Monday, August 28, 2017

On doing and allowing and enabling harm

The distinction between doing and allowing is a generally accepted dichotomy in the philosophy of action. I, too, have used it in my blogs. In short we can say that doing is intentionally making things happen, while allowing is intentionally not intervening when things happen. For instance, John is in coma and has no chance to recover. His family and the medical staff see it as the best solution for John to turn off the life-support machine so that he dies. Therefore the doctor responsible for John’s treatment turns off the machine and John dies. Usually this seen as a case of allowing: The doctor lets John die, we say. However, if a criminal sneaks in John’s room and turns off the machine, since he wants to take revenge on John for some reason, we see it as an intentional killing and call it murder. (see my blogs dated 17 and 24 June 2013) Although I added in my blogs that actually the distinction between doing and allowing is a matter of degree, nevertheless one can ask: Is the distinction really basically bipartite?
I got my doubts when I read an article by Christian Barry who put forward the idea that there is yet a third category, namely enabling, and that the bipartite doing-allowing distinction is not exhaustive. In order to substantiate their thesis the authors do not found their point only on theoretical arguments, but they test it in an experimental setting. Moreover, they don’t consider the distinction in general but they investigate only the distinction between doing and allowing harm. In their investigation they use four cases:
Push: A cart stands at the top of a hill. John pushes it. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill.
Stayback: A cart is rolling down a hill. John could put a rock in the way of the cart that would stop it, but he does not. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill.
“Push and Stayback are straightforward in the sense that their classifications under the traditional doing-allowing distinction have been uncontroversial among philosophers”, so Barry “Philosophers generally agree that Push and Push-like cases are cases of doing harm, and Stayback and Stayback-like cases are cases of allowing harm” (p. 68). Actually I don’t fully agree with this remark, but for this blog, I can ignore my criticism.
Two other cases used by the authors in their investigation are:
Interpose: A cart accidentally starts rolling down a hill. Tom, who is sitting at the bottom of the hill, will not be injured by the cart if he can get out of the way of its path. John puts a rock on the ground. The rock stops Tom, and he is injured by the cart.
Remove: A cart is rolling downhill towards a point where there is a rock that would bring it to a stop. John removes the rock. The cart rolls down the hill and injures Tom, who is sitting there.

While Push and Stayback are cases of doing and allowing, Interpose and Remove exemplify enabling, so Barry In order to explain this, they refer to a study by Barry and Øverland who introduce two factors that separate enabling from doing and allowing: “Relevant action, the first factor, obtains if the question of how an agent is relevant to some harm refers to some action of theirs.” (cf John’s pushing of the cart by which Tom is injured in Push.) “The second factor obtains if there is a complete, intact causal process initiated by the agent’s action that links this action to the harm.” (The cart pushed by John injures Tom in Push) (p. 70). Both factors are present in Push and absent in Stayback. However, in Interpose and Remove the first factor is present but the second factor isn’t: John’s action has an impact on the result of the cart rolling down (namely that Tom is injured), but the relation between John’s action (moving the rock) and Tom being injured is indirect. Therefore we say that moving the rock enables that Tom gets injured and that’s why enabling is a special category next to doing and allowing.

Is this idea also shared by non-philosophers? In order to investigate this, the authors presented several versions of the Push etc. cases to a number of test persons. In a first experiment testees were asked to classify cases as doing or allowing harm. The result was that Push cases were clearly seen as doings and Stayback cases as allowings. However Interposing and Remove cases scored somewhere in between: About half of the testees saw them as doings and the other half as allowings. This suggests, so the authors, “that the traditional bipartite doing-allowing harm distinction cannot capture Interpose and Remove cases.” (p. 77). That enabling can be seen as a separate category was confirmed in a second experiment. Now the test persons were asked to categorize cases as “doing harm”, “allowing harm” or “enabling harm”. It appeared that Interpose and Remove cases were clearly more often seen as enablings than Push and Stayback cases (which hardly were). A third experiment investigated the question whether enabling harm is normatively distinct from both doing harm and allowing harm by asking the testees in different test versions whether John should compensate Tom for the injury. Also now the Interpose and Remove cases emerged as a special category, though not so clearly as in the other experiments.

I think that the conclusion of Barry et. al. is convincing that there is not a bipartite distinction between doing and allowing harm, but a tripartite distinction between doing, allowing and enabling harm. This result has not only theoretical consequences. It is only practical, for it appears that enabling harm is a specific normative category. This means that it has to be allowed for when talking about questions of guilt, responsibility and compensation. What remains is the question whether the tripartite doing-allowing-enabling distinction applies only when someone is harmed, or whether this tripartition generally replaces the dichotomy of doing and allowing.

Source: Christian Barry, Matthew Lindauer and Gerhard Øverland, “Doing, Allowing, and Enabling Harm. An Empirical Investigation”, in Tania Lombrozo, Joshua Knobe, Shaun Nichols, Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; pp. 62-90.

Monday, August 21, 2017

First encounters (2)

The place where Lenin and Stalin met for the first time
 in what is now the Lenin Museum in Tampere, Filand

When I was on holiday in Finland recently, one of the things I wanted to do anyway was visiting the Lenin Museum in Tampere (also known as Tammerfors). The museum as such is interesting and also the building is because of its typical style, which is a mixture of the Neo-Renaissance style and Art Nouveau. However, for me it was especially important that it was here that Lenin and Stalin met for the first time, for in those days hundred years ago the building was used by the Tampere Worker’s Society as a meetingplace for workers.
Sometimes first encounters are quite dramatic, as I wrote a few weeks ago in my blog on the first encounter between the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge. But after a bad first encounter between both philosophers, in the end they became friends. Also the first time that Lenin and Stalin met was not really good. Lenin was already the big man of the Russian revolutionary movement and when the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party held a congress in Tampere in the Russian -ruled Finland in December 1905, Stalin was looking forward to it: Now he could meet the man whom he admired a lot. But Stalin left the congress disappointed. “I was hoping to see the mountain eagle of our party”, he wrote later, “a great man, great not only politically, but ... physically, too, for Lenin had taken shape in my mind as a giant, stately and imposing”. But he appeared to be “the most ordinary man, below average height, in no way ... different from ordinary mortals”. Moreover, Lenin was criticized by the other conferees –  also by Stalin – and in the end he had to take back his proposals, defending himself that as an émigré he had lost contact with the Russian reality. Later the relationship between both men would improve and Lenin would become Stalin’s mentor. However, not long before his death – it was in 1923 and he was already ill – Lenin judged that it was better to replace Stalin by Trotsky as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, for Stalin was ill-suited for the position while Trotsky was the most capable man in the General Committee according to him. It didn’t happen, and a few years later Trotsky had to flee and in 1940 he was murdered by a Soviet secret agent in Mexico.
Trotsky’s first encounter with Lenin is also worth mentioning. Usually we see other persons for the first time in public and semi-public places, at parties and meetings and the like. But in a bedroom? It’s quite unlikely that you even met your partner there for the first time. Not so Trotsky and Lenin. Trotsky had an appointment with Lenin in London, where the great communist leader lived then (not far from where Karl Marx had written his Capital). Lenin was already to bed and slept, when Trotsky knocked on the door. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, let him in in her nightclothes and brought the visitor to the bedroom.
As you see, first encounters can happen at the most unexpected places, and as said before in a blog, they say so much about the way we live and the kind of person we are.

- Rolf Hellebust, Flesh to metal. Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003; p. 92.
- Robert Himmer, “First impressions matter: Stalin's initial encounter with Lenin, Tammerfors 1905”, on
- Stephen Kotkin, Stalin. Paradoxes of Power 1978-1928. London, Penguin Books, 2015.
- Nancy Caldwell Sorel “First encounters: When Lenin met Trotsky”, on
- Wikipedia

Monday, August 07, 2017

Sleeping like a bird

Most of us know it: In an unfamiliar bed you don’t sleep well. At least not during the first night. From the second night on the insomnia is over. Maybe you think that it is because you are a nervous type of person. However, researchers of the Brown University have discovered that it’s normal and that most people suffer from it. It’s probably a relic from prehistoric times. They call it the “first-night effect” and they see it as a typical sleep disturbance when you pass the first night in a novel environment.
The researchers let a number of test subjects sleep in an unfamiliar environment and subjected them to several tests. I’ll spare you the details, which you find in source (1) below, but they found that the different hemispheres of the brain have different levels of activity during the first night of sleeping at an unfamiliar place, while the activity levels are the same during the next nights. To be exact, it was the left hemisphere that slept lighter and was more vigilant to external signals than the right when the first-night effect occurred. So, a soft sound will awake you during the first night, because your left hemisphere is watchful, while during the second night in the same bed you will continue sleeping and not hear it. You can see the enhanced vigilance of the left hemisphere also in an electroencephalogram of the two hemispheres: The left hemisphere shows more abrupt and short shifts during the first night when the effect occurs. The consequence is that during a first night in a novel bed you have a fitful sleep that leads to faster awakening upon detection of deviant stimuli by the left hemisphere of your brain.
Why does it happen? The researchers speculate that the regional asymmetry between the two brain spheres is linked with a protective mechanism that is sensitive to potential danger in an unfamiliar sleeping environment and with the increased need for vigilance during sleep. In other words, you never know whether there might come a lion or murderer into your room, so stay alert. However, when nothing special happens during the first night in a novel bed, your brain seems reassured and it doesn’t expect any longer that a danger will show up. Actually it’s a bit strange, for as soon as a lion or murderer has learned about this mechanism, for example from own experience, he might get the idea that it’s best to drop by not during the first night but later. It will give more chance of success. But apparently, in prehistoric times it worked and we survived, or at least those survived who got it in their genes. That’s why we are now cursed with it, although we no longer need it and although actually it has become a bit annoying. It belongs now to the human constitution. And not only to the human constitution, for you find this unihemispheric sleep as a protective mechanism also in some birds and marine mammals, so that they can monitor their environments and detect predators when sleeping. To say it tersely: In a novel bed you sleep like a bird.
How sad for me, for when I go on holiday, I often travel around and stay no longer than one or two nights at the same place. When touring about with my tent, you can say that the bed remains the same and that only the environments change, but when moving from hotel to hotel, each night or two nights means another bed. It involves much insomnia. However, it seems that travellers can become accustomed to the phenomenon of the unfamiliar bed and that the first-night effect disappears. Anyway, during a travel I gradually sleep better. But basically there are no solutions for the first-night effect. Maybe it helps to arrive a few days before an important appointment if you need to spend the night in a hotel. It might also help to take familiar things from home with you and put them next to your unfamiliar bed, or to take your own pillow with you. They may make you feel at ease. Sleep well and good night.

(1) Masako Tamaki et al., “Night Watch in One Brain Hemisphere during Sleep Associated with the First-Night Effect in Humans” in Current Biology,
(2) “Scientists reveal why we sleep poorly the first night we stay in an unfamiliar place”,
 (3) “Sleeping away from home? Half your brain is still awake”,