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)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Force-Feeding and Selective Paternalism

Judge Allows Military to Force-Feed Guantánamo Detainee. The judge insists that "The court simply cannot let Mr. Dhiab die."  This despite the fact that Dhiab has autonomously (and, in the circumstances, I would think entirely rationally) chosen to go on a hunger strike, and obviously does not consent to be violently force-fed by his captors.

This naturally raises the question: Does the U.S. legal system no longer recognize an individual's right to refuse invasive medical treatment? Or is there simply an exception for when their death would be embarrassing to the administration?  After all, there are surely much clearer and stronger reasons for paternalistic intervention in ordinary cases of, e.g., patients refusing life-saving blood transfusions on religious grounds.  Or is a blood transfusion more invasive than violently shoving a feeding tube up a captive's nose and down his throat? Perhaps it's thought that the captive has "more to lose" -- his life of confinement without trial in this famous military resort being so much more desirable than the future that your average Jehovah's Witness could ever hope for? One wonders.

Fittingness and Normativity

My old post on 'Reasons-Talk and Fitting Attitudes' [along with my PQ paper] sets out the basic case for taking fittingness (or fitting reasons, in contrast to either value or value-based reasons) as our sole normative primitive.  My follow-up post on  state-given "reasons" explains how the fittingness view accommodates the datum that it's more important to (say) prevent the world from exploding than it is to possess fitting attitudes.  This importance claim is itself a first-order normative claim that can be understood in terms of fitting attitudes: it's appropriate to prefer, and to care more about, saving the world over having true beliefs (say).

So that addresses one kind of worry that one might have about the normative force of fittingness claims. However, Helen recently drew my attention to another interesting worry in this vein.  One might worry that fittingness relations themselves are too "thin", "weak", or lacking in normative "substance" or force.  That's fine for the normativity of beliefs and other attitudes, since getting those "right" isn't all that big a deal.  But to account for the sheer atrociousness of gratuitous torture, say, using the same kind of metaphysical relation that accounts for the inappropriateness of believing grass to be purple, just seems awfully weak and unsatisfying.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Non-Normative Epistemology?

I've previously cited epistemic nihilism as an example of an intellectual black hole -- a view that rational agents must reject in order to preserve their capacity for rationality.  But the normative nihilist might seek to avoid this implication by offering up a non-normative account of rationality (and epistemology more broadly). One could just stipulate a certain extensional account of "rationality" -- perhaps consisting in conformity to norms of parsimony, logical validity, certain inductive/abductive norms, etc. -- without requiring these norms to be backed by irreducibly normative properties, or to give rise to categorical "oughts".  This modest nihilist says, in effect, "Here are my recommendations if you wish to join me in the game of truth-seeking.  But if truth is not your goal, I have no grounds on which to criticize you."

My main concern about this move is that it isn't clear how the nihilist can consistently regard her own preferred epistemic norms as more truth-conducive than any others (at least so far as non-deductive norms are concerned). I've previously noted that anti-skepticism requires us to regard some possible worlds as (a priori) objectively more likely than others, and that to explain rational induction (e.g. the projectability of "green" but not "grue") requires positing objective structure (something empiricist-inclined nihilists may also regard as unacceptably mysterious or metaphysically "queer"). If all possible epistemic norms are metaphysically on a par, as the epistemic nihilist seems committed to, then why regard any particular set of norms as more likely to lead to truth than any other?

Friday, May 02, 2014

Moving to York (UK)

Happily, Helen and I will be joining the wonderful philosophy department at the University of York, starting in September. We're really looking forward to being part of such a large and active research community--and the department's strengths in both philosophy of mind and ethics make it an especially good fit for the two of us.  (The city itself is none too shabby, either!)

Over the summer, we will both be presenting at the AAP conference in Canberra, and then Helen will be presenting at the Barnard-Columbia Perception Workshop in New York.  So, busy times ahead, but they should prove philosophically rewarding!