John Stuart Mill, Internet Trolls & the Principle of Charity, Part I

In ‘On Liberty’, one of John Stuart Mill’s concerns was the best way to conduct ourselves, since conduct in expression was central to his moral claims about individual liberty. Mill was passionate about correct conduct in the exchange of ideas since it was for him the most powerful way for individuals to learn new ideas and alter their beliefs. When this occurred, society, Mill thought, would be better as the best ideas would be embraced, since all the worser ones would’ve been countered effectively. With this in mind, it may help to consider his ideas in light of online writing.

The Internet has allowed people the ability and platform to: threaten and intimidate athletes and their fans; tell celebrities what terrible persons they are for opposing cyber-bullying leading to attempted suicide; and send rape-threats to a woman making normal inquiries into the nature of her preferred industry (and other women in general online). It’s a powerful tool for communication that all too quickly can be used for terrible exploits.

Though many surely are trying to simply let their vitriol fly or are attempting intentional trolling, all too easily we forget some are genuinely sincere in their views. Just on the subject of women, for example: People really do think raped women should be blamed if they’re wearing revealing clothing, aren’t legitimately raped if they get pregnant and, if they’re too sexy, cause earthquakes. If people can hold such irrational views, maintained with everything except reason, is it any wonder that the Internet allows us to encounter people being not only irrational but threatening?

However, things become also difficult between similar-minded individuals, when one side begins to paint the other using the brush of irrationality, ripped straight from the troll’s hand. This happens between feminist academics, secular activists, and major political analysts. All broad groups with usually their most important goals aligned (and I mean broad: a better world, equal treatment of women, calling out religious moral authority and irrationality, fixing the budget and choosing the best kind of leader, etc.).

How to Hold the Best View

There is nothing wrong with debate and discussion; indeed, my worry is always when groups under such broad rubrics start reciting the same things. Conflicts about nuances matter, since the nuances are the lines in the sand separating us. But we’re all on the same shore, and simply gazing out in different directions. Being able to engage in debate, discussion and critical dialogue with anyone – including and, perhaps, especially those who support you in most instances – is important to your own intellectual integrity, respecting the ideas you hold, and respecting your interlocutor.

As Mill highlighted a person “is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show that experience is to be interpreted… Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.” For Mill this allowed us to step ever closer to the truth of a situation or gain ever more clarity on ideas. This was the most important goal of all rational debate and, for Mill, thoughtful discussion one of the most powerful ways to acquire it.

This was so because, as an individual, you were exposed to many different sides of an idea, thus meaning you had no excuse except to hold the best available view on the subject having encountered and engaged with all or most of the others.

“Being cognisant of all that can… be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers – knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter – he has a right to think his judgement better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process”

Mill here is not defending expertise, per se, but merely arguing for only holding views once you have engaged in a “similar process” as one who considers himself an expert (reading differing views, including those who you think wrong, especially the best versions of those views).

But what are ways to achieve this consistently? What kind of conduct could help us, especially given the Internet climate of outrage, anger and hostility? One powerful principle is that of charity, where, upon meeting the expression from a stranger, we at first err on the side of thinking his expression is one of seeking clarity, truth or explanation; charity asks us to fight, with everything we have, against viewing malice, evil or, in contemporary terms, “trolling” from interlocutors.

Failing the Principle

It seems to me that many discussions fail at the start because of an unfair reading or one that unintentionally abstains from charity. For example, if one is discussing feminism and what we can do to prevent misogyny from occurring, questioning the realities of widely-accepted defences invites accusations that you’re a sexist or misogynist. Or, if you question what makes the evidence produced by scientific racists wrong, you could be viewed as one strand away from donning a white hood. My views regarding consensual incest and sanctity of life have invited assertions that I enjoy being raped, am a “waste of sperm”, and so on.

People can afford to be vicious to their Strawman construction of a bad person because, as Mill paraphrased his opponents, “none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs” and “there is nothing wrong with restraining bad men”. Who, aside from a bad person, could oppose the view that women should be given equal rights, protections and treated like persons? Who, aside from a bad person, could think all black people are stupider than non-black people? By constructing our opponent into a bad person, it allows us to be uncharitable; we can be certain that he deserves the vitriol he gets.

But reading charitably means avoiding such constructions. It means, firstly, avoiding thinking that whoever utters such phrases is automatically a “bad” person. Yes, he may end up truly being bad, but upon first reading, the principle of charity asks us to err on the side of genuine inquiry, not malicious intent.

Worse than this is the self-fulfilling prophecy, the bloody cycle of viciousness, such uncharitable reading creates. As I say, most people probably would not consider themselves racist and would feel incredibly hurt to be considered as such: thus, primed by the racist accusation after making a genuine (but perhaps badly-phrased or –timed) inquiry, the accused might react emotively. He starts defending himself with the same vitriol as was aimed at him. Both parties are drawing from an armoury of communication we most of us should avoid (as I’ll explain tomorrow in the final section).

Sexism, racism and other horrible views can be demonstrated. Where is it that someone is displaying racist tendencies? It’s not enough that she’s questioning why evidence is bad. This is not a sufficient criterion to consider somebody to be a racist, sexist, homophobe and so on.

Asking for evidence is usually a good question. What is far worse is you not having a reasonable response for the person you consider to be “bad”. Yes, racists and sexists also ask for evidence but why should we not be able to provide evidence, reason and justification to even these? To try silence them through intimidation and dismissal should not be the go-to move for genuine inquiry.

Says Mill: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure [that the opinion was false], stifling it would be an evil still… All silencing of a discussion is an assumption of infallibility”. Are we really so certain of our views that we will hear nothing even remotely that will undermine it? Certainty of a view is not the same as its reality or morality. The assumption of infallibility is one of the many forces that often lead to much human error as history has shown.

Or as Mill more eloquently put it: “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.”

Continued in Part II: How vitriol undermines truth, an alternate principle and when mockery is appropriate (it’s not).

Image Credit: FreshPaint/Shutterstock 


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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.