Monday, April 14, 2014

Birthday Fundraising

To celebrate turning 29, I'm asking friends / readers / anyone who's feeling generous to donate $29 to Deworm the World, a top-rated charity recommended by both GiveWell and Giving What We Can.

(For larger donations, I still recommend giving to the meta-charities themselves.  But for smaller amounts like this, I think there's a lot to be said for the movement-building potential of these kinds of social media campaigns.)

Also, if you haven't already: Join Giving What We Can!  By donating 10% of your income to the most effective charities, you can expect to save hundreds of lives over your lifetime (or significantly benefit thousands).  And that's just the direct impact.  If your example encourages others to follow suit, your indirect impact could be even greater.  The financial cost is insignificant in comparison, and members generally report increased personal happiness and life satisfaction.  It's pretty neat to be able to make such a big difference, so easily.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Argument from Intelligibility for Moral Realism

I've previously suggested that the non-contingency of moral realism can help to undermine parsimony-based objections to the view.  I'm now wondering whether it can further help us to provide a positive argument in favour of the view.  Consider:

P1. Moral realism is intelligible -- even Mackie grants that moral claims are “not meaningless but false.”
P2. To be truly meaningful, there must be some (metaphysically) possible property (whether or not it is actually instantiated) that moral claims are about.
C1: So, moral properties are metaphysically possible (and some fundamental moral claims are possibly true).
P3: Fundamental moral claims are non-contingent: they are necessarily true if actually true, and necessarily false if actually false.
C2: So some moral claims are actually true. There are actually instantiated moral properties.

I'm guessing that P2 will be the most controversial premise here.  But it seems at least prima facie plausible to me.  Can you suggest any obvious counterexamples?  Or other considerations that might count either for or against this key premise?

Also, has an argument along these lines been proposed before?  References welcome!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Regulatory Bias and Unseen Harms

Our medical system exhibits a systematic bias whereby erroneously allowing a harmful treatment is seen as much more morally significant (and important to avoid) than is erroneously withholding a beneficial treatment, regardless of which kind of error is actually likely to result in a greater amount of avoidable human misery and suffering. (Similarly, a small risk of harm to some patients may be treated as outweighing a large likelihood of benefits for most patients. Such over-the-top risk aversion can be especially restricting to pregnant women, who may be warned against anything on the flimsiest of evidence.) Given that we are so sensitive to the first kind of error, and so blind to the second, we should expect there to be more "low hanging fruit" -- or easily achievable ways to improve human health and flourishing -- attainable via medical deregulation than by increasing medical regulation.  Yet bioethicists tend to be more interested in the latter than the former.  This seems unfortunate.

Monday, March 03, 2014

My NDPR review of Hare's Limits of Kindness

... is here. I'm a big fan of Hare's work, and of NDPR, so it was great to be given the opportunity to review the former for the latter!

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Have an "Equal Chance"

You're in a lifeboat, and can save just one of two people depending on whether you row east or west.  Suppose the person to the east is a bit closer: Go east and the person you save will be restored to comfort a little sooner. That strikes me as a good enough reason to go east.  Some claim that this would be "unfair", and that you should instead flip a coin or use some similarly robustly chancy method.  In The Limits of Kindness, Caspar Hare puts pressure on this idea by presenting the following spectrum of more-or-less "chancy" methods:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dominance Arguments and Singer's Pond

In chapter 12 of The Limits of Kindness, Caspar Hare offers an interesting "dominance"-based argument that you cannot consistently (i) prefer to save the drowning child in Singer's pond, and yet (ii) prefer not to save a distant child via donating to an effective charity.

Hare's set-up is as follows:
When you are considering whether to aid a needy child, you care about two things, your well-being and the well-being of the child.  When both you and the child are better off in one state of affairs than another, then you prefer the one to the other.  But when you must trade off your well-being against the child's how you make the trade-off depends on your relation to the child.  When the child is physically near, psychologically salient to you, such that only you are in a position to save him, and in a rare relation to you (for short: near etc.), you place greater weight on the child's interests--"I can't have nearby children dying for want of help," you say. When the child is physically far, not salient to you, such that others are in a position to save him [but won't], and in a common relation to you (for short: far etc.), you place greater weight on your own interests--"I can't solve all the world's problems myself," you say.

Hare then contrasts a Near case where little Ned has a comparatively less happy life at stake, with a Far case where little Ned would suffer a comparatively worse death if not saved.  By dominance reasoning (it being better for Ned and worse for no-one), Hare claims you must both (i) prefer the state of affairs of saving Ned in the Far case over saving Ned in the Near case; and (ii) prefer the state of affairs of leaving Ned to die in the Near case than leaving him to die in the Far case.  So, given that you prefer saving Ned in the Near case over leaving Ned to die in the Near case, you must similarly prefer to save him in the Far case rather than letting him die in the Far case -- else your preferences across these four states of affairs will prove cyclical.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Rationality and the Rooted Amnesiac

Suppose Amy has a deaf son Dale, whom she loves, and because she is so attached to Dale (and his actual personality) she reasonably prefers the actual outcome over an alternative world where she had a non-deaf son Hamish who grew up to be overall better-off than, but also very different from, how Dale actually is.  Call such partiality, rooted in one's attachment to an actual person, a rooted preference.

Some background:  I previously appealed to such rooted preferences as an objection to Caspar Hare's morphing argument, suggesting that a decent person might reasonably prefer a world where a counterpart of Dale exists over a world where a slightly better-off counterpart of that counterpart, but who no longer qualifies as a counterpart of Dale, exists instead.  Hare now responds by running his argument in terms of "active favoring", which is basically a special kind of counterfactual preference where we ask what the agent would prefer if she were agnostic about which world is actual.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in review

(Past annual reviews: 20122011201020092008200720062005, and 2004.)

Publications / Awards:
Two big results this year... (1) My 'Value Receptacles' paper was accepted for publication in Noûs, and (2) I was (co-)awarded the RoME 2013 Young Ethicist Prize for my paper, 'Satisficing by Effort: From Scalar to Satisficing Consequentialism'.

On the blog:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Annals of Overblown Rhetoric

From Dennett's "Epiphenomenal" Qualia?:
If we were to declare that in principle, a zombie is indistinguishable from a conscious person, then we would be saying that genuine consciousness is epiphenomenal in the ridiculous sense. That is just silly. So we could say instead that consciousness might be epiphenomenal in the Huxley sense: although there was some way of distinguishing zombies from real people (who knows, maybe zombies have green brains), the difference doesn't show up as a functional difference to observers. Equivalently, human bodies with green brains don't harbor observers, while other human bodies do. On this hypothesis, we would be able in principle to distinguish the inhabited bodies from the uninhabited bodies by checking for brain color. This is also silly, of course, and dangerously silly, for it echoes the sort of utterly unmotivated prejudices that have denied full personhood to people on the basis of the color of their skin. It is time to recognize the idea of the possibility of zombies for what it is: not a serious philosophical idea but a preposterous and ignoble relic of ancient prejudices. Maybe women aren't really conscious! Maybe Jews!  What pernicious nonsense.

Or, as Helen aptly summarizes: "Epiphenomenalists can't mean what they say they mean, so clearly they mean something totally different. And doesn't that sound kinda sorta vaguely like a racist Nazi?  So... yeah."

Nice fodder for a critical thinking course.  Can you think of any comparably egregious passages from other published philosophical works?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reconciling Scalar, Maximizing, and Satisficing Consequentialisms

I think that the best expressions of these three views are not actually in conflict.  Indeed, I think the consequentialist does well to accept versions of all three.