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:

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Cognitivism and Moral / Philosophical Peer Intransigence

Richard Rowland's forthcoming Analysis paper on 'The Intelligibility of Moral Intransigence' presents a curious argument against moral cognitivism.  It goes roughly as follows:

P1. Beliefs track perceived evidence.
P2. Perceived peer disagreement is perceived evidence.
Hence C1. Peer intransigent judgments are not beliefs.
P3. Moral peer intransigence is intelligible: moral judgments can be peer intransigent.
Hence C2: Moral judgments are not beliefs.

The argument seems to prove too much, insofar as one could just as well replace 'moral' with 'philosophical' in P3, but non-cognitivism about all philosophy seems pretty absurd.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Philosophical Expertise, Deference, and Intransigence

Here's a familiar puzzle: David Lewis was a better philosopher than me, and certainly knew more and had thought more carefully about issues surrounding the metaphysics of modality.  He concluded that modal realism was true: that every concrete way that a world could be is a way that some concrete universe truly is (and that these concrete universes serve to ground modal truths -- truths about what is or is not possible).  But most of us don't feel the slightest inclination to defer to his judgement on this topic.  (I might defer to physicists on the 'Many Worlds' Interpretation of quantum mechanics, but that's a different matter.)  Are we being irrational?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 in review

(Past annual reviews: 20162015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004.)

Off the blog... Mostly I've been occupied this year by the arrival of this little guy:

Professionally, I was delighted to finally find a good home for my 'Willpower Satisficing' paper (in Noûs!).  'Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons?' was accepted by APQ.  And a couple of previously-accepted papers -- 'Knowing What Matters' and 'Rethinking the Asymmetry' -- appeared in print, while 'Fittingness Objections to Consequentialism' was officially approved for an OUP-edited volume.  Busy times!

On the blog...

Applied Ethics

* A series of posts took a critical look at a healthcare fiasco unfolding in the UK which our family experienced first-hand: UK shuts down Independent Midwives, Medical Indemnity: Protection or Compensation?, and Assessing the NMC's Defense of its Independent Midwifery Ban.

* Universalizing Tactical Voting rebuts the moral objection to tactical voting.

* Anomaly vs Huemer on Immigration -- explaining why the default presumption should be to favour freer immigration.

Moral Theory

* Aggregating the Right Moments addresses one intuitive reason for thinking that it'd be better to give one person half a million minutes (i.e. one year) more life than to give a million people one minute more each.

* Nanoseconds that Matter explains why even arbitrarily small durations of time should not be assumed to lack value entirely.

* Harms, Benefits, and Framing Effects defends the existence of 'framing effects' against the objections of a recently published paper.

* Iterating Badness in the Paradox of Deontology explores an objection to Setiya's new paper, 'Must Consequentialists Kill?'

* Drawing the Consequentialism/Deontology Distinction does just what it says on the tin.


* Our Zombie Bodies, and Physicalist Epiphenomenalism discusses the idea that our mental properties should not be attributed to our physical bodies in addition to our person, and so our bodies are, in a sense, philosophical zombies.

* Intelligible Non=Natural Concerns explores exceptions to the rule that we shouldn't care about morality 'de dicto'.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Giving Game 2017 results

This past week I ran a 'Giving Game' for my Effective Altruism class, letting each student decide (after class discussion) how to allocate £100 of my charitable budget for the year.  There was just one restriction: if they wanted to pick something other than one of the four EA Funds options (which have expert managers directing funds in the fields of "global health & development", "animal welfare", "long-term future", and "EA community"), they had to convince at least one other classmate to join them.  In the first seminar group, half the class ended up choosing alternative options; in the second, all stuck with the EA funds.  The end result was a bit more varied and (less conservative) than the first time I tried this, so that was interesting to see.  (I think it helped both to allow individual discretion rather than requiring group consensus decisions, and also to have the new "EA funds" available to enable responsibly contributing to a cause area without having to identify or select particular outstanding organizations within the area.  You can now just make the value judgment, and defer to trusted experts on the empirical details.)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Drawing the Consequentialism / Deontology Distinction

I previously mentioned that Setiya's 'Must Consequentialists Kill?' defines consequentialism vs deontology in a way that I think we should resist.  (This is part of what allows Setiya to reach his surprising-sounding conclusion that "consequentialists" aren't committed to killing one to prevent more killings.)  Setiya defines "consequentialism" as the conjunction of two theses:

ACTION-PREFERENCE NEXUS: Among the actions available to you, you should perform one of those whose consequences you should prefer to all the rest.
AGENT-NEUTRALITY: Which consequences you should prefer is fixed by descriptions of consequences that make no indexical reference to you.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Iterating Badness in the Paradox of Deontology

In 'Must Consequentialists Kill?' (forthcoming in J Phil), Setiya convincingly argues against the "orthodox" view that commonsense verdicts about the ethics of killing entail agent-relativity.  Instead, he observes: "In general, when you should not cause harm to one in a way that will benefit others, you should not want others to do so either." (p.8 on pre-print version)  For example, it's not just the agent that should prefer to avoid themselves killing one to prevent five killings, but we should generally prefer that others likewise avoid killing one to prevent five other killings.  The preference here mandated by commonsense morality is thus agent-neutral in nature: it makes no essential reference to your role in the situation.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Intelligible Non-Natural Concerns

I've previously argued that -- even by non-naturalist lights -- what matters are various natural properties (e.g. causing pleasure or pain), and the role of the non-natural normative properties is instead to "mark" the significance of these natural properties.

But it's worth flagging that there are exceptions. While I take it that typically what matters are natural features of the world, this is not a universal restriction on what matters. After all, normative properties plausibly have the further normative property of being worthy of philosophical scrutiny. So I do not deny that there may be special cases when it is perfectly reasonable to take an interest in morality de dicto. (Responding to moral uncertainty may be another such case.) My claim was the more modest one that non-naturalism does not commit us to having non-natural properties take center stage in our moral lives.

The special cases where normative properties themselves are of legitimate interest are precisely cases in which it no longer seems perverse or unintelligible to take a special interest in a non-natural property. There's clearly nothing unintelligible about taking a philosophical interest in non-natural properties, after all. (They raise all sorts of interesting questions!) The case of moral uncertainty may be less obvious, so let me discuss that a bit further.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Harms, Benefits, and Framing Effects

Kahneman and Tversky famously found that most people would prefer to save 200 / 600 people over a 1/3 chance of saving all 600, and yet would prefer a 1/3 chance of none of the 600 dying over a guaranteed 400/600 deaths.  This seems incoherent, since it seems our preferences over a pair of options are reversed merely by describing the very same case using different words.

In 'The Asian Disease Problem and the Ethical Implications Of Prospect Theory' (forthcoming in Noûs) Dreisbach and Guevara argue that the folk responses are compatible with a coherent non-consequentialist view.  Their basic idea (if I understand them correctly) is that the "400 will die" case is suggestive of a different causal mechanism: perhaps the 400 die from our intervention, so the choice is between guaranteed or gambled harms, whereas the "saving" choice is between guaranteed or gambled benefits.  They then suggest that non-consequentialist principles might reasonably mandate a special aversion to causing guaranteed harm (and so think it better to risk harming either all or none, despite no difference in expected value between the sure thing and the gamble).  In the first case, by contrast, they suggest that non-consequentialists might think it easier to justify saving some lives as a "sure thing" rather than taking a gamble that would most likely save nobody at all.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Anomaly v Huemer on Immigration

People often assume that to allow immigration is an act of charity: a country generously sharing its land and institutions with outsiders who have no real claim to be there.  Michael Huemer's work forcefully upends this assumption, showing that immigration restrictions are in fact a form of harmful coercion (like blocking a starving man from accessing a public market where he could trade for food). This reconceptualisation shifts the argumentative "burden", insofar as we generally accept that it is much more difficult to justify coercively harming someone (a seeming rights-violation) than to merely refrain from assisting them.