Sunday, June 28, 2015

"Should I do a Philosophy PhD?"

Will MacAskill is seeking feedback on the 80,000 Hours advice page he's written for those who ask the question: "I want to make a difference. Should I become a philosopher?", with a full profile evaluating the PhD in Philosophy (from an "effective altruist" perspective) here.

It seems generally pretty accurate to me.  The one thing that really jumped out to me is the mere middling score currently assigned for "job satisfaction".  Will rightly stresses that it's incredibly difficult to secure a permanent job in philosophy (which I assume is reflected in its receiving the lowest possible score on "ease of competition").  But for those of us fortunate enough to make it, I really do think it's the best job in the world.  I certainly can't imagine anything else I'd rather do, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. (See, e.g., the comments in this thread.)

I also think he may be underestimating the possible impact of teaching.  Even if it's true that most philosophy students will eventually come across Singer's pond argument, etc., regardless of who their teachers are, I think it can make a difference how these things are taught -- whether it's approached as a merely intellectual puzzle, or in a more practically engaged way that really challenges us to reflect on our values and how to live in a way that's (more or less) consistent with those values. I suspect that having a supportive faculty member may make students more likely to set up a local Giving What We Can chapter, further spreading and normalizing "effective altruist" ideas.  And there are often opportunities to speak to wider audiences -- for example, I just gave a couple of mini-lectures on this material for our recent University Open Days, and had multiple parents approach me afterwards to express their interest in learning more about effective charities, etc.  Hard to know how much of an effect any of this has, of course, but it's at least encouraging.  And none of this requires being a research superstar: it's stuff that any ethics lecturer can easily do.

So, that's my 2 cents.  What do you think?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Effective Altruist Philosophers

Alexander Dietz (USC) has put together a new website promoting effective altruism amongst philosophers:
Are you a philosopher who wants to make the world a better place? Make a public pledge to donate 1% or more of your income to the most effective charities, and see which other philosophers have done the same. [...]
Research has shown that people become significantly more willing to change their giving habits when they see others giving around them. And since academic philosophers represent an especially tight-knit community, many of whom are especially likely to be interested in ethical issues, publicly pledging your support could be particularly effective in encouraging other philosophers to give.

It's an excellent initiative, and I hope it secures widespread support throughout the profession! (The list of philosophers who have pledged is sorted by university, which may help promote a little healthy competition between departments -- and might, for example, be a useful resource for prospective graduate students seeking indications of how "ethically engaged" the climate in various departments is...)

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Objective Menu" Theories of Wellbeing

"Objective list" theories of wellbeing are easily misunderstood.  It's often assumed that such theories are committed to the implausible ideas that (i) the same things are good for everyone, regardless of their personal tastes and inclinations, and (ii) a good life must tick off every item on the list, and insofar as it misses one, the life thereby suffers from a significant lack.

These misunderstandings might be easily avoided with a little re-framing.  I take the core idea of objective theories of wellbeing to be that some personal projects are (inherently) more worth pursuing than others. (Becoming a happy vegetable, permanently hooked up to a passive "pleasure machine", does not make for an especially good life, even if that's what the individual in question most wants and enjoys.)  There's nothing in this core idea that requires everyone to have the same projects.  But the "list" metaphor can easily evoke this impression of a totalizing, one-size-fits-all approach.  A better metaphor, I think, would be that of a menu.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Procreative Externalities: is more population necessarily a bad thing?

If a financially secure, well-educated couple decide to have an extra child, is that likely to be a good or a bad thing for the world, on net?  Many (especially environmentalists) assume the answer is "bad", on grounds of over-population: More people = more consumption = more pollution (including greenhouse gas emissions).  But that's not all there is to consider.  For one thing, additional good lives are plausibly of non-instrumental value.  The inherent value of the new person's life is nothing to sneeze at.  Moreover: productive, law-abiding citizens create significant positive externalities.  Think of all the ways your life is improved by the labour of others, from farmers to car mechanics to entrepreneurs and scientific researchers.  People are, as Julian Simon famously wrote, the "ultimate resource".  More people = more ideas and productive capacity = more solutions to whatever problems beset us.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Wronging for Utilitarians

Mark Nelson's 'What the Utilitarian Cannot Think' (forthcoming in ETMP) argues that utilitarianism cannot account for person-directed wronging: "According to utilitarianism, moral offenses are offenses against global utility, right reason or the totality of sentient beings, but never against individual victims, yet this aspect of the action – that it is an offense against a particular person –is highlighted when we say that this action wronged that woman." (p.1)

I naturally disagree.  Nelson here commits the common mistake of assuming that utilitarianism entails a "token-monistic" conception of the good, according to which there is just one thing that matters, viz. the aggregate utility.  But, as I argue in my 'Value Receptacles' paper, a much more attractive utilitarian view is token-pluralistic in form, holding that each person's welfare is a distinct intrinsic good.  And that makes it easy to see how particular persons can be wronged, for the token-pluralistic utilitarian: an agent may fail to give adequate weight to their interests in particular, and so act in a way that harms them unjustifiably.  In such a case, the wrongness of one's action (its failure to maximize utility) is partly explained by the action's wronging (unduly harming) this individual.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Moral Priorities

Robin Hanson notes that people generally don't like "ranking the sacred" (his example: "fighting cancer" vs. "working for racial justice").  This is a big part of what Effective Altruism is all about -- not just aiming to do some good, but seriously taking an evidence-based approach to doing the most (expected) good that one can (for a given level of investment, be it of time, money, or whatever).  This seems to rub some people the wrong way, which is frustrating since we should surely prefer that people allocate their moral efforts wisely, doing more rather than less good when possible.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Best Case for Voting

To follow up on my last post, let's consider a Regan-esque case for voting.

The set-up: Suppose there are two candidates, Good and Bad, and a large population (e.g. several million voters).  90% of the population are unreasoning voters, and suppose that each such voter is (independently) 0.55 likely to vote for Bad, and 0.45 likely to vote for Good.  Suppose that the remaining 10% of the population consists of utilitarians, who are initially disposed not to vote (unless their voting will be instrumental to changing the result from Bad to Good).  I am one such, and I wonder whether I should bother voting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Valuing Unnecessary Causal Contributions

In 'Why Citizens Should Vote: A Causal Responsibility Approach', Alvin Goldman argues that (i) there's a sense in which each vote for the winning party causally contributes to their victory, even if they receive many more votes than are necessary for victory (and similarly each vote against the winning party serves to causally "counteract" them), and (ii) you are morally responsible for outcomes that you are, in this way, causally responsible for.  So you get moral credit for voting for good parties, and against bad ones, and on this basis have (non-trivial) reasons to act accordingly.

I'm happy to grant this talk of "causal contribution", but I wonder about its normative significance. I'm more inclined towards Donald Regan's account of the ethics of cooperation and coordination. Roughly: we should be disposed to coordinate with like-minded others to bring about the best collectively possible results. But if others are not disposed to coordinate with you, then there's no point in pretending otherwise, or in valuing things (such as unnecessary "causal contributions") other than good consequences.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Must Research Talks present Work in Progress?

I gather the norm is that research talks (colloquia, etc.) are meant for presenting unpublished work; work that is, at least nominally, "in progress".  But is there a good reason for this norm?  Just off the top of my head, I would have thought that research talks served two main purposes: (i) feedback, and (ii) dissemination.  Moreover, "read in advance" workshop-style events aside, I expect the main benefits for all involved stem from the latter: the audience gets exposed to (hopefully interesting) new ideas, and the speaker gets to disseminate her ideas, perhaps build up her academic reputation slightly by becoming better known to the audience members, etc.

And while opportunities for feedback are no longer such a priority for published work (though it surely never hurts to hear new objections, etc.), I would think the benefits of dissemination would be all the greater when it comes to presenting one's published work, as selection effects mean it is likely to be of higher quality than one's current work-in-progress. The audience would benefit more from being exposed to your most interesting ideas (assuming you aren't so famous that they'd heard it all before), and you too would presumably benefit more from disseminating your best ideas rather than simply your most recent ones.

So, why doesn't this happen? (Or, if it sometimes happens, just without my being aware of it: why not more often?)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Questioning Moral Equality

[Warning: the post below raises questions that may be morally corrupting.  Engage with them at your own peril!]

If there's one thing that pretty much all moral theorists these days agree on, it's that all persons are moral equals in some important sense.  Not that all people are equally morally good, of course -- there's as much variation in our ethicality as there is along any other dimension of human life.  But the thought seems to be that, nonetheless, we are all equally worthy of moral consideration, our interests should be counted equally, or something along those lines.  But is this platitude really so plausible, on reflection?

Suppose Gandhi and Hitler are both dying in agony before you, and you have but a single dose of pain-relief you can administer.  Is it really plausible that you should flip a coin to decide who to help?  Surely the fact that Gandhi was (let's suppose for sake of argument!) an all-things-considered good guy, whereas Hitler was a vicious monster, gives us reason to prefer to help the former. (One could even go so far as to suggest that virtue-welfare mismatches are intrinsically bad, such that it's a positively good thing for Hitler to suffer.  But for now I'm just appealing to the weaker claim that it's more important to relieve the suffering of good people than it is to relieve the suffering of bad people.)