Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Consequentialism, Moral Worth, and the Fitting/Fortunate Distinction

In 'Consequentialism and Moral Worth' (forthcoming in Utilitas), Nathaniel Sharadin discusses the idea that acts done for the "right reason" have a special normative status (moral worth / praiseworthiness).  The "right reasons" here are usually assumed to be the right-making reasons, but Sharadin argues that consequentialists should reject this assumption, and instead consider the "right reasons" to be whatever motivations would be best to have (and hence are recommended by the theory).  This strikes me as deeply confused, neglecting the distinction between fitting and fortunate character.  As I put it in my recent paper on right-makers:

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

New Draft on Right-Making Features

I've a new draft paper, 'The Right Wrong-Makers', which argues as follows:
Right- and wrong-making features ("moral grounds") play important normative roles, e.g. in morally apt or virtuous motivation.  They have, however, been systematically misidentified. Canonical statements of our moral theories tend to summarize, rather than directly state, the full range of moral grounds posited by the theory. Further work is required to "unpack'' a general criterion of rightness and identify the features that are of ground-level moral significance. Focusing on the simple example of utilitarianism, I show how careful attention to the ground level can drastically influence how we think of our moral theories.

I'm testing out the PhilPeople "sessions" feature with this paper, so you're welcome to comment over there if you also want to try it out.  (Blogged or emailed suggestions are also always welcome, of course!)

P.S. It seems PhilPeople automatically "invites" everyone you make a session visible to (which in this case was my entire PhilPeople "peer network").   So apologies to anyone who receives an unwanted email invitation -- I didn't intend that to happen!

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Negative Utility Monsters

Many consider Nozick's "utility monster" -- a being more efficient than ordinary people at converting resources into wellbeing, with no upper limit -- a damning counterexample to utilitarianism.  It doesn't seem intuitively right, after all, to give all our resources to this one individual and deprive everyone else in the world, even though this would (ex hypothesi) maximize aggregate welfare.

A standard response is to question the coherence of the scenario.  It doesn't even seem like a good outcome, after all, which may be taken to cast doubt on whether we are really imagining sufficiently high monster welfare to really outweigh all the suffering of everyone else in the world.  More directly: I don't think I can positively conceive of arbitrarily high welfare packed into a single life. Further, I think there are principled reasons to think this impossible -- but even if I'm wrong about that, our imaginative resistance is enough to explain away our intuitions about the putative utility monster.

An interesting way to support this response, I think, is to consider a twist on the case where the utility monster begins from a baseline status of arbitrarily massive suffering.  If we now imagine that any given resource can either make any other person a little happier or else make a much greater impact on relieving the suffering of the negative utility monster, it seems clear that the latter option is the morally better way to go.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Acts, Attitudes, and the Separateness of Persons

My previous post discussed the first of Seth Lazar's two objections to my account of the separateness of persons. Here's the second:
Chappell thinks the objection has to do only with attitudes. His token-pluralistic utilitarianism can, in its deontic verdicts, be extensionally identical to token-monistic utilitarianism (according to which only aggregate well-being is non-instrumentally valuable), but preferable since it encourages us to adopt the appropriate attitude to the losses inflicted in the pursuit of the overall good. This misunderstands the separateness of persons worry. It has nothing to do with our attitudes: it concerns instead what we ought to do. We ought not assume that benefits to one person can cancel out same-sized costs to another.

I agree with that last sentence.  Indeed, that is the heart of my account of the separateness of persons: that we should not treat people as fungible, such that "benefits to one person can cancel out same-sized costs to another".  However, whether costs are cancelled or merely outweighed is precisely something that (I show) has implications for fitting attitudes rather than for what acts are ultimately most worth performing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Constitutive Instrumentality: a response to Lazar

Seth Lazar's forthcoming paper, 'Moral Status and Agent-Centred Options' contains some interesting objections to my 'Value Receptacles' paper.  Here's the first:
Chappell’s treatment of the separateness of persons has several weaknesses. First, what does it mean to value aggregate well-being non-instrumentally, while valuing the well-being of individuals only instrumentally? The view seems a straw man. Aggregate well-being is composed of the well-being of individuals. If aggregate well-being is a noninstrumental value, then individual well-being is a non-instrumental value, since aggregate well-being just is all the individual well-being taken together. Treating different people’s well-being as totally fungible is a conceptual mistake, hence not a charitable interpretation of the separateness of persons objection. 

This is incorrect.  An important upshot of my paper was that we need to recognize two very different kinds of instrumentality.  The most familiar kind is when one thing is a causal means to another, as (e.g.) in the case of money being useful for buying desired objects.  But we should also recognize the possibility of one thing being a constitutive means to another.  This is what's going on in the case of someone who most fundamentally cares about a kind of good in the aggregate, rather than having any basic, non-derivative concern for the particular instances that make up the aggregate.  Their concern for the instances is wholly derivative of their concern for the whole, in a way that makes them entirely indifferent to internal variation (e.g. in the identities of the instances) as long as it doesn't affect the overall value of the whole.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sub-experiences and Minimal Duration

Suppose that our conscious experiences have a certain minimum duration, say 100 ms.  Take a subject experiencing a second of pleasure, and let 't1' denote the first 50 ms time period, 't2' the next 50 ms, and so on through to 't20'.  So the subject experiences pleasure from t1 - t20.  Do they experience pleasure at t1 (and accrue a proportionate momentary welfare boost at this time)?

I'm inclined to answer 'yes'.  But this may seem to entail that both whether you're experiencing pleasure at a time and whether you accrue positive momentary welfare can be extrinsic, not fixed by the intrinsic properties of the moment.  After all, if the agent had been knocked unconscious after t1, then they would not have experienced any pleasure during this period due to the associated neural activity lasting for less than the minimum experiential duration.  Their neural activity at t1 will only get to (partly) constitute a pleasant experience if it continues on for at least another 50 ms.  This gets especially puzzling if one posits an open future.  It might then be indeterminate at t1 whether the agent is currently experiencing pleasure -- the facts about the agent's t1-experiences would not be settled until a later time (perhaps at t3 they get retroactively 'fixed').  That seems weird.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Civility and Politics Beyond the Pale

Michelle Goldberg has an excellent opinion piece in the NYT on the recent 'civility debate':
The norms of our political life require a degree of bipartisan forbearance. But treating members of Donald Trump’s administration as ordinary public officials rather than pariahs does more to normalize bigotry than exercising alongside a white separatist. [...] As long as our rulers wage war on cosmopolitan culture, they shouldn’t feel entitled to its fruits. If they don’t want to hear from the angry citizens they’re supposed to serve, let them eat at Trump Grill.

Ordinarily, my sympathies are all for showing civic respect to our political "opponents" (who ideally we should not think of as opponents at all).  But these aren't ordinary times.  As Goldberg briefly recounts, the Trump administration (and indeed much of the broader Republican party) has abandoned any pretense of abiding by norms of civil democracy in favour of blatant dishonesty, inhumanity, and political corruption.

Do those who insist on continued civility (for moral rather than tactical reasons) deny that Trump and his cronies have gone beyond the pale?  If so, where do they draw the line -- must we tolerate everything short of the gas chamber?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Three kinds of offsetting

Distinguish the following kinds of "offsetting" behaviour:

Preventative offsetting -- when potential harms depend on just the global amount of something (say, greenhouse gas emissions), it seems that one can prevent the potential harm done by one's contributions by "offsetting" or paying to reduce others' contributions, so that the net effect of one's behaviour leaves the global magnitudes unchanged.

Cause-specific (or harm-type) offsetting -- when you cause a harm of a certain type, but then seek to 'offset' the badness of this by preventing a like harm from occurring elsewhere.  E.g. donating to a relevant environmental charity after polluting your local river.

Cause-neutral (or net utility) offsetting -- when you cause a harm of a certain magnitude, and then seek to 'offset' the badness of this by preventing a similar amount of harm elsewhere.  E.g. donating to a global poverty charity after polluting your local river.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Moving to Miami!

I'm very happy to say that Helen & I will be joining the philosophy department at the University of Miami next year!

We bid farewell to many fantastic colleagues, and will certainly miss daffodil season in York...

... but are thrilled to be joining the outstanding philosophical community at UM!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

On Parfit on Knowing What Matters

If I had to pick a "favourite philosopher", it would be Derek Parfit.  His book Reasons and Persons is, in my view, the best there is -- containing striking insights and arguments on every page, and laying the groundwork for basically all subsequent work on the deepest puzzles surrounding consequentialism, personal identity, and population ethics.  So it was a great honour to have him respond to my paper 'Knowing What Matters' in his third volume of On What Matters.  I wish he were still around to be able to continue the conversation further, as I would have liked to prompt him to engage more closely with various claims (that he was instead initially inclined to reject by just re-asserting his antecedent view). Sadly, that's no longer possible.  But I guess I can at least continue my side of the conversation, and perhaps other readers will suggest further comments and responses that could be made on Parfit's behalf.

'Knowing What Matters' argues that Parfit concedes too much to the moral skeptic, and explores how the robust realist might defensibly take a less conciliatory line on moral epistemology.  In particular: