Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Paradox of Forgiveness

This post is by Lucy Allais (pictured above). Lucy teaches philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the University of California in San Diego. She partly works in the history of philosophy, on the work of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (mostly on his metaphysics but she is increasingly interested in his moral and political philosophy), and partly on some topics in moral philosophy and moral psychology, such as forgiveness, resentment, and related moral emotions. In this post she writes about her research on forgiveness

Augustine once said that he knows exactly what time is until anyone asks him, and it seems to me that something similar can be said about forgiveness. It is a concept we are pretty confident we understand, until one tries to give a philosophical account of it, at which point it seems to start dissolving, to the point that a lot of philosophers have thought it to be paradoxical and impossible to make sense of.

The difficulties start because most people agree that forgiveness should be distinguished from excusing and justifying, as where there is an excuse or justification there is nothing to forgive. Many philosophers start from the view that the resentment or hurt that forgiveness overcomes is warranted or justified: this is precisely what follows from the view that forgiveness comes into play in relation to culpable wrongdoing. Since forgiving does not involve changing your mind about whether the wrong was really wrong (in which case it would be justifying or accepting), it seems that it does not change your view of the wrong as attaching to the wrongdoer. Yet the way we often use the term suggests that forgiving involves a change in your emotional orientation to the wrongdoer in which you no longer see it the wrongdoing as attaching to them or reflecting on them—you somehow wipe the slate clean.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

A Prescription for Psychiatry

In today's post, Peter Kinderman introduces his new book ‘A Prescription for Psychiatry: Why We Need a Whole New Approach to Mental Health and Wellbeing’, which is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

I am professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool and President-Elect of the British Psychological Society. My research interests are in psychological processes underpinning wellbeing and mental health. I have published widely on the role of psychological factors as mediators between biological, social and circumstantial factors in mental health and wellbeing. I have been awarded (with colleagues) a total of over £6 million in research grant funding (from the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the NHS Forensic Mental Health Research and Development Programme, the European Commission and others). My most recent grant, awarded in 2015, was for a total of over £1m from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), to lead a three-year evidence synthesis programme for the ‘What Works Centre for Wellbeing’, exploring the effectiveness of policies aimed at improving community wellbeing. You can follow me on Twitter as @peterkinderman.

My most recent book, A Prescription for Psychiatry, offers a radical new ‘manifesto’ for mental health and well-being. It argues that services should be based on the premise that the origins of distress are largely social. The guiding idea underpinning mental health services needs to change from an assumption that our role is to treat ‘disease’ to an appreciation that our role is to help and support people who are distressed as a result of their life circumstances, and how they have made sense of and reacted to them.

This also means we should replace ‘diagnoses’ with straightforward descriptions of problems. We must stop regarding people’s very real emotional distress as merely the symptom of diagnosable ‘illnesses’. A simple list of people’s problems (properly defined) would have greater scientific validity and would be more than sufficient as a basis for individual care planning and for the design and planning of services. This does not mean rejecting rigour or the scientific method – quite the reverse. While psychiatric diagnoses lack reliability, validity and utility, there is no barrier to the operational definition of specific psychological phenomena, and it is equally possible to develop coherent treatment plans from such a basis.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Deontological Confabulation

Emilian Mihailov (pictured below) is the Executive Director of the Research Centre in Applied Ethics (CCEA) and a teaching assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest. Currently he is working on the implications of experimental moral psychology and neuroscience for normative and applied ethics.

I will present some ideas I developed in my paper “Is deontology a moral confabulation?”, recently published in Neuroethics.

Here is a provoking thought. What if the effort of philosophical theorizing is an exercise in moral confabulation to polish off track emotional responses, admitingly hard to resist given their evolutionary roots? Joshua Greene speculates that if you mix the fact we are largely driven by strong emotional responses with the tendency to make up plausible sounding stories to justify or explain these responses, you get deontological moral philosophy.

As a philosopher who has done some work in the Kantian tradition, was I confabulating? I the paper I argue, hopefully in a non-motivated way, that the evidence used by Greene does not support the confabulation hypothesis, and that even if we accept it we should not be too worried.

One suspicion I start with is that paradigmatic cases of confabulation do not seem to fit the relevant model for Greene’s ambitious attack on deontology, namely what I call alarm-like emotion based confabulation. Since established cases tend to favour a neutral model, which is not committed to a particular content of behavioural causes (cognitive/emotional), it is puzzling to expect outright alarm-like confabulations in philosophical theorizing.

This puzzle leads to a deeper reason as to why the confabulation hypothesis is problematic. Why is the case that paradigmatic cases are not driven by alarm-like emotions? By looking at the conducive conditions for confabulation, I argue that there is an inherent resistance on the part of alarm-like emotions to be subject to confabulation. A confabulation is likely to occur when stimuli are not salient and are not plausible causes of belief or action. And vice versa, a confabulation is unlikely to occur when stimuli are salient and plausible causes. 

Thursday, 14 July 2016

British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Conference 2016

The Annual Conference of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science was held at the University of Cardiff Business School (pictured below), on 7th and 8th July 2016. The conference featured four keynote lectures and several papers in parallel sessions. Here I am briefly reporting from the two keynote lectures delivered on the second day of the conference.

Samir Okasha (University of Bristol), pictured below, discussed in his keynote lecture the use of intentional language in describing the work of evolution. For instance, sometimes we say that the gene “knows” that it was inherited, or that an organism has a preference for a certain outcome to be selected. How should we understand the use of intentional language in this context? Is the intentionality of the language of biology something we can dispense with if we choose to, is it just a shorthand? Samir argues that it is more than a shorthand and delivers insights into evolution.

Darwinian evolution is described in terms of goals and strategies, and rationality-inspired concepts are used in decision-theory and game-theory. Does this use reflect a bias? Maybe something like hyperactive agency detection? Or is it a natural and justifiable way to describe biological phenomena? Samir argued that the truth is somewhere in between these two positions.

The intentional talk where we treat “Mother Nature” as an agent is not the type of intentional talk that may deliver insights, rather Samir focused on the talk of an organism having a preference or wanting to do something. This is a more promising use of intentional language as it points to the coherence in an organism's functions. Ruth Millikan says that we can talk about function without using intentional language, but when we talk about functions we talk about individual traits and not all organisms.