Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist


The Technology expo Mobile World Congress was held this week, and amongst shiny new phones and gadgets, a number of reveals pertained to the future of motoring. Across the board firms are leading with the idea of interconnected devices and the ‘Internet of Things’, and the automobile industry is no different. AT&T showed how to control a ‘smart home’ from your ‘connected car’, whilst Visa wants us to use our wheels to order pizza. Tech and automobile companies are converging and partnering, with both Apple and Google racing ahead to provide dashboard operating systems. Of course, Google’s most distinctive contribution to motoring so far is still its cartoon-like driverless cars; a potentially transformative sector other companies are piling into.

This week Renault Nissan announced plans to bring an autonomous, connected car to market by 2016. This wouldn’t be as far down the line as a fully driverless car, capable only (pending regulatory approval) of driving autonomously in traffic jams. Whilst Renault Nissan’s head predicted that autonomous motorway travel is not far off, moving beyond that point is far more difficult because we simply can't currently ensure that autonomous vehicles make rational decisions in an emergency.

Questions of which emergency choices would be rational, and which, indeed, would be most ethical to take are some of the most interesting in the pursuit of automated transport. Such cases bear a strong resemblance to the classic Trolley Problem thought experiment:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

In philosophy this problem (along with permutations involving fat men being shoved off bridges and looping tracks) is used to tease out consequentialist v. deontological intuitions — should you always act to save the many, or is it wrong to treat people as a means to and end? — as well as moral distinctions between forseeing and intending a death, and killing and letting die.

The ethics of driverless cars in this sense are particularly juicy. Unlucky drivers may experience their own trolley-like problems: should they swerve into the next lane or aim instead for the pavement? Generally, though, we’re pretty forgiving of a bad call made in a split second and under extreme duress, and wouldn’t really consider a particular choice an ‘ethical’ one.

However, what driverless cars do in a dangerous situation will be thought far more significant. Even if cars ‘learn’ with road time and experience, their instinctive behaviour will already be premeditated and decided; written in as part of the car’s program and consciously chosen by a coder.

This predetermination of the car’s behavior (and by extension, its moral philosophy) makes trolley-related problems both an ethical and legal minefield. Regardless (or perhaps, because,) of how effective driverless cars may be in reducing overall accidents, lawsuits are likely to be significant, and expensive. Whether or not a car is automated to minimize total casualties or programmed to never hit an innocent bystander, there will likely come a time when someone asks ‘why was my loved one already marked out to die in this situation?’ Applying different moral codes will inevitably lead to very different ideas of what it is acceptable for a driverless car to do.

Picking the ‘right’ ethical choice in a range of hypothetical situations will therefore be important, especially if the deployment of driverless cars relies on political and populist goodwill. There’s no end of considerations — is a forseen death acceptable? Is a child’s life more valuable than an adult’s? How do the number and ages of individuals weigh against one another? Should a driverless car prioritize the safety of its passengers over pedestrians, or should it try to minimize third party harm? Should public and private vehicles act differently? Ultimately it may be governments who insist on taking these decisions, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

There’s a number of interesting articles on this sort of thing, and  it will be interesting to hear futher development and discussion of these issues as driverless technology evolves. However, one solution to ‘choosing’ the right outcomes which I found interesting, posited by Owen Barder, would be to let the market decide and with each person to purchase a car programmed with their own moral philosophy. This may not work out in practice, but I do like the idea of a ‘Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist’ bumper sticker.

The real problem of three-parent families


In a world first, MPs recently voted to permit IVF babies created using biological material from three different people, in order to prevent serious genetic diseases caused by faulty mitochondria passed on by the mother. This looks set to benefit around 2,500 UK families. Much has been made of the creation of ‘three parent babies’. That term is misleading; whilst the biological material of three people is involved, less than 0.02% of the child’s DNA will come from the anonymous female mitochondrial donor. However, there is another form of ‘three parent’ baby-making, the rules for which are long overdue reform: surrogacy.

The use of surrogacy is on the rise, no doubt in part fuelled by same-sex partnerships. However, the process is fraught with difficulties, from the assignment of parental rights to the non-enforceability of surrogacy agreements, and, crucially, the fact that ‘commercial’ surrogacy is illegal in the UK.

First of all, the parental rights assigned at a surrogate child’s birth fail to reflect who will actually care for the child. Under UK law, the carrier of the child is considered the legal mother, no matter if they are genetically related or not. If the carrier is married or in a civil partnership, her partner becomes the child’s second parent. A genetically-related commissioning father will be considered the second parent if the surrogate doesn’t have a partner, but a commissioning mother will never automatically receive parenting rights to the child.

To obtain proper legal parenthood, commissioning parents must apply for a Parental Order no more than six months after the birth of their child. Only couples may apply for an order and they can take months to process, leaving a child’s main carers in legal limbo.

Another interconnected and significant issue is that surrogacy agreements are only considered informal arrangements, and cannot be legally enforced. This means that no matter how careful or extensive arrangements are made, there is no guarantee that they will be honoured. In the UK where the surrogate is considered the legal mother, they are able to refuse to hand over the child, even if it is genetically unrelated to them.

Surrogacy agreements with legal weight would alleviate both these problems. An obvious solution would be the recognition of some kind of ‘surrogacy pre-nup’, outlining what compensation or fees will be given to the surrogate, as well as establishing the ‘correct’ parental rights from the moment of birth.

However, another significant barrier to the use of surrogacy is the fact that commercial surrogacy is strictly prohibited in the UK (as it is in a large number of other countries). Currently surrogacy can only take place on ‘purely altruistic’ grounds, with compensation limited to ‘reasonable expense’ only. Prospective parents are banned from advertising their interest in surrogacy, as are potential surrogates. If no suitable surrogates can be found in the UK, commissioning parents often look to certain US states (such as California) or the 'baby factories' of India, Thailand and Ukraine to find a willing surrogate.

The foundations of the legal status of surrogacy stem from The Warnock Report into IVF in 1984, which stated “it is inconsistent with human dignity that a woman should use her uterus for financial profit”. But what exactly is so demeaning about offering gestational services for financial compensation or gain?

It’s often argued that commercial surrogacy substitutes the norms of parental love with market norms. It encourages us to think of parental rights as more like property rights than a fiduciary relationship, and the ‘selling' of children, especially for profit, is wrong. However, what’s taking place with commercial surrogacy is the purchase of gestational services and the delivery of a child, not the child itself. The property rights involved are those of the surrogate's, who has rights of control and exclusion over her body and (most liberals will argue) may use her uterus as she sees fit.

Another related idea is that there are some things - like votes- which are simply too fundamental and valuable to sell, and that the bringing about of a child is one of these things. This type of argument is made by Michael Sandel, who claims that putting a price on some of the ‘good things’ in life corrupts them, and that their commodification results in their degradation.

However, paying for gestation does not diminish the innumerable other ways in which it has value. Placing a market value on something is not to say that it has no value over and above its price - ‘priceless’ paintings are still bought and sold for sums of money. The gift of a child to a couple, and the gratitude felt towards a surrogate can indeed be priceless, even if money is exchanged.

The real question is what informed and consenting adults may do with their bodies and its functions. Arguments defending prostitution form an obvious parallel here. But even prostitution aside, there are a number of ways we profit from using our bodies and its products. We allow hair, blood, and tissue to be sold, so why not the uterus? People use their hands and brains for profit, and ‘sell’ their bodies to medical science and to sporting contracts — what then, is so immoral about gestating someone’s child for a fee? Sperm donation is not particularly morally troubling to us, even though this too separates the genetic and biological elements of baby-making, allows the donor to give up parental rights, and to profit from their act.

Admittedly, many may feel uneasy about the entire surrogacy process; it uses our bodies in ways which are somewhat unnatural, and uproots our usual intuitions about motherhood, pregnancy and prenatal bonding. Whilst we may accept it in extreme, altruistic cases, perhaps 'normalizing' the process with a commercial market leaves an unpleasant taste in our collective mouths. However, a feeling of unease shouldn’t be justification alone for prohibition.

Our comfort zones and thoughts on what are acceptable change over time. Single parenting loses its stigma, and the acceptability of same sex couples grows. When first introduced the contraceptive pill was considered an aberration of nature. Today it is considered one of the biggest feminist breakthroughs of the 20th century. Perhaps with time the position of ‘the gestator’ will come to be viewed as a honourable and respectable profession, bringing joy to families and worthy of commercial recognition. Science lets us wage war on biological conventions and constraints, and it is time for us to tackle the social and legal barriers, too.

A solution to the reclining airplane seat dilemma


Anybody who has to fly home for Christmas will know the reclining seat dilemma. It's kind of annoying if the person in front of you reclines their seat and usually forces you to do the same. (Which puts the person behind you into a tight spot and forces them to recline too, and so on.) Josh Barro, invoking the great economist Ronald Coase, suggests paying the person in front not to recline, but Virginia Postrel disagrees:

This solution, however, is highly unrealistic. It waves away the central theme running throughout Coase’s work: the problem of transaction costs. Making and enforcing contracts, Coase emphasized, isn’t free. And when it comes to airline seats, it’s a lot more costly than Barro admits.

In theory, I could have offered the guy in front of me money to sit up, but even assuming that my fractured Italian had been up to conducting the negotiations and that he wouldn’t have gotten nasty in response to my overtures, how would I have enforced the deal? It’s not a simple problem, and certainly not a cost-free one. Suggesting that as long as property rights are well-defined, you can simply make a deal misunderstands what Coase was all about. He was obsessed with transaction costs. They explain why we have institutions (including firms), not just individual bargains.

It's also kind of embarrassing to do this, because some eccentrics think 'commodifying' parts of everyday life is a bad thing. Postrel's solution is a little more elegant. Divide the plane down the middle, with seats on the left able to recline and seats on the right fixed in position. If it turns out that people prefer one side to the other, charge more for that and less for the other. It's so simple it might just work.

Markets make us better people


One of the most common objections to market-based societies is that they erode non-market motivations to doing good. Critics, with this objection, say that although markets can in some areas latch onto greed and turn it to society's benefit in some areas ("It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest") they can also pervert and corrupt existing motivations in domains where markets are inappropriate. Consider blood donations: many argue that if you start paying for blood donations then people will stop seeing them as a good deed but as a market activity, and lose their 'intrinsic motivation' to give blood. Overall you might get less blood, or less good blood than before, even though you're now spending money to get it. Back in 2012, Harvard communitarian political philosopher Michael Sandel (famous for his online lectures), wrote a hugely popular book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets making roughly these arguments (read a wonderful review here).

These questions are discussed widely, but what's weird is they tend to be tackled mainly with a priori thought experiment arguments like mine about blood, above, and anecdotes, even though they are empirical questions. We can actually test whether you get less or worse blood when you pay for it! (You don't) We can test whether people are less pro-social when you add extra market institutions!

A new paper by Björn Bartling, Roberto Weber and Lan Yao, "Do Markets Erode Social Responsibility?", in the Quarterly Journal of Economics tries to do as much:

This paper studies whether concerns for social responsibility persist in repeated market interaction. We develop a laboratory product market, in which socially responsible behavior by firms and consumers involves incurring additional production costs to mitigate potential negative externalities imposed on individuals otherwise uninvolved with the market.

The data from Study 1, conducted in Switzerland, show, first, that there is a non-trivial share of socially responsible products supplied and demanded in all our market conditions, and that—importantly—the market share of the fair product is stable over time in all conditions.

Second, the socially responsible product, which costs more to produce, sells at a price premium that persists with market experience. In most cases, this price premium increases over time, suggesting that consumers’ willingness to pay for socially responsible products is not eliminated with repeated market interaction. Third, we show that individual-level market behavior is consistent with a preference for positive social impact, though such concerns are heterogeneous.

In other words: markets do not erode existing pro-social motivation; they complement it.