Friday, October 17, 2014

Good Lives and Procreative Duties

Many philosophers seem inclined to accept
(Procreative Axiological Asymmetry): While it would be bad, or undesirable, to bring a miserable life into existence, it isn't good, or desirable, to bring an awesome life into existence.

in order to secure
(Procreative Deontic Asymmetry): While we are obliged to not bring miserable lives into existence, we are not obliged to bring awesome lives into existence.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Where QALYs Go Wrong

My paper 'Against "Saving Lives": Equal Concern and Differential Impact' defends the use of QALYs (Quality-Adjusted Life Years) in medical resource allocation against several traditional objections. But along the way, I note several respects in which (it seems to me) not all life years -- even in perfect health -- are equal, and hence a straightforward QALY-maximization approach falls short.  I'll briefly outline them below, and invite readers to suggest any further examples I may have missed...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bostrom's Superintelligence - Does AI constitute an Existential Risk?

The folks at OUP kindly sent me a review copy of Nick Bostrom's new book Superintelligence, exploring AI risk.  It's a topic that lends itself to eyerolls and easy mockery ("Computers taking over the world? No thanks, I already saw that movie.") -- but I don't think that's quite fair.  So long as you accept that there's a non-trivial chance of an Artificial General Intelligence eventually being designed that surpasses human-level general intelligence, then Bostrom's cautionary discussion is surely one well worth having.  For he makes the case that imperfectly implemented AGI constitutes an existential risk more dangerous than asteroids or nuclear war. To mitigate that risk, we need to work out in advance if/how humanity could safely constrain or control an AGI more intelligent than we are.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The "Double Jeopardy" Objection to QALYs

I've previously discussed Harris (1987)'s famous objection that the use of Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) in medical resource allocation is unjustly "discriminatory". Harris' second objection is that the use of QALYs gives rise to an unfair kind of “double jeopardy” (p.190):
QALYs dictate that because an individual is unfortunate, because she has once become a victim of disaster, we are required to visit upon her a second and perhaps graver misfortune. The first disaster leaves her with a poor quality of life and QALYs then require that in virtue of this she be ruled out as a candidate for lifesaving treatment, or at best, that she be given little or no chance of benefiting from what little amelioration her condition admits of. Her first disaster leaves her with a poor quality of life and when she presents herself for help, along come QALYs and finish her off!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Obligation to Abort? Moral Guidance vs. Reaction

Dawkins was widely condemned for his tweet a couple of weeks ago claiming that it would be "immoral" not to abort a fetus with Down Syndrome. The claim seems pretty implausible on its face if we read "immoral" in the "reactive" sense indicating blameworthiness or moral criticizability. But if we instead address the question of 1st-personal moral guidance -- if faced with this situation, what should I do? -- Dawkins' response strikes me as more defensible. (Dawkins' own elaboration seems to indicate that something more in this vicinity was indeed his intended meaning.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Normative Concepts

How do we get to have normative concepts?  What does it take for a concept to be the concept of ought, or of good, say?

It seems neither necessary nor sufficient that one be disposed to apply the concept to just the things that are actually good. On the one hand, you could be mistaken about what things are good whilst still possessing the concept.  On the other hand, you could have a non-normative concept which picks out the good items under some other, non-normative guise. (Suppose hedonism is true: the concept pleasure then picks out all the good things, but that doesn't make it the concept good.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Cosmopolitan Civilian Test for Proportionality in War

Jeff McMahan has a nice article clarifying the notion of 'proportionality' and applying it to the current Gaza conflict.

I just want to add a quick supplementary thought, which we might call the Cosmopolitan Civilian Test. Begin from the cosmopolitan idea that the moral status of an innocent civilian does not depend on their nationality. Alas, actual human beings have a psychological tendency towards various forms of nationalism and tribalism, counting some innocent people for more than others.  In particular, many responding to the current conflict seem relatively unconcerned by the Palestinian civilian casualties.  One obvious way to correct for this bias is to imagine that these killed civilians were not Palestianians, but some other nationality -- Israelis, say.

Hence the Cosmpolitan Civilian Test: Would these civilian casualties be considered "proportionate" if the civilians in question were of a different nationality?  Suppose Hamas somehow managed to use Israeli rather than Palestinian civilians as human shields.  Would it be "proportionate", or worth the cost, to blow through a human shield of innocent Israelis in order to get at Hamas?  Are Israel's military goals in the current conflict worth killing 1000+ of their own civilians for?  If not, that seems to indicate that they are not worth killing innocent Palestinians for either.

(And if you reject Cosmopolitanism, it's worth bearing in mind Bob Goodin's observation -- from 'What is so special about our fellow countrymen?' -- that nations often have even stronger negative duties to innocent foreigners than to their own citizens, constraining what they can do to them.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Objections to Consequentialism

What do you think are the strongest objections to Consequentialism? (By 'Consequentialism' I roughly mean the unconstrained pursuit of the good -- which might be agent-relative, but shouldn't build in intrinsic concern for traditional "side constraints" like promises, fairness, etc.)

* Counterexamples: I've previously explained why I'm not impressed by the standard "counterexamples" to consequentialism (transplant, bridge, etc.).  In short, they involve situations where the supposedly "consequentialist" act seems morally reckless, and merely stipulating that it "really is" for the best predictably doesn't undo our intuitive aversion to such irresponsible behaviour.  I think it's a lot harder than most people realize to come up with a real case where an act both (i) maximizes rationally-expectable value, and yet (ii) seems morally repugnant on reflection.  So I wish it weren't so common for people to breezily dismiss Act Consequentialism with a mere hand-wave towards the "familiar counterexamples".

Exception: cases of sadistic mobs, etc., which instead call for axiological refinements (reject hedonism!).

* The Separateness of Persons: This venerable objection is vulnerable to the observation that it erroneously assumes that commensurability entails fungibility. (That is, assuming we understand normative 'separateness' as a matter of being non-fungible, distinct values or desirable ends.  Sometimes it is instead used in a contentless way to merely emote disapproval of consequentialist aggregation, or to reassert using new words the trivial observation that consequentialism is incompatible with non-derivative rights.)

Friday, July 04, 2014

Allocating Asylum

Here's an interesting moral controversy (which my brother brought to my attention).  Suppose that:
(1) There are more English-speaking refugees seeking asylum than there are available "positions" for refugees in your country (let's call it "NZ") given current policy.
(2) Migrants (including refugees) who speak English are more easily integrated into NZ than those who don't already speak the language. Thus, a greater number of English-speaking refugees (only) could be accepted into the country at no greater cost or institutional strain relative to current policy.

We clearly have very strong moral reasons to want to be able to help as many refugees as possible.  Probably, current policy is unconscionable and we should be letting in anyone who is in a genuine state of desperate need. But given that this ideal is not going to happen, should we think it at least an improvement upon the status quo to introduce a policy of letting in a greater number of refugees all of whom are English-speaking?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

God's Lottery

Kenneth Walden's new paper, 'The Aid That Leaves Something to Chance',* offers a similar argument to Caspar Hare's about chancy methods:
There is more than one way to hold a lottery among our castaways. You could get five ping-pong balls, label each with the name of a different castaway, choose one ball at random, and designate that ball’s owner the winner. Alternatively, you might proceed as before but keep drawing ping-pong balls until you’ve taken them all; whichever name you draw last, call her the winner. You could also assign each castaway a sector on a wheel of fortune, spin the wheel, and call whosever sector comes up the winner. And here is one more: those castaways who have landed on the island with more people, call them the winners. [...] [W]e cannot help but see each person as coming to his or her island by chance because we know nothing about them. And this means that we can think of these island assignments as made by a lottery—by what I call God’s Lottery—and declare those who landed on Isle de Trois are the winners of that lottery.

Again, it seems to me that the only available distinguishing feature is counterfactual openness, but it seems very dubious to think that that could make a moral difference.  So we should not think that there are any special reasons of "fairness" that count against simply saving the greatest number.

*  (Thanks to Govind for the pointer)