called intelligence and (c) for those temperamental qualities which favour fellow-feeling and social behaviour rather than those (today most esteemed by many) which make for personal “success,” as success is usually understood at present.
In order to help frame arguments used for and against eugenics, we briefly discussed ethics. Ethical systems basically break down into three categories: Deontology, Consequentialism and Virtue ethics.

Essentially, within this system of ethics, there are set rules that one should follow and following them (your behavior) is more important than the outcome. Expressions such as “duty for duty’s sake” are characteristic of deontological ethics. In this case, contrary to the popular expression, “the means justify the end

Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This system of ethics resides at the other end of the spectrum from deontology, where the outcome is more important that the behavior that led to them. In this case, the “end justifies the means”.

Virtue ethics:
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines deontology as follows: “Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximise well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.”

As a general rule, arguments against eugenics tend to be deontological while arguments for eugenics tend to be consequentialist.

The “Geneticists’ manifesto”, which advocates for social, racial, ethnic and economic equality, as well as proposes social programs such as assistance for parents , has a clearly Marxist penchant. Although this is not surprising, Marxism and collectivism had its greatest impact on the early half of the 20th century, it is important to underline that for the second half of the 20th century (~60’s and 70’s), there has been a general shift from collectivism to individualism where questions of morality and liberty are assessed primarily in terms of individuals.

Having laid the appropriate groundwork, we went on to discuss various eugenic policies, those with express eugenic aims as well as those with incidental eugenic effects, institutions, and programs. In order to facilitate the discussion, we tried to plot these on a graph whose axes were (x-axis) a range of individual to collective behaviors and (y-axis) a range of negative to positive eugenics (Negative eugenics involves discouraging those with undesirable traits, while positive eugenics encourages those with desirable traits to have more children.)


Although in the end plotting these on a graph proved more difficult than anticipated (is a sperm bank collective or individual?), it proved to be a worthwhile exercise encouraging debate. It forces you to think about how most of these can fit at multiple locations on the graph and how our own predispositions might bias us to assume that only one position is possible.

Lastly, we discussed the Supreme Court Decision of of Buck v. Bell which legitimized eugenic sterilization in the US. Specifically, the case is about Carrie Buck, a mentally deficient woman who was committed to the Virginia State Colony of Epileptics and Feeble Minded. She was the daughter of a mentally deficient mother in the same institution, and the mother of an illegitimate mentally deficient child. The case debates whether the State has the right to sterilize the “mentally defective”, for the “health of the patient and the welfare of society” and finds in favor sterilization.

The problem is that the US Bill of rights aims to limit the power given to the government and does not ensure specific rights to individuals. Specifically, there is no special protection to the right to reproduce. Therefore the State can decide who can and who can’t reproduce. This begs the question of whether reproduction should be a right or a privilege. From a individualist point of view, which is currently en vogue, it is definitely a right. The legislature however does not yet reflect this as this right is not currently protected. From a collectivist point of view, it should be a privilege.