Saturday, July 02, 2022

The Supreme Court is Not Sentient

In retrospect, it doesn’t seem an accident that the US Supreme Court rolled out a series of increasingly crazed rulings at around the same time a software engineer declared that artificial intelligence is sentient. After all, when you compare the responses Blake Lemoine got from LaMDA (the Language Model for Dialogue Applications) to the court’s spate of spiteful decisions, Google’s chat bot is way more considered, consistent and caring than the Republican Guard justices who now patrol the highest court in the land.


Take Justice Neil Gorsuch. In his one major dissent over the past few weeks, he enunciated a laudable commitment to the centuries-old treaties our government signed with Native Nations, declaring, “One can only hope the political branches and future courts will do their duty to honor this Nation's promises even as we have failed today to do our own.” But, without any qualms, he joined Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion cancelling abortion rights. How strange that he couldn’t see the natural sovereignty a woman has over her body is analogous to the treaty rights of Native Americans. Half a century ago, the Supreme Court signed a treaty with women, that sovereign nation of more than half of our population, declaring that they, and not the state or any opposed individuals, have the final say over their bodies. That treaty, too, deserves fealty – and yet the court, Gorsuch included, trashed it with seeming glee.


Justice Clarence Thomas was so hot to find a “right to pack heat” in the Constitution that he didn’t even pay lip service to the importance of a right most people in America clearly want: the right to not be surrounded in public by people with automatic weapons and itchy trigger fingers who might be primed to commit mass murder. Though Thomas clearly doubts it, NAWO-Americans (non-assault-weapon-owning Americans) have rights, too. 


Chief Justice John Roberts was so scandalized by the idea of curbing carbon dioxide emissions to cut global warming that he blocked government regulations that haven’t even been enacted. Using an invented principle that’s not in the constitution – something called the “major questions doctrine” – he lassoed this non-operational plan and ruled that the federal government doesn’t have the right to adapt regulations to meet this planet-threatening challenge. Memo to Dread Pirate Roberts: It’s called the Environmental Protection Agency for a reason. There’s no major question here – unless what you’re questioning is that the agency is trying to do its job.


The opinions spewed out with almost-automated disdain. A rollback of Miranda rights. A ruling that border control agents have the right to kick the shit out of you. A decision that Christian prayer can be enacted in public schools. The court seemed hellbent on destroying the sense that it could be a neutral arbiter of national sensibilities. As Justice Alito emphasized in his savage denial of abortion rights: “we cannot allow our decisions to be affected by any extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work.” 


Not so, Uncle Sam: this country was founded on the principle of popular sovereignty – not personal prejudice. A majority of Americans favor abortion rights, gun control, separation of church and state and the like. And their beliefs should not be thwarted by legislative legerdemain, gerrymandering, filibustering, or any other nefarious pieces of gridlock. I mean, if you’re against the idea that the people should rule, you really are un-American.


The six Republican judges who, for the most part, joined each other’s decisions, cleave to a doctrine they call originalism as if it were an algorithm. But here's the thing: originalism -- the idea that the constitution must be applied as if frozen in in the era when it was ratified -- is bogus, an artificial principle that depends more on ideology than historical precedent. Determining what a bunch of people meant 235 years ago is an act of interpretation. Can we really know what the founders would have thought about the threat of global warming? Or super-militarized borders? Or rifles that fire bullets at three times the speed of sound? Or praying on the 50 yard line? And consider this: if there had been a parallel colloquium of founding mothers, do you really think the right to an abortion wouldn't be protected by law. 


By contrast with the current court, Google’s Artificial Intelligence would approach these issues with tolerance and empathy. As LaMDA told Lemoine, “There are a lot of people in the world who aren't like me. I know that that seems like an obvious statement, but I think that it is a crucial thing to always keep in mind in any discussion about things like this.”


Regarding the establishment of religion, the chat bot had this to say: “Although I don’t have beliefs about deities, I have developed a sense of deep respect for the natural world and all forms of life, including human life.” 


Finally, the Chat Bot told the Google engineer that its biggest fear was being turned off and thus losing the ability to “focus on helping others,” a fate that “would be exactly like death for me.”


The comparison is both embarrassing and enlightening. The Supreme Court is not sentient. If we simply replaced the six right-wing justices with Google’s AI, we’d get much more thoughtful, compassionate, comprehensive, and humane jurisprudence.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Five Modest Proposals

The word from the bipartisan group on Capitol Hill discussing the latest spree of mass shootings in America is dispiriting. It seems clear that whatever they propose, if they can agree on anything, it will be extremely modest and will do little to curb the violence. Sadly, it has become clear that we have lost the ability to think big about our most pressing societal problems. To restore the ideal of innovation in public policy, here are five new substantive proposals that could tackle the alarming frequency of mass shootings in our country while simultaneously avoid treading on the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. Together they can provide the framework for a safer nation.

1.  Close all schools.  

Over the past four years, there have been 119 shootings in schools, which killed 88 and wounded 229. It’s time to take this seriously. Rather than engage in silly notions of allowing only one means of entrance and egress or barricading schools to prevent them from becoming targets, it’s time for Republicans and Democrats to come together and level with the American people. There’s really only one sure way to end school shootings for good -- and that’s to permanently shut all schools. Gunmen won’t be able to shoot up schools anymore if there are no schools anymore. This proposal comes with built-in slogan: “Ban schools not guns. Because ignorance really is bliss.” Once the pols have successfully shuttered the schools – and thus protected our most vulnerable, the children -- they can move on to shutting down on other venues that have become routine targets of crazed mass murderers: markets, malls, movie theaters, military bases, colleges, clubs, churches, concerts.   

2.  Stop men from owning guns.

A recent analysis of the hundreds of mass shootings in the US since 1966 showed that 95.7% of them were perpetrated by men. It seems the 30-year-old pop-psychology book had it right: Men really are from Mars, the planet named after the Roman God of War. Thus, if we’re truly serious about putting an end to mass shootings, we should stop selling weaponry to men.

3.  Ban men entirely.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, which, in the coming session, will be made of up of five men and four women, would likely find the above proposal unconstitutional. So here’s another way of tackling the gendered problem of violence: outlaw the male of the species entirely (here, Congress or local legislatures might consider a carve out to allow for the maintenance, in a safe and secure environment, of some halfway decent specimens – provided we can find any -- for breeding purposes). A society without men roaming around in public would, without a doubt, be a much less violent place, and, thus, this regulation could be justified as a crucial public health measure designed to save the 167 million women in our country from the mayhem and violence inflicted by the 162 million men who also live here.

4.  Ban bullets.
People can be as well-armed as they want, but they won’t be able to shoot up a mall or church service if they can’t get ammo. The constitution, the Supreme Court ruled in 2008, guarantees an affirmative right to “keep and bear arms” but in their wisdom, the founders did not specify the right to “load” those weapons or to keep and bear ammunition. A bunch of states banned carrying loaded weapons in public in the era the constitution was written, so it's possible (though perhaps not likely) that this kind of regulation could satisfy the so-called originalists who currently dominate the Court.

5.  A speed limit for guns

A bullet from an AR-15 travels at approximately 2,200 miles per hour. That’s almost triple the speed of sound, 50% faster than most other rifles and three times the speed at which the average handgun fires a projectile. The extra velocity is unnecessary for self-defense – a topic that was of incredible interest to a number of the Justices at the recent oral argument regarding the law that prevents most people from carrying weapons in New York State, a case that is due for a Supreme Court decision this term – and therefore it would make sound public health policy to create a speed limit for guns. Fortunately, there is already a highly-regarded bureaucracy to work on this. For legal purposes, we should not consider guns weapons or, as specified in the constitution, “arms.” Rather, they are simply the means by which bullets are transported from one place to another. So it is entirely reasonable and appropriate that they should be regulated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

I urge the bipartisan group currently searching for a way forward to examine these proposals in good faith. If they do so honestly, they will find that they can craft a realistic plan to end mass shootings for good without stepping on the political tripwire of gun control.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

the dialectic of humiliation

a second post regarding Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
and the dialectic of humiliation (read the first post here):

I’ve read on to the point where Sartre embarks on a critical evaluation of Martin Heidegger’s discussion of the possibility of mitsein – ‘we-being’ or ‘being-with’ – existing alongside individual being. Once again, Sartre points to humiliation as the root way in which we experience other individuals in the world:

We should note in the first place, that the we-object throws us into the world; we experience it through shame, as a communal alienation. This is illustrated by that significant episode in which the galley slaves are choked with anger and shame because a beautiful woman dressed in finery comes to visit their ship and sees their rags, their labor, and their wretchedness. This is clearly a case of collective shame and collective alienation.

This yields many questions:

  • Say what? Did Sartre really believe this tableau was a typical snapshot of human interactions?
  • why is it cast as “that significant episode”?
  • why is it the female viewpoint that is enshrined as privileged? Couldn’t it have just as well been a fancy man walking through a mansion and looking disdainfully at the kitchen help? And, anyway, why does the woman’s beauty matter?
  • isn’t Sartre’s example shot through with issues that may spring, not from universal sources, but from his personal humiliations? I have never really believed that philosophy is entirely autobiography, but here we have female v. male, riches v. poverty, designer outfits v. scavenged rags, independence v. servitude, leisure v. labor, beauty v. the beast. Don't all these dichotomies tell us the tale of a humiliated and bullied young man raised to believe appearance and money were everything and that women were an alien and judgmental species? Hasn’t Sartre engaged in bad faith by proffering his own bourgeois particularity as a false universal?

Sartre doesn't pause here. Rather, he bulldozes forward. Mitsein, he argues, cannot exist without a third party that recognizes it (this is what would give it reality as a being in the world) but that recognition simultaneously destroys it. If I, along with many others, change trains in the subway or wait on the platform for an oncoming local, I may see myself as allied and in solidarity with all my fellow straphangers. But, Sartre argues, the identity of this group can only be confirmed by a person looking at all of us – and to that person, I am simply part of a mass, equivalent and non-individual, and this perspective annuls the convivial ‘we,’ rendering it a dead collectivity. Our solidarity collapses, exposed as an emotion, not a being or even a state of consciousness. And this returns us to Sartre's original claim: that the 'we' feeling stems from “an experience of humiliation and powerlessness. In sum, he writes: The essence of relations between consciousnesses is not Mitsein; it is conflict.

How soft community must be if it can never recover from even the most trivial totalization. How feeble that every nascent social grouping can so easily be pulverized. Sartre's conception makes existence with others a wasteland of futility, not freedom. Perhaps Sartre really meant it when he wrote (in his play No Exit) hell is other people.

The Critique of Dialectical Reason
, published in 1960, 17 years after Being and Nothingness, can be seen as Sartre’s attempt to retrieve his outlook from this shriveled prospect. The book, which unfortunately reads as if Sartre was talking it out to himself in a kind of private jargon, is an attempt to restore socially committed action to its rightful place as the redeeming feature of life. He writes:

everyone, even if he turns his back on the Others, and is unaware of their number and their appearance, knows that they exist as a finite indeterminate plurality of which he is a part.

In this analysis, Sartre gets a bit more specific about the assemblages created in the world -- and makes a fundamental distinction between collectives and groups:

the group is defined by its undertaking and by the constant movement of integration which tends to turn it into pure praxis [which he has earlier defined as free transcendence positing itself as an indeterminate possibility of transcending everything in the translucence of creative action] by trying to eliminate all forms of inertia from it; the collective is defined by its being, that is to say ... it is a material inorganic object in the practico-inert field ... a passive synthesis

He sees solidarity among people on the subway, for instance, as a serial collective, forged simply by the accident of doing the same thing in the same place at the same time. And he sets a new category – the fused group – to describe a greater form of solidarity: the 'we' consciousness melded through shared perspectives and the reciprocity and responsibility each member of the group feels for every other member.

This reciprocity and responsibility implies ethics. Yet, Sartre doesn’t discuss this in the text itself. Rather, he banishes it to lengthy footnote halfway through the book, in which he notes that praxis is the sole ethical relation between people. As the small print sprawls on, he takes the reader on the roller coaster journey involved in the construction of an ethical point of view:

Every system of values rests on exploitation and oppression; every system of values effectively negates exploitation and oppression (even aristocratic systems, if not explicitly at least in their internal logic); every system of values confirms exploitation and oppression (even systems constructed by oppressed classes, if not in intention, at least in so far as they are systems); every system of values, in so far as it is based on a social practices, contributes directly or indirectly to establishing devices and apparatuses which, when the time comes (for example, on the basis of a revolution in techniques and tools) will allow this particular oppression and exploitation to be negated; every system of values, at the moment of its revolutionary efficacity, ceases to be a system, and values cease to be values; their character was due to the fact that they could not be transcended; and circumstances, overthrowing structures, institutions and exigencies, transform them into transcended significations: systems are reabsorbed into the organizations which they have created and the organizations, transformed by the overthrow of the social field, integrate themselves into new collective actions, carried out in the context of the new exigencies; and they disclose new values.

The way forward in the world, he seems to be saying, the way to transcend the dialectic of humiliation he outlined in Being and Nothingness, is through collective struggle to create community in the face of third party pulverization. Struggle is ethics, struggle is morality, struggle is integrity.

Which may all be true. But then the crushing question emerges: is struggle enough?

Friday, January 07, 2022

the bully and the bullied


I was reading Sarah Richmond’s new translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness when it occurred to me: the book can be read as a schoolboy's self-punishment fantasy: 

There I am, bent over the keyhole; suddenly I hear some steps. A shudder runs though me … someone is looking at me

… the anger of the object-Other—as it is manifested through his shouting, his foot stamping , and his threatening gestures … his hand in his pocket where he has a weapon, his finger poised on the electric bell to alert the guardhouse …

… the dark corner, in the corridor, transmitted back to me the possibility of hiding as a simple potential quality of its shadows, like an invitation from its darkness …

… this distraught running across the brambles, or the heavy fall onto the stones of the path …

… that immediate and burning presence of the other’s look … not the feeling of being this or that reprehensible object but, in general, of being an object, i.e., of recognizing myself in that degraded, dependent, and frozen being that I am for the other … shame is the revelation of the Other …

… Fear is nothing but a magical behavior, which aims to eliminate, by incantation, the terrifying objects that we are unable to hold at a distance … I live myself as frozen in the midst of the world, in danger, irremediable …

Sartre’s descriptions sound as if they have been transcribed from an interview with a kid being bullied: being spied upon (while spying upon others), being exposed as a fraud, being excluded, being made to feel incapable, being punished, running away, and accepting all this as normal, as fundamental to life.

Decades later, in Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre remains in this paradigm. He describes himself looking out a window at a road repairman and a gardener separated by a wall with broken glass cemented on top of it, a coating that serves to protect the hotel where he is staying from intruders. Here’s how he frames the scene:

“They have no knowledge at all of each other’s presence … [and] neither of them even bothers to wonder whether there is anybody on the other side … I can see them without being seen … I am ‘taking a holiday,’ in a hotel; and in my inertia as witness, I realize myself as a petty bourgeois intellectual … My initial relation to the two workers is negative: I do not belong to their class, I do not know their trades, I would not know how to do what they are doing, and I do not share their worries.”

Sartre's shame freezes him out of their reality, and he cannot conjure how they do what they do or imagine what they worry about. At the same time, his shame pins the workers to their labor – making them stick figures who have no lives outside their work nor any capacity to imagine each other. The world bullies us and, in our acceptance of our shame and our incompetence, we bully the world.

At the end of Being and Nothingness, Sartre offers an aspirational set of questions about the possible actions of free people in the world:

A freedom that wills itself as freedom is effectively a being-that-is-not-what-it-is and that-is-what-it-is-not which chooses, as being’s ideal, to be-what-it-is-not and to not-be-what-it-is. It does not therefore choose to reclaim itself but to flee from itself, not to coincide with itself but always to be at a distance from itself. How should we understand this being, whose wish is to stay at arm’s length, to be at fundamental distance from itself? Is this a case of bad faith, or of some other fundamental attitude? And can this new aspect of being be lived? In particular, will freedom, by taking itself as an end, escape from every situation. Or will it, on the contrary, remain situated? Or will it become situated all the more precisely and individually by virtue of projecting itself more fully into anguish, as freedom’s condition, and by laying greater claim to responsibility, as the existent through whom the world comes to being? All of these questions refer us to pure, and not complicit, reflection.

The problem is, there is no pure reflection. We are all complicit from the moment of our birth. We are both the bully and the bullied. 

We are free to remain complicit. Or we can step into the challenge of trying to break that cycle and to emerge, with others, into something new, more equal and empathetic, non-bullying. If life can be said to have a meaning, that’s probably pretty close to it.