Thursday 30 March 2017

The Philosophy of Early Motherhood: Interview with Fiona Woollard

In this post I interview Fiona Woollard (University of Southampton) about her work in the philosophy of early motherhood.

LB: How did you become interested in the philosophy of pregnancy and early motherhood? Can you describe your research interests in this area?

FW: I’ve been interested in the ethics of abortion since I was an undergraduate. In fact, it was probably my interest in this issue that lead me to a career in philosophy. But once I became pregnant myself, I felt a strange kind of dissatisfaction with most of the existing literature on abortion. With a few notable exceptions – for example, the wonderful work of Margaret Little – the philosophical literature on abortion failed to engage at all with the messy reality of pregnancy: the blood and guts, the stretch marks and vomiting. Imagine that you were a little green alien from alpha centauri trying to learn about human reproduction from the most popular papers on abortion by analytical philosophers.

What kind of picture of pregnancy and birth would you have formed? You might well end up thinking that human reproduction normally involves a woman lying in a clean, white bed for 9 months with a small tube connecting her to a small version of an adult human whom she supports without noticeable change to her own body. In case, you are a little green alien from alpha centauri, let's state for the record that pregnancy is not like that. And it matters that the philosophical literature on abortion ignores what pregnancy is really like. What pregnancy is like, physically and emotionally, matters for understanding what is at stake when we consider whether a woman is required to remain pregnant.

I also found that it was very difficult to get people who had not been pregnant to understand what it was like to be pregnant. Laurie Paul's wonderful paper What You Can't Expect When You're Expecting was doing the rounds among philosophers at this point. Paul argues that some experiences, like becoming a parent, are epistemically transformative: they provide knowledge that cannot be acquired without the experience. I wondered if pregnancy itself was a epistemically transformative experience. If so, this might have important implications for philosophical debate on the ethics of abortion. If what it is like to be pregnant is crucial for understanding the ethics of abortion and those who haven't been pregnant cannot grasp what it is like to be pregnant, can only people who have been pregnant engage in debate about the ethics of abortion?

At around the same time, a new colleague, Elselijn Kingma arrived in the department, with a wonderful project on the metaphysics of pregnancy: is the foetus a separate organism inside the pregnant woman*, like a bun in an oven, or part of her*, like a tail on a cat? Elselijn and had some really fruitful conversations. I was excited by the ethical implications of Elselijn's work - and we were both more generally interested in the ways in which the unique relationship between the pregnant woman* and the foetus might raise challenges for our moral concepts. Most of our moral concepts, like the difference between doing and allowing harm and ideas of autonomy, rights and self ownership, have developed to apply to interactions between separate human beings, with separate bodies and separate interests. The intertwinement of pregnant woman* and foetus means these everyday moral concepts don't easily apply.

My work in the philosophy of pregnancy, led to an interest in philosophy of pregnancy, birth and early motherhood . I became convinced that there are philosophical mistakes in the way we think about motherhood, which influence how we treat pregnant women* and new mothers. This can often lead to very harmful consequences for these vulnerable groups.

LB: In an article you wrote for the NCT you distinguish between reasons and duties and apply this distinction to a hotly debated topic, breastfeeding. How can this distinction help understand how people feel about breastfeeding and, more generally, what a mother owes to her children? 

FW: There is a lot of shame and guilt surrounding how people feed their babies. Mothers who use formula often feel guilty or that other people are judging them. Yet, mothers who breastfeed also feel like they are being shamed for breastfeeding in public, pressured to stop or told that they are showing off. I think that a lot of this springs from philosophical mistakes in the way we think about motherhood in general. Failing to understand the distinction between reasons and duties is one such mistake. In one paper I explain how this mistake feeds into the guilt and shame surrounding infant feeding. The problem is that we mistakenly assume that if breastfeeding is beneficial, mothers must have a defeasible duty to breastfeed.

Defeasible duties make us accountable. When I have a defeasible duty to do something, I am required to do it unless I have some good excuse. If I don't do it, other people can ask me to justify that decision. If I can't, I should feel guilty and other people can blame me. So I have a defeasible duty to teach my class. I have to do it unless I have some good excuse i.e. if I got trapped beneath a falling tree on my way to class and would have had to chew off my own leg to free myself in time. If I don't turn up, my students and colleagues can demand an explanation. If my explanation isn't good enough - i.e. if I just didn't feel like teaching - then I should feel guilty and they can blame me.

When we demand that mothers defend their choice to use formula, we treat them as if they have a defeasible duty to breastfeed.

When we treat arguments supporting breastfeeding, or even any celebration of breastfeeding, as an attack on formula feeders, we are assuming that if breastfeeding is good, then mothers must have a defeasible duty to breastfeed.

But the fact that something is good normally only give me a reason to do it, not a defeasible duty. Because it would be good to raise money for cancer research, I have a reason to run a marathon. But I don't have a duty. If I don't run, then other people can't accost me, demanding that I justify this. And I don't need to feel guilty. But the reason helps to make sense of what I do and gives other people reason to support me.

I think that if breastfeeding is beneficial, mothers have a reason to breastfeed, but do not have a duty to breastfeed. Once we recognise this, we can see that it is possible to argue for the need to support breastfeeding *without* implying that formula feeders should feel guilty. It's going to be very difficult to change people's thinking on this. It is a very emotive issue and the mistaken assumptions are very deeply engrained. In fact, we don't just make mistakes about reasons and duties when it comes to infant feeding decisions. In another paper I show that this is mistake we make in discussing maternal behaviour more generally. We see this very widely, from the discussion of the diets of pregnant women* to approaches to birth choices. It's just widely assumed that if a pregnant woman* or mother has the opportunity to benefit her child, she has a defeasible duty to take it.

LB: Do you believe that philosophy has the potential for improving women's lives? What can philosophers do to help bring about change outside academia? 

I strongly believe that philosophy can improve women's lives. One of the most important skills that philosophers have is the ability to recognise mistakes in our thinking. I think that there are many mistakes in popular thinking which deeply damage women's lives. Of course, at the moment, I am particularly focused on mistakes in the way we think about motherhood, and the way this impacts pregnant women* and new mothers. But we see similar problems in other areas: for example, mistakes about sexual autonomy and consent have serious implications for the wellbeing of young women in general and rape victims in particular.

One big thing that philosophers need to do is to help make these changes is to get outside the academy and talk to the general public, to the relevant groups, to professionals and volunteers working with them and to academics working in other fields. We can't change the conversation unless we join the conversation!

I'm currently working on a project for the NCT and the Breastfeeding Network, with contributions from the Royal College of Midwives. We try to produce downloadable materials that can be used in antenatal classes and interactive online activities that can be used independently by pregnant women*, new parents, and practitioners who support them. The resources will help them to explore guilt and shame surrounding infant feeding, using my research on the reason/duty distinction together with some other fascinating sociological research from Heather Trickey. The co-investogator on the project is my colleague from Southampton, Laura Dennison, a psychologist who specialises in online health interventions.

LB: In this blog we have recently written about maternal mental health. Do you think that the widespread perception that women have a duty to take every opportunity to benefit their children contributes to making new mothers feel anxious and stressed?

FW: I do believe that this widespread perception has very bad effects on maternal mental health. Of course, I don't have the empirical expertise to prove this. But I have spoken to many mothers who have experienced postnatal depression or anxiety about the pressures they have felt under, in particular about their infant feeding decisions. Many of them spoke to me about the way in which other people (often on social media) interrogated them about their choice to use formula. 

The aftermath of these exchanges, coming at a time when they were extremely vulnerable, was sometimes devastating. Even in the less extreme case, it was clearly deeply upsetting. The assumption that mothers should have to justify their choices in this way springs directly from the assumption that she has a defeasible duty to benefit. And often we don't even need a stranger on the internet to make us feel like bad mothers: many mothers have internalised the mistaken assumption - the idea that it is selfish not to jump on every opportunity no matter how small - and thus suffer from immense guilt and shame.

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Irrational Emotions, Rational Decisions, and Artificial Intelligence

Thomas Ames (pictured above) is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has interests in epistemology, agency, and disorders of selfhood. In this post, he summarizes some of his current research into what role irrational emotions may play when making rational decisions, and what that may mean for the future of artificial intelligence.

Quite a bit has been written on the role of emotion on the decision-making process. Using cases of traumatic brain injuries that have led to defects in both emotion and rational decision-making, several theories with a neurological framework have been proposed about why that may be. One such prominent theory, somatic marker hypothesis (1, 2), introduced by Antonio Damasio (University of Southern California), posits that emotions play an integral neurological role in decision-making. This is because it was found that in cases of specific brain lesions which affect patients’ emotions, their abilities to make decisions were also adversely affected. It follows, then, that the two are connected: there must be some relationship between emotions, decisions, and acting upon them.

Thursday 23 March 2017

Addiction: A Philosophical Perspective

Today's post is by Candice Shelby on her new book Addiction: A Philosophical Perspective. Candice Shelby is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Denver. She has published in the history of philosophy, philosophy of psychology, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of addiction. She regularly speaks around the U.S. and Europe on the complex problem of addiction, and has recently completed a month teaching on the topic in Beijing, China.

In my new book I argue that most analyses of addiction get off on the wrong foot from the start, by assuming a simple linear cause-and-effect understanding the world. Very little about human beings can be understood in such a straightforward way, and certainly nothing having to do with mind or experience. Like other human phenomena, including mind itself, I believe that addiction is an emergent property of a complex dynamic system. It is better understood as a process than as a disease, a moral problem, or simply an ongoing set of utility evaluations.

Addiction is a process that emerges in some human beings as a function of genetic and epigenetic factors influencing the development of a particular mind/body within a complex, interactive, and specific physical and social milieu. We can speak in an informed way of addiction at the level of neurological structure and function, but we cannot reduce it to just that. We can speak of the family’s influence on one’s vulnerability to addiction, both psychologically and socioeconomically, which is also a viable and autonomous level of analysis, but we cannot assume that such a discussion will encompass all that is involved in addiction. 

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Imperfect Volitions

My name is Alexandre Billon. I am an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Lille III. My research specialty is philosophical psychopathology, that is, the use of psychopathology to solve perennial philosophical riddles.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, I argue that in order to be happier, people with desires like us must behave irrationally. This might seem plainly paradoxical: being happier is, other things being equal, being better off. Behaving irrationally is not doing what is best for me. How can I be made better off by not doing what is better for me?

Before debunking this paradox let me briefly present my argument. Many philosophers, thinkers and even religions have claimed that unfulfilled desires diminish our level of happiness. This, I believe is not quite right. There are two kinds of interesting counterexamples.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Early Childhood Education Towards Equality

This post is by Natalia Garcez, Brazilian graphic designer currently based in Vienna. If you want to know more about her work, check out her research and the project she discusses in the post.

Contemporary European kindergartens were born in the first half of the 19th century. Pedagogues such as Fröbel and Montessori helped to create a model of education which motivates children to develop all their abilities, giving equal opportunities to every kid to learn what fits better their personal talents and personality.

Though the traditional European methodologies are the closest from a model of education which promotes equity among boys and girls, many early childhood educational spaces still do not guarantee a process of raising children free of stereotypes and gendered roles. One example was observed in a kindergarten located in the east of Germany. The place is deeply inspired in Montessorian methodologies, offering children the most varied spaces which all children have equal access to. Inside, kids are free to be what they want. But the freedom children live inside became a reflection of the traditional behaviours taught by families.

Even in this open-minded educational space, all girls were wearing shades of pink, and all boys were in dark blue T-shirts. All girls were delicate beings, exploring the art's room, dolls, princess' dresses, and make-up, while boys were running around, throwing themselves into piles of pillows, and pedaling outside. By deeply respecting the preferences of each child, the educational space set aside motivating them to explore different activities, reproducing inside the educational space the stereotypes taught at home.

When turning to America, the system created by Fröbel could not be fully applied due to incompatibilities regarding culture and social development: besides the normal gap between kindergarten and home environments, also seen in Europe, the unprepared educational staff and cultural aspects, such as the use of nicknames, the relation with food, formally addressing adults, and so on, required many alterations in the Fröbelian system, coming up something new. What is seeing there are mainly formal and informal child care spaces which keep the children fed and safe while the family works. There is a lack of commitment to education, to the children's development, and, mainly, to raising them towards equity.

The project Design for Equity: Early Childhood Education Towards Gender Equity approaches the role of education in raising children in more egalitarian ways considering the following aspects: how to open dialogues with adults (families and child care spaces) to raise their children towards equity, and how to come up with a feasible system for developing countries in America, introducing poetry, story, music, games, and activities, in the development of educational materials for kids.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Delusion: Solving for Understanding and ‘Utter Strangeness’

Today's post is by Bill (KWM) Fulford and Tim Thornton. Bill is Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health, University of Warwick.  Tim is Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Central Lancashire.

Bill Fulford

Tim Thornton

What is delusion? Few questions have so vexed philosophers in recent philosophy of psychiatry. An invitation to contribute to Thomas Schramme and Steven Edward’s Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine (Springer, 2016) gave us a welcome opportunity to review progress.

The philosopher Naomi Eilan characterized the challenge of delusion as solving simultaneously for understanding and for utter strangeness. Karl Jaspers, the great philosopher-psychiatrist of the early twentieth century and founder of modern descriptive psychopathology, would have approved. He famously thought delusions just too strange to be within the reach of empathic understanding - ‘ununderstandable’ he called them.

Contemporary theories, seeking understanding by explication, fall, we think, broadly into two categories concerned with delusions as aberrations on the one hand of beliefs or other either familiar or bespoke propositional attitudes or, on the other, of the grounds of beliefs or other propositional attitudes. The many variations on these theories each offer important insights. None though meets Eilan’s challenge in full: propositional attitude-focused theories solve (in part) for understanding but at the expense of strangeness; grounds-of-belief theories solve (in part) for strangeness but at the expense of understanding. It may be time therefor for something new. It may be time we suggested to turn our attention to the agential aspects of delusion.

Thursday 9 March 2017

Knowing the Score

In this post, David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London and the City University of New York, introduces his new book “Knowing the Score.”

I have always been a great sports enthusiast. I’ve played many different sports as an energetic amateur, and I follow even more in the newspapers and on television. But, even so, until recently I was never moved to subject sport to philosophical scrutiny. I was happy to leave that to the official philosophers of sport, and to carry on an ordinary fan myself.

In the year of the London Olympics, however, I agreed to contribute to a lecture series on philosophy and sport. When I accepted the invitation, I had in mind that I would have a go at one of the stock topics in the philosophy of sport. But nothing seemed very exciting. So, rather than stick to the official curriculum, I decided to write about something that interested me. If it didn’t count as philosophy of sport, that would be too bad.

The topic I chose was the peculiar mental demands of fast-response sports like tennis, baseball and cricket. When Rafael Nadal faces Roger Federer’s serve, he has less than half a second to react. That’s scarcely enough time to see the ball, let alone to think about how to hit it. Nadal can only rely on trained reflexes. Yet at the same time his shot selection will depend on his consciously chosen strategy, on that day’s plan for how best to play Federer in those conditions. This struck me as puzzling. How can unthinking reflexes be controlled by conscious thought?

I had great fun addressing this conundrum. I didn’t try to hide my enthusiasm as a sports fan, but curiously I ended up with a series of substantial philosophical conclusions. Even though I started with nothing but a few sporting incidents and some everyday questions, I was led to think hard about the connection between conscious decision-making and automatic behaviour, and the result was a series of ideas about the structure of action control that I am still working on.

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Simple Rules to Cope with a Changing Climate

The following post is by Astrid Kause (pictured above), who recently completed her PhD at the University of Konstanz, in South of Germany. She continues her research at the University of Leeds (UK), investigating how individuals grasp and behave in face of uncertain phenomena like climate change. In this post, she discusses from a psychological perspective why this uncertain and complex problem does not require a complex solution – but how simple prescriptive decision strategies might help us to behave better in face of climate change.

Climate change is considered one of the most challenging problems humanity has to solve in the 21st century (van der Linden, 2015). What makes it so particularly difficult to grasp climate change? After all, we experience changes in extreme weather like rainfall, learn about climate change consequences like rising sea levels, hear scientists and politicians call for action against climate change or rather sceptic voices downplaying need for action. One reason is that when individuals try to understand climate change, they face various kinds of uncertainty. A second reason might be that they lack concrete strategies of how to behave in face of these uncertainties.

What are the sources of uncertainty we face when trying to understand climate change? We don’t know what we don’t know. Domains of climate sciences largely differ in how well established their findings are. For example, the general mechanisms of human influence on global warming are virtually certain and backed up by an overwhelming scientific consensus (Cook et al., 2013). In contrast, how exactly humans will influence the climate in the future, how the climate system reacts and how this then affects subsequent behaviors is difficult to predict (Schellnhuber, 2015).

As individuals, we are not aware of all factors that have been revealed as influential on the climate system. This is because individuals access different information sources: For example, in different countries, scientific predictions on a changing climate might be communicated differently in the media. Also, our own experiences might only reflect some change of climate – experiences naturally differ between for example citizens in the UK and Northern Africa.

Monday 6 March 2017

What Can Attention Teach Us about Optimism?

This post is by Adam Harris (University College London) who recently published a paper entitled: "Understanding the coherence of the severity effect and optimism phenomena: Lessons from attention". The paper appeared in a special issue on the nature and consequences of optimism, guest-edited by Anneli Jefferson, Lisa Bortolotti, and Bojana Kuzmanovic. In this post, Adam (pictured below) offers a precis of his paper.

Popular belief maintains that humans are prone to an almost universal optimistic bias, including a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of good outcomes and underestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes. Related research findings include (all references are in the paper[AH1] ):

  1. Wishful thinking. For example, estimates of the likelihood of a sports team winning being higher from that team’s supporters than neutral individuals;
  2. Unrealistic comparative optimism. People think they are less likely to experience negative events, such as cancer, than their peers;
  3. Optimistic belief updating. People fail to sufficiently update likelihood estimates in response to bad news.
Given this popular belief, a surprising result is therefore the ‘severity effect’, whereby likelihood estimates for negative events are higher than for neutral events.

At first sight, the severity effect appears clearly at odds with the three optimism phenomena outlined above. My paper proposes a simple framework (inspired by the motivated attention hypothesis from lower level cognition) to determine the degree to which these phenomena are necessarily inconsistent. The framework clarifies the relationships between the phenomena and stimulates future research questions.

A dominant perspective in attention and word recognition is that valenced stimuli (both positive and negative) have attentional primacy over neutral stimuli. One result of this is that both negative and positive words are recognised faster than neutral words (though note that there is some debate over these results, with other researchers finding an advantage solely for negative words). The motivated attention hypothesis explains these results in terms of an attentional bias towards motivationally relevant stimuli – positive and negative.

Thursday 2 March 2017

AEP and WPA Psychopathology Sessions 2016

In this post, I report from the 20th Annual Meeting of the AEP and WPA Psychopathology Sessions. The symposioum took place at the Hospital Corentin Celton in Paris on the 9th and 10th of December 2016. Researchers in psychopathology and philosophers gathered to present their findings and reflections on the psychopathology of the lived body and its exposure.

On the first day, Luis Madeira talked about abnormal bodily phenomena (ABP) and how these symptoms are experienced in patients with affective disorders, psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia. These features are subjective and at the same time experienced as out of control. In patients diagnosed with manic depression, the body is represented as a nebulous existence, a quasi-inefable constellation of feelings, feelings of inner burden and paralysis which is caused by a lack of motivation, with patients often wondering: “It is in me but, what should I do?”

When the diagnosis is schizophrenia, reports show an increase of mental activity elements which include exaltation of uncontrolled self with patients reporting “desperate vitality”, “irritating emptiness”, “overcharged negative energy” and “internal agitation”. ABP are considered to include several different types of symptoms: disturbed coenesthesia (an assortment of uncanny bodily feelings with or without delusional interpretation), kinesthetic hallucinations and disruptions of body structure and boundaries. Madeira claims that as a group ABP have been absent from diagnostic textbooks due to the fact that psychiatrists lack specific and reliable tools to assess them. Until recently this led psychiatrists to believe that these subjective phenomena may be quasi-ineffable in nature.

Norbert Andersch gave a talk on the ideas of embodiment in Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer. He presented the discussion between these authors in the mid 1920s. Aby Warburg regarded ritual action as the basis of culture and gave special attention to the study of emotional expression in gestures and rituals. Cassirer was mainly interested in the logic of categorisation organised on the basis of rituals. Warburg’s emphasis on the primacy of ritual action in the emergence of culture was of great influence for Cassirer. Andersch claims that the study of rituals could also illuminate today’s psychopathological discourse.

The third talk was given by Dr. Femi Oyebode who talked about the role of the body in the formation of self. Oyebode described the functioning of the sensory apparatus and kinesthetic activity involved in embodied perception. Departing from the fact that the human mind evolved in response to interaction with the physical environment, Oyebode claimed that even the most abstract concepts that we use to describe the idea we have of self have their origins in embodied experiences. To illustrate his points he referred to the use of some metaphors such as ‘standing one’s ground’. Without any understanding of what it means to stand and what it feels like to resist a push and hence not fall over, it would be impossible for us to use these as descriptions of our personalities.

Dr. Gilberto Di Petta gave the last talk of the first day. He presented a case study which he described as a strange case of drug abuse and psychosis. Petta claims that there is a contemporary trend of poly-abuse of new psychoactive substances in young people which can lead to intensified states of psychosis. These episodes were characterised by Petta as featuring uncommonly continuous hallucination, formed by a mental automatism syndrome and secondary (or interpretative) delusions. He proposed that new terminology should be considered in order to categorize cases in which patients suffer psychosis as a consequence of some new psychoactive substances.