Friday, July 22, 2016

The Instrumental Value of One Vote

Over in this Leiter thread, some philosophers seem to be dismissing the instrumental value of voting (for Clinton over Trump) for misguided reasons:

(1) That a marginal vote is "astronomically unlikely to change the outcome."

This is not true,* at least for those who are able to vote in a swing state. According to Gelman, Silver and Edlin (p.325), the chance of a marginal vote altering the election outcome is as high as 1 in 10 million, depending on the state.  Given that the outcome will in turn affect hundreds of millions (or even billions) of people, voting for Clinton in a swing state arguably has significant expected value.

(2) That the system is not sensitive to a single vote, and anything close to even will be decided by the courts or the like.

The claim that insensitivity undermines marginal impact is generally fallacious.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The 2-D Argument Against Metaethical Naturalism

A few years back I noted that 2-D semantics provides a straightforward refutation of synthetic metaethical naturalism (SEN):  SEN implies that moral terms differ in their primary and secondary intensions, this is clearly false (moral terms are "semantically neutral", or exhibit 2-D symmetry, in that their application to a world does not vary depending on whether we consider it as actual or as counterfactual), and so SEN must be false.

As I've been developing this argument in my paper 'Moral Symmetry and Two Dimensional Semantics', it occurs to me that 2-D semantics enables an even broader argument against metaethical naturalism.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Carroll on Zombies

Zombies are back in the news!  Via the DN Heap of Links, I see physicist Sean Carroll defending what appears to be a kind of analytical functionalism:
What do we mean when we say “I am experiencing the redness of red?” We mean something like this: There is a part of the universe I choose to call “me,” a collection of atoms interacting and evolving in certain ways. I attribute to “myself” a number of properties, some straightforwardly physical, and others inward and mental. There are certain processes that can transpire within the neurons and synapses of my brain, such that when they occur I say, “I am experiencing redness.” This is a useful thing to say, since it correlates in predictable ways with other features of the universe. For example, a person who knows I am having that experience might reliably infer the existence of red‐wavelength photons entering my eyes, and perhaps some object emitting or reflecting them. They could also ask me further questions such as “What shade of red are you seeing?” and expect a certain spectrum of sensible answers.
There may also be correlations with other inner mental states, such as “seeing red always makes me feel melancholy.” Because of the coherence and reliability of these correlations, I judge the concept of “seeing red” to be one that plays a useful role in my way of talking about the universe as described on human scales. Therefore the “experience of redness” is a real thing.

This is manifestly not what many of us mean by our qualia-talk.  Just speaking for myself: I am not trying to describe my behavioural dispositions or internal states that "correlate [...] with other features of the universe" in "useful" ways.  I have other concepts to do that work, concepts that feature in the behavioural sciences (e.g. psychology).  Those concepts transparently apply just as well to my imagined zombie twin as to myself.  We could ask the zombie 'further questions such as "What shade of red are you seeing?" and expect a certain spectrum of sensible answers.'  But this behaviouristic concept is not such a philosophically interesting one as our first-personal concept of what it is like to see red -- a phenomenal concept that is not properly applied to my zombie twin.

So I worry that Carroll is simply changing the subject.  Sure, behavioural dispositions and internal cognitive states (of the sort that are transparently shared by zombies) are "real things".  Who would ever deny it?  But redefining our mentalistic vocabulary to talk about these (Dennettian patterns in) physical phenomena is no more philosophically productive than "proving" theism by redefining 'God' to mean love.

Friday, June 10, 2016

How bad?

Compare five seriously bad things:

(1) Unjust discrimination along the lines of racism, sexism, etc., in Western countries.
(2) War and terrorism
(3) Global poverty
(4) Animal suffering (from factory farming)
(5) Global catastrophic (i.e. civilization-ending) risks

Just how bad is each of these, in the world as we find it today?  If you could prevent just one of them, which would it be?  (What would your rank ordering be if you weren't sure how many philanthropic wishes the genie was going to give you?)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Effective Altruism, Radical Politics and Radical Philanthropy

It can sometimes be difficult to discern precisely what's in dispute between Effective Altruists and their (leftist) critics. This is perhaps in part due to EA's being such a big tent that objecting to one proposal or proponent is not necessarily an objection to EA itself.  To clarify the latter, I see Effective Altruism as a matter of two core commitments:

(1) The "Altruism" bit: A commitment to making the world a better place -- including a willingness to expend some non-trivial proportion of one's own resources to this end.

(2) The "Effective" bit: A commitment to using these resources as effectively and efficiently as possible (based on the best available evidence, analysis, etc.).

Monday, April 11, 2016

Final Value and Fitting Attitudes

An interesting new paper forthcoming in Phil Studies, 'The pen, the dress, and the coat: a confusion in goodness' by Miles Tucker, argues against the (now widely accepted) Conditionalist thesis that intrinsic value and final value are separable.

Consider, e.g., the pen Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  Intuitively, it would seem to have final (non-instrumental) value in virtue of its extrinsic properties (i.e., its historical significance / relation to emancipation).  But, interestingly, Tucker argues that standard accounts of final value cannot accommodate this verdict.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Teaching Effective Altruism

A few people have asked for my EA syllabus from last term, so I thought I'd share it here with some general reflections.

It was a fun class to teach, but I'd do things a bit differently the next time around.  A big one is just the nature of the teaching: This one was organized as a very "student-led" module, all seminar discussions and no lectures.  While the students really enjoyed the discussions, they seemed a bit complacent in places (esp. regarding their dismissals of expected value / global catastrophic risks and of the significance of non-human animal interests), where in a lecture I might have been better able to develop these challenges in greater depth.

Anyway, here is the syllabus for the 9-week class, using MacAskill's Doing Good Better as the main textbook, with some supplementary readings...

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Philanthropic Focus vs Abandonment

This seems a lamentably common way of thinking:
[Chief Executive of Oxfam GB] Goldring says it would be wrong to apply the EA philosophy to all of Oxfam's programmes because it could mean excluding people who most need the charity's help. For a certain cost, the charity might enable only a few children to go to school in a country such as South Sudan, where the barriers to school attendance are high, he says; but that does not mean it should work only in countries where the cost of schooling is cheaper, such as Bangladesh, because that would abandon the South Sudanese children.

Fuzzy group-level thinking allows one to neglect real tradeoffs, and pretend that one is somehow helping everyone if you help each group a little bit.  But this is obviously not true.  If there are more Bangladeshi children in need of education than your current budget can provide for, then by spending the rest of your budget on educating a few kids in South Sudan, you are abandoning a greater number of Bangladeshi children.

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Basic Reason to Reject Naturalism: Substantive Boundary Disputes

I've been trying to work out what I think the most basic reason to reject naturalism (about mind and morality) is.  Sometimes it's suggested that normativity is just "too different" from matter to be reducible to it.  (Enoch and Parfit both say things along these lines.)  But that seems a fairly weak reason: plants and stars seem very different from atoms, after all, but that doesn't stop them from being wholly reducible to atoms.  Granted, mind and morality are even more different, being non-concrete and all, but still.  I think the non-naturalist can do better.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Student Spotlight: Intrinsically Irrational Instrumental Desires

I had always assumed that only ultimate ends, or telic / final / non-instrumental desires, could be intrinsically irrational.  (Think Future Tuesday Indifference.)  Instrumental desires, by contrast, may happen to be irrational if based on a false and irrational means-end belief, but then the problem is extrinsic to the desire itself -- the problem instead lies with the false belief, and one could presumably imagine circumstances in which the means-end belief would be true, thus making the instrumental desire in question a perfectly reasonable way of achieving one's goals.

Or so I assumed. (And I think it's a fairly common assumption.)

University of York undergraduate philosophy student Lorin Thompson (mentioned here with permission) drew my attention to an interesting class of counterexamples.  We can obtain intrinsically irrational instrumental desires if we consider instrumental desires that are essentially self-defeating.  His example is the "desire to think of a number, in order to not think of a number (simultaneously)."  The implicit means-end belief -- that one can achieve avoiding thinking of a number, by means of thinking of a number -- is logically incoherent, and the resulting instrumental desire is thus intrinsically (rather than merely extrinsically) irrational.

It's a cool case!  At the very least, I'll need to re-write my essay question for future years to ask something like whether there are "unworthy" ultimate ends rather than just "intrinsically irrational desires", as it now turns out that even Humean subjectivists should make room for the latter.

Does anyone know whether such cases have been discussed before, or could it potentially be a new contribution to the literature if Lorin were to write up his paper for an academic journal?