Saturday, August 29, 2015

Idealism Without God: a must-read paper!

... by the brilliant Helen Yetter-Chappell [forthcoming in T. Goldschmidt & K. Pearce (eds.) Idealism: New Essays in Metaphysics, Oxford University Press].

PDF pre-print available here.

I may be a tad biased, but I can't think of a more creative, ambitious, and interesting paper than Helen's 'Idealism Without God', which manages to improve upon Berkeley's original view in significant respects (especially regarding the nature of perception) whilst depending upon less controversial theoretical resources (as indicated by the title).  It's cool stuff.  A prominent philosopher of mind even declared it, "the coolest metaphysical view ever!"  It should especially delight those who worry that philosophers these days too often lose sight of the "big issues".

The paper's upshot:
Contemporary philosophers are overwhelmingly materialists (at least about the domain of physical objects). I think it’s unfortunate that this view is taken for granted, as idealism both has much to offer and need not be as radical in its commitments as it might first appear. In making the case for taking idealism seriously, I’ve outlined a non-theistic, quasi-Berkeleyan view. On this view, reality is a vast unity of consciousness that binds together the sensory impressions of every point-from-a-perspective. This does not do away with the physical world, but gives a unique account of its nature – one on which the world is fundamentally intelligible. Just as on materialist views, reality is governed by physical laws (the sorts of laws that physicists tell us about, and which it’s clearly not the business of philosophers to dispute). Because reality is phenomenal, we open up the possibility that we can have a very robust sort of direct contact with reality. I’ve offered a view of perception on which (in perception) our minds are literally constituted by threads of reality. If this is right, I can stand in the same relation to the blueness of the sky as I do to the pain in my thigh. 
While the idealist account that I’ve developed faces challenges – particularly worries about quantitative profligacy – it also offers some unique and intriguing benefits: (i) Due to the robust account it gives of our direct connection to reality, it yields an especially strong vindication of Johnston’s neglected epistemic virtue. (ii) It renders reality fundamentally intelligible in a way that materialism does not. (iii) It captures our common-sense intuition that the world is as it appears. While the theory doubtless faces challenges not addressed in this short paper, these advantages are such that the view surely merits consideration. 
In conclusion, idealism is awesome and everyone should take it more seriously.

Read the whole thing!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rossian Utilitarianism?

In The Right and the Good, Ross posits seven distinct kinds of prima facie duties (fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement and non-maleficence). But suppose we reject the distinctively "deontological" ones of these, retaining just the prima facie duties of beneficence (promoting the good) and of non-maleficence (refraining from harm).  And suppose we further discard Ross' claim that the latter kind of duty is more stringent, and instead treat both on a par, so that a prima facie duty to avoid a particular harm could be perfectly balanced by an equally stringent prima facie duty to bring about an equally sized benefit.

The resulting view -- call it Rossian Utilitarianism -- is clearly a fairly radical departure in content from Ross' original deontological view. Nonetheless, it retains the basic Rossian structure: there are a plurality of prima facie duties to which moral agents should be responsive, and what one ought to do in any particular case is determined by the balance of one's prima facie duties. If Ross' original deontological view allows us to wrong particular individuals (say by neglecting a prima facie duty of non-maleficence that we have towards them), then so does this Rossian Utilitarianism. If Rossian deontology allows us to care not just about abstractly balancing our prima facie duties, but more directly about the persons to whom these duties are owed, then so does Rossian Utilitarianism. And if it is the particular contents of our prima facie duties that provide the right- and wrong-making features for Rossian deontology (rather than abstract facts about their balancing), then so it is for Rossian Utilitarianism.

Of course, Rossian Utilitarianism just is utilitarianism. The criteria of maximizing utility and of satisfying the weighted balance of one's prima facie duties of beneficence and non-maleficence (when neither type is treated as inherently more stringent than the other) are clearly equivalent. So utilitarians too can claim all the above salutary theoretical features, simply by recasting their view into a Rossian structure -- should anyone still insist that that's necessary. Of course, once we see that this is possible, we may naturally doubt that the particular Rossian structure is essential after all. And our previously introduced distinction between criterial and ground-level explanations can provide the theoretical underpinnings to support this doubt.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Criterial vs Ground-level Moral Explanations

To help show why certain objections to consequentialism are misguided, let us distinguish two importantly different kinds of explanation of particular moral facts. [Revising and expanding upon a distinction I originally drew back here.]

What we can call a criterial explanation appeals to the necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of some moral claim, i.e. the conditions that appear in place of the `X(Y)' in theoretical accounts of the form, ``An act is right (wrong) iff X(Y).'' If I randomly kick Joe in the shins, the wrongness of my act can be explained criterially by the fact that my act has the general property Y, which is necessary and sufficient for an act's being wrong. (Maybe Y is the property of failing to maximize value, or maybe it is the property of violating the weighted balance of one's prima facie duties.)

A ground-level explanation, by contrast, appeals to the particular non-normative features of the act or evaluand which ground its having the moral status that it does. So, for example, the ground-level explanation of my action's wrongness may consist in the fact that I (gratuitously) harmed Joe. This is also the wrong-making feature of the action.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Distant Realm: Rethinking the Procreative Asymmetry

Surprisingly many philosophers seem inclined to accept
(Procreative Reasons Asymmetry): While we have strong reasons against bringing miserable lives into existence, we have no reasons (all else being equal) to bring awesome lives into existence.

I've previously argued that considerations of demandingness suffice to explain why people are not generally obliged to procreate, in a way that leaves untouched the commonsense idea that awesome lives are amongst the best things the universe can contain, and so (all else equal) it's generally a good thing to bring about more such awesome lives.

We may now add: Since we have (some) reason to bring about good outcomes, we thus have (some) reason to bring awesome lives into existence.  So PRA is false.

To illustrate with a simple case:
(Distant Realm): Suppose you learn that a new colony of awesome, happy, flourishing people will pop into existence in some distant, causally-isolated realm, unless you pluck and eat a particular apple.  What should you do?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Puzzles re: Kant on the Good Will

Two puzzling arguments from Chapter 1 of Kant's Groundwork:

(1) He begins by suggesting that the only thing "good without qualification" is the good will.  Why? Because (i) anything else could turn out to be instrumentally bad, in the hands (or head) of one who lacked good will, and (ii) undeserved happiness lacks positive value.

The first consideration is very puzzling, because a good will could also turn out to be instrumentally bad (e.g. for a person who is anti-reliable at achieving their goals).  So if to be "good without qualification" is to mean that it can't possibly be of instrumental disvalue then a good will is not good without qualification either.  On the other hand, if we are instead merely concerned with whether something is unconditionally pro tanto good, then his primary argument against other putative goods (e.g. intelligence, courage, and wellbeing) collapses.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

On Furrow's Defense of Eating Meat

Dwight Furrow at 3QD has written up a defense of eating meat (ht: Phil Percs) that strikes me as pretty badly confused.

He begins by complaining that "Singer's arguments are based on utilitarian premises." This is a common mistake.  Singer appeals to principles like the equal consideration of interests -- you shouldn't arbitrarily favour one being's interests over the equally strong interests of another -- and that we shouldn't harm others for the sake of morally trivial benefits to ourselves.  These principles are of course compatible with utilitarianism, but you don't have to be a utilitarian to accept them. Their appeal should be plain to any minimally decent person. (Singer would be a much less accomplished applied ethicist if his arguments merely took the form, "Utilitarianism implies P.  Utilitarianism, therefore P"!)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Judgmentalism vs Non-commitalism

Call Non-commitalism the view that we sometimes ought to suspend belief, assign imprecise credences spanning the entire interval [0,1], or otherwise refrain from doxastic commitment.

Opposing this, we have Judgmentalism, the view that we're never required to suspend judgment: there's always some doxastic commitment or other that we could at least as reasonably hold.

We might go further and consider Strong Judgmentalism, the view that there is always some doxastic commitment (e.g. some level of credence) that's rationally superior to suspending judgment entirely.

Which of these views is most plausible?  And (for any epistemologists in the audience) is there any existing literature on the topic?  (I just made up these names, so they might go by different labels if so...)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Demandingness and Opt-in vs Opt-out sacrifices

I've long thought that we should understand moral demandingness in terms of mental rather than material burdens.  My willpower satisficing paper (soon to be updated!) previously tried motivating this by comparing a "doing demand" vs. an "allowing demand", where the former asked the agent to positively give up half their savings to effective charities, and the second merely asked the agent not to dodge a "Robin Hood" tax that would have the same effect.  The intended verdict is an intuition to the effect that the former request is "more demanding", because more psychologically difficult to comply with, despite being equally costly. But it was a messy case, with all sorts of potential confounders.  So I now think a better example for my purposes is to contrast similar "opt in" and "opt out" scenarios.  Consider:

Opt in: Your local credit union (following the results of a member referendum that you voted against) send all investors with savings accounts, including yourself, optional paperwork to fill out that -- should you choose to submit it -- will transfer half of your savings to effective charities (which can be expected to save several lives, without leaving you destitute).  Might you be morally required to do so?  How demanding would such a requirement be?

Opt out: Your local credit union (following the results of a member referendum that you voted against) send all investors with savings accounts, including yourself, notice that they will transfer half of your savings to effective charities (which can be expected to save several lives, without leaving you destitute), unless you file some paperwork to opt out of the scheme.  Might you be morally required to refrain from opting out?  How demanding would such a requirement be?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Baffling Philosophy?

What positions (or whole debates) in philosophy do you find most baffling?  For each such case, how confident are you that your bafflement is warranted -- that the view or debate in question just doesn't make any damned sense -- as opposed to just being due to a lack of understanding on your part?

I'll offer a few examples that spring to my mind, and encourage others to comment with either (i) more examples of philosophy that you find baffling (and feel free to pick views of mine -- I promise not to take it personally!), or else (ii) defenses of any identified examples, to help those of us who initially find them "baffling" to better understand why they are (in your view) actually well-motivated after all.

So, to get the ball rolling...

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three ways of rejecting moral intutions

People often assume that there's a basic difference in philosophical-methodological temperament between (say) utilitarians and "common-sense" deontologists.  Deontologists, it is said, feel strongly constrained by their intuitions about particular cases, whereas utilitarians are more wedded to theoretical virtues of simplicity and parsimony, and hence are willing to endorse their theory despite its counterintuitive implications.

I'm somewhat resistant to this characterization.  My own (roughly) utilitarian views are, I think, more driven by intuition than by concern for parsimony or the like.  (I don't think that parsimony really counts for very much at all in philosophy.  Though avoiding ad hoc or unmotivated distinctions certainly does.)  I think it's important to accommodate common sense, though this needn't involve just taking common sense at face value.  Thinking more about this, I figure there are three importantly different ways of rejecting a prima facie intuition that goes against your view.  In order of decreasing palatability, they are: