A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Christian Ethics and Sexbots

Sex robots are com... approaching rapidly. You can already get bespoke sex dolls. The normal response to this prospect is a mixture of titillation, disgust, and mockery of the people likely to need them. I'm interested in this from a theological perspective, though: is sex with a robot, strictly speaking, forbidden to Christians?

It seems useful to compare such acts to masturbation. Masturbation is generally disapproved of within Christianity, but there is not universal agreement on the rationale for this prohibition. This opacity has a lot to do with the Bible saying almost nothing about masturbation. Wikipedia mentions the story of Onan in Genesis 38, but the relevance of this passage (in which Onan is pressed by his father to sleep with his brother's widow, but refuses to impregnate her) seems dubious.

Leviticus 15 discusses the way a person may be made ceremonially unclean due to discharges of semen. However, I would presume that this no more applies to Christians than the Old Testament regulations concerning women's periods. Jesus' death removed the need for this kind of ceremonial purity, substituting his purity in the place of men.

So much for attempting to get an answer directly out of scripture. I am aware of four arguments as to why masturbation is usually or always sinful, which we shall refer to as the Purity, Radically Pro-Life, Teleological and Lust arguments. Note that accepting one does not entail the rejection of the others, and masturbation might be sinful for multiple reasons. There are, though, good reasons for rejecting at least the first two of these arguments.

Purity Argument

This is broadly the argument I suggested referring to Leviticus. The claim would be that masturbation in some way defiles or profanes the body. The Christian's body being a temple to the Holy Spirit and all, masturbation is therefore wrong.

Why, however, would we think that masturbation is profane in this way? As Paul writes in Romans 15:14:
I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.
Masturbation might on this view be wrong for some people. But there's nothing here to justify a blanket prohibition.

Radical Pro-Life Argument

Life, many Christians claim, begins at conception. (I think a better way to put this would be that "the distinctively valuable feature of life - i.e. being part of God's plan - begins at conception", but that's a debate for another time). Why not go further, then? Why not argue that not merely a fetus, but even a sperm, has moral importance and should be treated with the same reverence as a person?

The first thing to note is that this would only establish a prohibition on masturbation by men. (And indeed, men would be perfectly entitled to masturbate so long as they did not ejaculate), Female masturbation is hardly going to kill an egg.

But even with that restriction, the argument seems dubious. An embryo will, in the right conditions, grow into a person: it is, one might well believe, a person who has yet to fully develop. A sperm is not like this, however, since it needs not only the right nourishment and protection to become a person, but also to be united with an egg.

Moreover, even when an act of sex does lead to procreation, there are hundreds of millions of sperm which do not fertilize the egg but instead die within a few days. If God had imbued sperm with intrinsic moral value, would He really allow 99.999999% of them to die even in the best case?

Teleological Argument

This was for a long time - perhaps still is, I don't know - the official view of the Catholic Church. According to this view, the purpose of sex is procreation within marriage. All acts of sex which do not aim towards this purpose are sinful.

I'm not going to challenge this as an argument, given that it has been developed and defended over hundreds of years by minds greater than my own. Perhaps it succeeds, perhaps it does not, and it would be the height of arrogance to think that I can refute its strongest form without ever having looked into it before now.

Two things are worth noting, however. First: if you accept this argument you should also oppose a wide range of other sexual acts, including not only familiar sins such as sex outside of marriage and homosexual sex but also sex using contraception, ejaculation into any orifice other than the vagina, sex between couples in which the woman is post-menopausal or already pregnant, etc.

Second, one can reject this argument while maintaining that sex has a particular purpose of procreation within marriage. It is mainstream doctrine in many denominations that sex is intended not only for procreation but also for pleasure, just as food is intended both for our pleasure and for our sustenance. Moreover, unless one thinks that whatever serves God's purposes is mandatory and whatever does not serve His purposes is forbidden, there remains work to be done in the move from "sex is intended by God for procreation by married couples" to "all sexual acts which cannot lead to procreation are forbidden."

Lust Argument

This, I think, is by far the most plausible argument against masturbation. Consider Matthew 5:27-28:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Masturbation is not in itself sinful. However, it is usually predicated upon, or at the very least assisted by, a sinful lust. Masturbating to thoughts of someone to whom you are not married is a violation of the Seventh Commandment. If one is able to masturbate without thinking of anyone, then sure, go ahead; if one masturbates thinking of one's spouse, then again go ahead (although procreative sex is perhaps better!).

What does this mean for sex with robots?

The Purity argument would presumably apply to robots as well as masturbation. But as we saw, this will make you impure only if you think it does and decide to go ahead anyway.

The Radical Pro-Life argument would establish a prohibition upon men ejaculating as a result of sexual relations with robots. We might think that for men to engage in sex with robots at all is therefore spiritually unhelpful and conducive to sinning, even if not sinful in itself. But as noted, this argument seems highly dubious and could not in any case establish an objection to women making use of sex robots.

The Teleological argument would presumably establish a prohibition on the use of sex robots, except where such usage is conducive to procreation. Again, though, the argument seems dubious.

What of the Lust argument? Does lust towards a robot constitute adultery? If the robot is intended to represent a particular person to whom one is not attracted, then it seems that it should: one would not be excused lusting over a pornographic actress merely because technically one lusted over a picture of her on a screen, so it should hardly be different if we replace the screen with a 3D representation.

Following this, I think it makes sense to think that any sexual act with a robot in which the act is reliant upon the robot's being representational of a person to whom one is not married should be considered sinful. Sex with a stranger is adultery just as much as sex with a known person. That said, a robot which is representational of one's spouse does not seem to fall foul of this rule: if sexting and sending of naked selfies between married couples is permissible, then masturbation to 3D representations of each other ought also to be permissible. Additionally, robots which produce sexual pleasure without being representational of any person would not fall foul of the lust argument.

In conclusion

I'm not here to set your doctrine for you. Perhaps you think I am wrong to reject the Teleological argument, in which case sex robots can be almost completely ruled out. Even the Lust argument that I think succeeds sets some strong limits on what kinds of sex robots can be used without sin. But it seems mistaken to argue that Christians should accept a blanket prohibition upon all such uses of robots.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Preparing the Ground for Tyrants

(See also: How Good Has Obama's Presidency Been?)

I've seen a couple of libertarians sharing the following graphic on Facebook, commenting upon how much sillier it looks a year later now that Donald Trump is the president-elect:

I'm not certain how useful this video is to my general point, but it feels kind-of related: Obama mocking Mitt Romney during the 2012 debates for viewing Russia as the "number-one threat to America":

These are statements which were made with utter confidence by Democrats at the time, which they now are very eager to repudiate. A related phenomenon has been the inflated stature, under Obama of the executive order. Obama has not, by the standards of modern presidents, issued an especially large number of executive orders: indeed, the last president to issue fewer orders during two terms of presidency was Grover Cleveland in the late 19th century. But by using them to cause the enforcement of laws which Congress had rejected, he has prepared the ground for Trump to do whatever he likes, even beyond the probably Democrat landslides in the 2018 midterm elections.

This brings us to a general point, one made frequently by libertarians and classical liberals: that designers of political systems rarely stop to think what will happen if the wrong people are able to take charge of the country. But this is an inevitable fact of politics: democracies elect bad men, great leaders make poor choices of successor, and revolutionary governments are almost by definition founded by men with a taste for violence. This fact is one that we should take into account when setting up our laws and institutions, and there are three basic responses you can give:

(1) The freedom of action of political actors must be severely curtailed, firstly by checks and balances upon what can be done and secondly by limiting the range of actions which any government is able to do, no matter how internally united it may be.

(2) Yes, there are risks to a powerful executive, but they are risks worth taking. There are bad governments, but (at least in the context of a well-functioning liberal democracy) these are very much the exception.

(3) Embrace the hypocrisy, and accept that ultimately what matters is not the meta-level process of how you determine what governments should be able to do but simply what side you are on, i.e. whether these vast powers are being used for a (by your lights) good cause or a bad one.

The people who talk about this problem explicitly seem almost universally to give answer (1). Answer (3) is closer to most people's unconsidered instincts, and I don't actually think it's obviously wrong. (It's uncomfortable for Democrats to oppose Trump doing the very things they championed under Obama, sure, but is it objectively any easier for him merely because Obama did it? I don't know.) I'd be interested to see a defence of (2), which seems to be the option most applicable to the UK.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Beware Pop-History

Loose Cannons: 101 Military Myths, Mishaps, and Blunders
Graeme Donald

Most of us are aware of the flaws with most works of pop-science, especially by non-academic authors: there is a tendency towards books and articles which are innacurrate, oversimplified, and poorly sourced if you want to actually check the veracity of the claims being made. Pop-history is less fashionable than pop-science, and so attracts rather less attention, but is subject to many of the same failure modes.

Perhaps the worst offender on that front is Terry Deary's Horrible History series of books, subsequently expanded into a TV program and who-knows-what-else. Deary repeatedly claims that other historians are frequently erong and that he alone tells the truth, yet repeatedly makes erroneous, or at least controversial, claims without any attempt to indicate his sources.

But Deary, after all, is writing for kids, so perhaps strict accuracy and sourcing are less important. No such defence can be made of Graeme Donald's Loose Cannons, which focuses entirely upon making controversial claims - correcting common misconceptions, recounting obscure but interesting biographies,etc - and never once provides a shred of evidence for these claims. To be clear, I'm not accusing Donald of dishonesty: just that he gives no particular reason to believe him over any other source. Compared to reading Wikipedia, this has the advantage of being a curated collection of stories. It has the disadvantage of costing money, and not even providing names of sources that one could, in principle,check. Compared to a decent blog on the internet, it's hard to see why one would choose to read this.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Review: The Undoing Project

The Undoing Project: A Frienship that Changed the World
Michael Lewis

This is a good book, with many interesting passages, but it was not the one I was hoping to read. If you have even a basic familiarity with the literature on cognitive bias, you'll learn nothing new about the subject from this book. For at least some of the people who might be interested in it, then, this book has no value.

But it would be unfair to judge this as a textbook, rather than as a work of biography and intellectual history. Taking it on its own terms - I think that the introduction and first chapter could have been excised from the book without much loss. They are an extended discussion of various issues relating to Lewis' past bestseller Moneyball, intended to persuade readers that people in important positions really are prone to systematic errors and ignorance. Finally, at page 52, we are at last introduced to a seven-year-old French Jew named Danny Kahneman, caught in the midst of the Holocaust, and the book finally starts moving.

Over the next thirty pages, Danny escapes to Vichy France, faces his father's death, and emigrates straight into another war - this time the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, taking place around him in the buildings of Jerusalem. After obtaining a degree, he is drafted into the Israeli army, and in a story I recognised from Thinking, Fast and Slow overhauls the process by which officers are selected and sent to the various Israeli armed forces.

The third chapter covers the same period through the eyes of Golden Boy Amos Tversky. After an excellent foray through education, he becomes a daredevil paratrooper and the centre of attention at numerous parties. The character portrayed comes across as quite incredible: "the man had a preternatural gift for doing only precisely what he wanted to do." He jets off to Michigan for his PhD, rips holes through a bunch of theories, and returns to Israel with an American wife.

Soon after his homecoming, the Six-Day War breaks out. Nowadays we think of this war as a great triumph for Israel, but the book is keen to impress that, for a small nation like Israel, even an overwhelming victory was Pyrrhic. Eventually they are both working at Hebrew University, and - after four chapters and 141 pages - they are eventually mentioned in the same sentence.

Somewhere around this point, there is a brief but amusing digression on Israeli academic culture, and in particular on the glorious lack of respect shown for academics by their students. It's not that academics weren't taken seriously - Kahneman's military work was only the tip of the iceberg in the vast engagement by academics into public policy in early modern Israel - but that, if you thought someone was wrong, you weren't shy about it. There is an anecdote of a student who is judged to have gone too far in his criticism of a visiting speaker, and is pushed to apologise. "I'm sorry," he says, "but I couldn't help it, you were just so wrong!"

Danny engages in a fine display of this attitude at an early meeting with Amos, who is presenting some work by his former supervisor attempting to show that people intuitively apply Bayes' Theorem in their everyday lives. Danny finds this ridiculous, and manages to shake Amos with his criticism. Eventually, they get to working together - and the rest, of course, is history.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to me was the lack of light shed by this book on how Kahneman and Tversky actually discovered the cognitive biases in operation. Thinking, Fast and Slow tells a vague story of asking each other questions and trying to observe how they went about answering them; The Undoing Project has, if anything, even less detail. We see very few of the half-baked ideas and failed experiments that characterise most intellectual inquiry. Aside from a brief inquiry into the psychology that was discarded shortly before the formulation of Prospect Theory, the best one can hope for is a puzzle which had to be explained, with no explanation of how Kahneman and Tversky stumbled onto it. No alternative theories that ended up being thrown out, no signs of the process of investigation.

Over the course of the 1970s their work, and Amos, grow in stature. There are chapters devoted to the development of their ideas in various directions - Don Redelmeier's work in medicine (which was entirely new to me), Richard Thaler and the ongoing behavioural economics revolution. But this all begins unwinding when Danny leaves his family and subsequently decided to marry a British psychologist named Anne Treisman. This necessitates his leaving Israel - and so, to continue their collaborations, Amos' leaving too. Amos has no difficulty picking up a plum job at Stanford; Danny, however, struggles and ends up in Vancouver. The problem is an apparent (unexplained) tendency by other professionals to assume that Amos is overwhelmingly responsible for their joint work.

They continue collaborating, but these differences in status pile up and pile pressure on the relationship. Amos doesn't like this any more than anyone, and is at great pains to assure people that Danny is the true genius - in everything except his conversations with Danny. After years of growing tension, Danny eventually snaps and breaks the whole thing off in the early 90s. What followed might have been a very ugly period, except that not three days later Tversky is diagnosed with a melanoma and given six months to live.

This helps patch things up between them. There is a very brief discussion of Kahneman's life after Tversky: how he finally moved out of the shadow as came to be recognised as a great academic in his own right, and ending upon his receipt, in 2002, of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but can't in good conscience recommend you spend £25 on it. If you're looking to learn about the ideas, then Thinking, Fast and Slow is more thorough and has more practical implications; if you're looking for a good story, then there are far better examples in both fiction and non-fiction. This is a good book to dip into, and to leave lying on your coffee table as a display of your awareness of intellectual fashion. There are plenty of interesting moments, especially while they're still in Israel, but the first half in particular is disjointed and, ultimately, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything in here which could be classed as profound.