Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Against the "Sufficiency Principle" of Agential Promotion

Eden Lin recently got me thinking about (agential) promotion. By way of background: many views hold that we have reason to act a certain way iff so acting serves to promote a certain kind of outcome (e.g. valuable state of affairs, or the satisfaction of the agent's desires, or whatever).  Promotion of this kind might be thought to consist in probability-raising, for example, but there are disputes about the details, such as what the relevant "baseline" probability is for comparison purposes.  Eden's paper, 'Simple Probabilistic Promotion', (mentioned here with permission) identifies the following Sufficiency Principle as a commitment of many -- perhaps most -- of the philosophers in the literature:

Sufficiency Principle: S’s doing A promotes p if it causes p to obtain.

For example, Behrends & DiPaolo (p.4) offer the following case, where Julie supposedly "promotes" her desire by pressing the button, even though it's no more likely to be fulfilled than if she did nothing (it is guaranteed either way):
Buttons 2. Julie has some desire. There is one button in front of her. She knows that if she pushes the button, her desire is guaranteed to be fulfilled. However, unbeknownst to Julie, if she does not push the button, Black will ensure that her desire is fulfilled.

Eden convincingly argues that we needn't accept the sufficiency principle.  I'm inclined to think, stronger still, that we positively should not accept it.  Here's why.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Deliberative Openness and the Actualism-Possibilism Dispute

There's been some interesting discussion at PEA Soup recently about the Actualism-Possibilism dispute. A key issue here concerns when agents are allowed to treat their own dispositions as "fixed" for the purposes of deliberation.  As Sergio Tenenbaum puts it, after noting that he would want and advise the deliberating agent to do other than what possibilism obliges him to do, "I can take the facts about what he’ll do as settled while giving advice, in a way that he can’t while deliberating."

While there is a truth in this vicinity -- we certainly can't take as settled the outcome of our present deliberation -- I think Tenenbaum's extension of this principle to future behaviour is importantly mistaken.  What we should hold fixed during deliberation depends not on the identities of anyone involved (e.g. treating my own behaviour as open but others as fixed), but just on what results are actually "open" possibilities depending on the outcome of my present deliberation.  If the outcome of my present deliberation will affect whether or not you φ, then I should not treat your φ-ing as fixed. And if my present deliberation cannot affect whether I will later ψ, then I should treat my later ψ-ing as fixed (for the purposes of my present deliberation).  Basically, I should consider all of the options currently available to me -- all of the effective intentions I can now form -- and pick the one that will actually lead to the best outcomes.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Thinking Realistically about Policy Outcomes

If we want to know whether a certain policy or legal change would be a good idea, we should presumably consider the expected consequences.  Very roughly speaking (abstracting away from uncertainty and hence the need to weight various possible options by their probability), we should carefully assess what would happen if the policy is / isn't instituted, and we can then assess which result is morally better.  (I don't mean to assume consequentialism here -- if a policy violates rights, for example, one might deem it morally "worse" on those grounds.)  Call this approach "thinking realistically about policy outcomes."  (Also known as "thinking like an economist.")

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sex Selection and Gender Norms

Via Daily Nous, I came across this puzzling objection to sex selection by Tamara Browne:
Most parents will not desire a male or female child in the sense of their genitalia. Rather, they will want a child who fulfils socio-cultural definitions of ‘boyhood’ or ‘girlhood’. This is problematic because it assumes our sex determines our adherence to gender-based social norms and behaviours.
At best, acting on assumptions which are not evidence-based is bad science. [... Furthermore,] sex selection is a product of, and perpetuates, false assumptions about gender that keep men and women “in their places”. This prevents progress towards equality and freedom from restrictive gender roles and bias.

This is simply false.  In order for one's gender preferences to motivate sex selection, one needn't assume that the latter perfectly "determines" the former.  It is surely sufficient for there to be a strong correlation, such that by selecting a particular sex one makes it (significantly) more likely that one's child will be of the preferred gender.  And one can hardly pretend that there is zero correlation between the two -- that is not an "evidence-based" position.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

WaPo forum on Effective Altruism

The Washington Post is discussing Effective Altruism.  There are two critical contributions, neither of which I find very compelling:

(1) William Schambra claims that most Americans are too selfish to care about global problems or contribute to global charities: "Given the American tendency towards materialism and individualism, we cannot rely on grand causes to summon us to public-mindedness. Rather, it comes only when it is shown that public involvement is closely linked to our personal interests."

Friday, September 04, 2015

Good lives and un/conditional value

At the recent MANCEPT workshops I had some fun discussions with a couple of defenders of the idea that, while we've reason to improve the lives of people who exist, there's no reason to bring awesome lives into existence.  (As Johann Frick put it in his very interesting paper, "our reasons to confer well-being on people are conditional on their existence.")

This strikes me as a rather bleak, depressing view of the value of life.  Johann compares welfare to promise-keeping: there's no value in making-and-keeping promises, it's just that once you've made a promise, you'd better not mess it up.  Likewise, it seems on these views, there's no real value in good lives, just the risk of their going badly which needs to be avoided.

I think the big worry with these kinds of views is the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that sentient life, as a whole, is regrettable.  If God creates a world with a billion blissful, flourishing lives, and one (antecedently identifiable) very slightly bad life, his act of creation is deemed to be wrong on net: the bad life counts against it, and the good lives don't count in favour.

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?