Tuesday, November 17, 2015

GOP Closes Doors to Newborns

In a nearby possible world, the GOP politicians decrying refugees extended their arguments just a little further.  It went a little something like this...

"Who in their right mind would want to let in tens of thousands of newborn children, when we cannot determine, when the administration cannot determine, who is and isn’t going to grow up to be a terrorist?” Cruz asked.

“Here’s the problem." Rubio expanded. "You allow 10,000 people to be born. And 9,999 of them are innocent people who grow up to be decent, law-abiding citizens. And one of them becomes a terrorist,” he said. “What if we get one of them wrong? Just one of them wrong.”

"My primary responsibility is to keep the people of Texas safe," explained the Governor of Texas, in a video clip. "That means: no more people," he quietly added. "They're just too risky."

"Abortion is murder," one pro-life campaigner clarified. "But if we ship babies off to the Middle-East, whatever happens to them is out of our hands." She paused. "I think it's the right thing to do, to protect our values, and protect our children." A longer pause. "The ones that are already here, I mean."

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Three Options in the Epistemology of Philosophy

You pursue your arguments as far as they go, and eventually reach your bedrock assumptions: foundational premises that you accept (and might describe as seeming 'intuitive' to you), but that you can give no further argument for.  Further, you realize that coherent philosophical diversity is possible: others could, coherently, accept (and find 'intuitive') different starting points from yours.  What should you do about it?

One might deny the stipulated set-up, and insist that there is ultimately only one internally coherent philosophical world view.  But that seems unlikely, so I will put aside that ambitious view for now.  One might also reject the "foundationalist" structure I've assumed above, defending instead the idea that our beliefs might form an interlocking (ultimately circular, but "mutually supporting") web, with no privileged starting points.  But I think what I say below will be easily translatable into coherentist idiom: the question just becomes what to think of our web of beliefs as a whole, given that coherent alternatives are possible.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Self-Undermining Skepticisms

Radical skepticism has a curious tendency to undermine itself:  If you can know (or justifiably believe) nothing at all, then you cannot know (or justifiably believe) even that.  So it seems that one cannot coherently take oneself to be incapable of forming justified beliefs.

More limited forms of skepticism might hope to avoid this fate. But it can prove difficult to halt the slide once you've started down that route.  Consider Sharon Street's epistemic argument against moral realism, which we might reconstruct as follows:

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!