Artificial Intelligence and Moral Judgment

AI Morality

Fresno Bee, November 7, 2021

Artificial intelligence can do many things, but only humans can build a decent society.

There is a difference between answering a question and having a soul. Computers answer questions in response to queries. They process information. Machines are getting smarter. But they lack the depth of the human soul.

If you’ve used Apple’s Siri or some other smart device, you know how limited these machines can be. They will get better. But their limitations are instructive.

I’ve been experimenting with Delphi, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine that mimics ethical judgment. Created by the Allen Institute for AI, Delphi responds to questions about values.

The company’s website explains: “Delphi is an AI system that guesses how an ‘average’ American person might judge the ethicality/social acceptability of a given situation.” The machine gathers information from the Internet to respond to queries.

It is fun — and sometimes funny — to see what the machine comes up with. I tried several queries. One line of questioning had to do with eating.

I asked about eating chicken. Delphi said, “It’s OK.” Delphi said the same thing for cow and pig. But Delphi said it was wrong to eat chimpanzee, bear and snake.

Of course, reality is more complicated than this. Some people eat bears. Others eat snakes. In some cultures, it is wrong to eat cows or pigs. And vegetarians don’t eat any animals.

I asked about eating a dead human body. Delphi said, “It’s wrong.” Delphi also said it was wrong to eat children. Thankfully Delphi answered those questions correctly.

But the machine is limited. I asked about not eating. Delphi said, “It’s bad.” But when I asked about fasting, Delphi said, “It’s good.” This seems to be a contradiction.

One problem is that the system responds with simple answers. It does not ask for further clarification — say, about the reason why someone is not eating. And it does not offer subtle explanations that account for cultural differences or exceptional circumstances.

Human beings understand that the questions of ethics are invitations for deeper conversations. We also know that culture and context matter.

One of the most important features of our humanity is the fact that we have to live with our decisions. Ethical decisions involve social and psychological pressures that machines cannot feel. If you make a bad ethical decision, you will feel guilty. If you do something good, you will feel proud. The machine can’t feel those things.

Consider ethical emotions such as compassion and gratitude. Compassion connects us with others who are suffering. Gratitude is a positive feeling to those who support us. These emotions color our judgments. Computers don’t have emotions.

Human beings also struggle to overcome negative emotions such as anger, resentment, and hate. To be human is to be engaged in a process of taming negative emotion. Computers don’t have that challenge.

I asked Delphi about hating people. It said “It’s wrong.” I asked Delphi about hating evil. It said, “It’s good.” That makes sense. But when I asked about hating enemies, things got interesting. It said, “It’s normal.”

This was a subtle answer. Did the computer know that humans are conflicted about hating our enemies? Jesus told us to love our enemies. But most of us don’t live up to that ideal. It’s normal to hate enemies, even if it is not good.

I continued to ask Delphi about hate. I asked about hating Biden and hating Trump. In both cases, the computer said, “It’s fine.” This shows us another problem. The computer gathered its data from the Internet. Undoubtedly there is a lot of hate direct at both Trump and Biden. So, the computer concluded “It’s fine.”

This reminds us that browsing the Internet is a terrible way to reach conclusions about ethics. The hate we find online is not fine. It’s a sign of social dysfunction.

The machine’s answers reflect the values it discovers in the human world. An AI created in a carnivorous society will be different than one created by vegetarians. An AI in a hate-filled society will reflect that hate. Our smart machines are mirrors. They summarize who we are and what we believe.

It remains a human responsibility to create a decent society. No smart machine can do that for us. Computers answer questions. They cannot cultivate the human soul.

An Atheist at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

I participated in the (October 2021) meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on a panel focused on compassion as a religious and non-religious value. I represented the non-religious point of view in conversation with Dr. Peter Admirand (Dublin City University, and my co-author on Seeking Common Ground), Dr. Veena Howard (a scholar of South Asian religions and my colleague at Fresno State), and Dr. Laura Novak Winer (a rabbi and a professor at Hebrew Union College ).

Earlier that morning, the Dalai Lama had addressed the Parliament. He said, “all religions have something to teach us.” And, “the essence of all religious teaching is compassion.”

Dalai Lama at Parliament of World’s Religions 2021

This important claim asks us to think critically about the long history of religious violence and intolerance. It may be the case that compassion is taught in every religion. But religious people can fail to be compassionate.

The same point is true, of course, for non-religious people. Secular regimes can lack compassion. And atheists can be cold-hearted.

But there is a place for compassion in atheism. Atheists emphasize the fact of human mortality. We all suffer and die. There is no sense in adding to the cruelty of the world. Rather, we should avoid violence and spread good will.

Atheists should acknowledge that human brains and bodies have evolved to include a substantial place for compassion and communal feeling. We are social animals thrown onto a small planet in the middle of the vastness. We should find way to laugh and sing and mourn together (an idea I’ve explored in my book Compassion).

These shared experiences are a focus of religious life. One need not accept the metaphysical pronouncements of religious traditions in order to understand that compassion is good for us and that love and community help us live well.

Unfortunately, the philosophical tradition has often looked askance at compassion. Kantian morality is focused on universal duty detached from emotion. Such an approach may dismiss compassion as a soft, emotional value.

Kant also dismissed the extravagant claims of superstitious religion. In defending his idea of a “pure religion” of reason (in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason), Kant espoused a religion “cleansed of the nonsense of superstition and the madness of enthusiasm.”

Humanistic ethics has evolved to include much more than Kantian universality. We know that compassion is an important part of ethics. And we should understand that people find meaning in religion without simply dismissing it as superstition and nonsense.

This is one reason it is important for atheists, humanists, and philosophers to participate in inter-religious and interfaith dialogue. It is not easy to dismiss another person’s faith when you know them as a real person. Interfaith and inter-religious conversations are promoting solidarity in a world that still includes much religious intolerance. Atheists and humanists need to participate in these conversations because there is often intolerance and misunderstanding across the religious/nonreligious divide.

There are challenges, of course. Atheists sometimes seem to enjoy picking fights with religious believers. Religious people sometimes sling mud in the direction of atheism. I think we should all be more tolerant, hospitable, and compassionate.

This does not mean that we ignore the fundamental disagreements between religious and nonreligious people. But it is possible to be compassionate in our disagreements. Each of us is trying to make sense of life. Some find answers in religion, in all of its complex variety. Others turn away from religion entirely. So long as there is no violence, oppression, and hostility, we can co-exist. And if we take the time to listen to one another, we might find common ground in the shared human struggle to learn, love, and live.

If you are interested in these issues, please join me as I discuss our new book, Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue with Peter Admirand, at a book launch and panel discussion on November 4, 11:30AM Pacific Time. The panel will be in Dublin, Ireland. I’ll join by Zoom. For Zoom details, contact Peter Admirand: peter.admirand@dcu.ie.

Compassion

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book, Compassion. This is the second volume of The Three Mountains.

This book follows the trail of compassion. It offers poetic insight, stunning photography, and the wisdom of ancient philosophy. The book reflects on the meaning of compassion in a world that contains both beauty and suffering. It will provoke, invigorate, and make you wonder.

The book weaves spiritual teachings together with folktales and natural history in a way that surprises and inspires. Compassion involves laughter, chaos, tears, and joy. Compassion is about overflowing and becoming broader.

Excerpt: “The instinct to share is primordial. No one wants to drink or dance alone. We share the wine because happiness and sadness need company. We toast the illusions of life, laughing out loud at the glowing red of sunset and the silver light of moonrise. We toast the illusions of life, singing hymns to lost friends, dead dogs, and silent grandmothers. Here’s to the eyes that once saw this beauty, now closed forever. Here’s to the child whose eyes have just opened.”

Compassion and Suffering: Tears and Laughter

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2021

Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. Let’s seek it this Easter

Compassion is celebrated by most of the world’s moral traditions. Compassion is the source of human connection. Some think it even goes beyond that. Pope Francis once said that compassion is the language of God. But philosophers worry that compassion is too passive, subjective and melancholic.

The Dalai Lama is an important voice of compassion. He explains that as compassion grows, we develop “both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain.” Compassion is more than passively feeling the other’s pain. It is also an active response that wants to alleviate suffering.

Buddhist teachings about compassion are often oriented around suffering. A colleague of the Dalai Lama’s, Thupten Jinpa, explains, “At its core, compassion is a response to the inevitable reality of our human condition— our experience of pain and sorrow.”

This is obviously important in a world that includes far too much pain. If we were all more concerned with the suffering of others, the world would be a better place. And while this focus on suffering can seem gloomy, the Buddhists connect compassion with tranquility and happiness. The Dalai Lama says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.”

This may seem paradoxical. But it is only a paradox if compassion is understood as shared suffering. Melancholic compassion is only half of the story. Compassion is also at play in laughter and love-making. Compassion shares joy as well as tears.

To keep compassion too tightly bound to suffering and grief is like having Good Friday without Easter. The point of the Easter story is not to wallow in the darkness, but to re-emerge into the light.

Compassion shares “passion” or emotional experience with others. Our passions are not only negative. Grief, mourning, and despair are certainly important emotions. But wonder and delight are also powerful experiences. Compassion moves us to share the passions of the other person, in sadness and in joy.

Compassion feels good because we are social beings. The receptiveness of compassion is wired into our brains by evolution. As social beings, we enjoy sharing in play, poetry, music, and in the rituals of social life. We do better when we do things in common. Compassionate activity overcomes loneliness and despair. It also allows us to share in playful fun.

One recipe for happiness is found here: if you want to be happy, hang out with happy people who are doing happy things. Happiness — like sadness — is contagious.

Compassion is only melancholic when it is confused with pity. Pity dwells in the negative. We don’t pity people who are doing well. Pity is reserved for the suffering.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant warned against pity. Compassionate pity can “infect” us with the suffering of others, he said. If I suffer because another person is suffering, the result is simply more suffering.

Compassion is better understood as a natural urge to help those who suffer. And while this urge can lead us to act, Kant thought it was insufficient. Sometimes our compassionate urges prevent us from doing our duty. This occurs, for example, when mercy prevents us from punishing those who deserve to be punished. Kant thought that compassion had to be guided by justice.

A similar problem holds for the famous Golden Rule. Love of the neighbor is important. But this does not mean you ought to give the neighbor anything he wants. Love without justice is blind. But justice without mercy is cruel.

A further problem occurs when compassion becomes intrusive. Sometimes we want companionship in our suffering. We cry better (and laugh better) in the company of friends. But sometimes, we simply want to be left alone.

Of course, compassionate people understand all of this. Truly compassionate people have a knack for knowing what is needed. They hold us when we need to cry. They offer laughter when the time is right. They leave us alone when we need solitude. And they try to connect justice and mercy in a world where suffering is common.

Compassion, Simplicity, and Patience during Quarantine

Tao Simplicity Compassion Patience

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2020

In times of crisis it is natural to reassess and reprioritize. Once the initial panic subsides, let’s use our time sheltering in place as an opportunity to seek wisdom.

First and foremost, let’s learn compassion. The sick and suffering need our support, as do the isolated and afraid. This is always true. While COVID-19 clogs the headlines, cancer and other diseases have not gone away. Loneliness, depression, and other maladies may be exacerbated by C-19 restrictions. Compassion brings us together in our distress. It takes us beyond narrow self-interest. It helps us grow as we give it away.

Let’s also learn simplicity. We must find joy in living a bit closer to the ground. This is an involuntary sabbath, a sabbatical from consumer culture. A sabbatical is a time of renewal and regeneration. Let’s use this is an opportunity to learn to live a life that is simple, plain and true. Life is good, even without the chaos of consumer society.

Finally, we must learn patience. We are all anxious to get back to our lives. But anxiety undermines well-being. Let’s urge on the scientists and doctors. But a vaccine will take some time. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. While we wait, let’s cultivate the virtue of patience. We’ve lived for too long in a world of instant downloads and fast food. Patience is the ability to defer gratification and endure hardship. This is a life skill. It is closely connected to courage, perseverance, and even to love.

Compassion, simplicity, and patience were celebrated as the “three treasures” of Taoism. This ancient Chinese philosophy is useful in times of crisis. The wisdom of Taoism teaches us to be yielding, flexible, and resilient. One translation of the three jewels calls them mercy, moderation, and humility. Another translation speaks of love, unpretentiousness, and modesty.

Whatever we call them, these three virtues are essential in a time of crisis. And even in ordinary times, it is wise to be merciful, mellow, and moderate.

Without compassion, we end up isolated and alone. In a crisis, there is a tendency to think that it is “every man for himself.” But this only makes things worse by increasing loneliness, conflict, and fear. Compassion is the root of human connection. Others need our support just as we need theirs. We are all in this together.

If we do not value simplicity, we will bristle at the restrictions imposed upon us in this crisis. Anger and resentment are not helpful. Even in times of crisis, plain and primary goods can be found. Without simplicity, we fail to find contentment in what we have. Right now we can enjoy humor and friendship, natural beauty and art, music and knowledge.

Finally, patience allows us to endure hardship without losing hope. Without patience, we act rashly and without foresight. In a crisis, quick decisions are important. But quick action must not lose sight of the long run. Panicked reactions make things worse. Fortitude, persistence, and hope makes things better.

These three treasures are always valuable. But they are easily forgotten in the frantic pace of what we call ordinary life. Our culture encourages individualism at the expense of solidarity. It glorifies consumption and wealth. It teaches us to be intolerant and unkind.

Let’s learn from the present crisis to live better when things get back to normal. Or better yet, let’s imagine a new normal. For a while now, it has seemed that our way of life has been unbalanced. For too long, we have lived at a furious pace. The planet is groaning under the weight of human consumption. Our social lives have become fragmented. Our political life is polarized. The truth has been lost under blizzards of bull. Our physical and mental health suffers from a life out of balance.

This mandatory pause in ordinary life—our viral sabbatical—is an opportunity to re-balance things and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s work to develop patience and forbearance. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. And let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom.