Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three ways of rejecting moral intutions

People often assume that there's a basic difference in philosophical-methodological temperament between (say) utilitarians and "common-sense" deontologists.  Deontologists, it is said, feel strongly constrained by their intuitions about particular cases, whereas utilitarians are more wedded to theoretical virtues of simplicity and parsimony, and hence are willing to endorse their theory despite its counterintuitive implications.

I'm somewhat resistant to this characterization.  My own (roughly) utilitarian views are, I think, more driven by intuition than by concern for parsimony or the like.  (I don't think that parsimony really counts for very much at all in philosophy.  Though avoiding ad hoc or unmotivated distinctions certainly does.)  I think it's important to accommodate common sense, though this needn't involve just taking common sense at face value.  Thinking more about this, I figure there are three importantly different ways of rejecting a prima facie intuition that goes against your view.  In order of decreasing palatability, they are:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Moral Theories and Fittingness Implications

A very common initial response to my interest in character/"fittingness"-based objections to consequentialism is to question whether consequentialism has any implications for fitting attitudes or character at all (and if not, then a fortiori it doesn't have any troublesome implications). For example, I typically introduce "fittingness" talk in terms of what’s rationally warranted from the “point of view” of a moral theory, but you might well wonder whether moral theories are really the sorts of things that can have points of view.

I have two broad replies to this line of concern.  My first (and more ambitious) response is to try to make the case that moral theories do have positive fittingness implications.  But I also have a more conciliatory backup option in case this fails.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Procreative Externalities (and bad moral advice) revisited

There's an interesting podcast with ethicist Travis Rieder (ht: Daily Nous) discussing the ethics of having kids in light of climate change.  Rieder suggests that it's morally problematic to have children at all, and probably out of bounds to have more than one, given the immense "carbon footprint" of the decision (especially in the US).  This one decision, after all, can be expected to make more of a difference than everything else in your life combined (especially once you build in the likelihood that your child will themselves, at some point down the line, have further children of their own).  At one point they mention estimates that a lifetime of recycling saves 19 tons (iirc) of CO2-equivalent, whereas the long-term legacy of reproducing is estimated at 9000 tons.

In line with my previous post on the topic, there are two main points I'd like to highlight in response.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Basic Needs and Basic Rights

Occasionally I see people being outraged about the idea of putting a market price on everyday water usage (see here for background on a perennial example involving Nestle).  The idea seems to be that since water is a basic need, so we should have a basic right to its free provision.  This seems a pretty bad inference in general -- food is also a basic need, after all, and it seems unlikely that its centralized provision would do better than current food markets.  The heart of the problem, I think, rests on a misunderstanding of the proper relation between basic needs and rights. (Well, that and economic illiteracy.)

Compare two alternatives:
(1) A direct right to the (free) provision of some good (e.g. water) for all.
(2) A right to an institutional framework that secures, as well as possible, reliable access for all to the good in question.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Beyond lip service: betting for beliefs, donating for values

"Talk is cheap."  So we're told to "put our money where our mouth is," to ensure intellectual integrity.  On the (esp. econ) blogs I read, this principle is most commonly applied to beliefs: Alex Tabarrok writes that "a bet is a tax on bullshit".  Bryan Caplan respects the loser of a bet as having "far more honor than the mass of [people] who live by loose and idle talk."

Part of what's so challenging about effective altruism, I think, is that it extends the principle to our values. (Another part is that many people don't like ranking the sacred.  But it's related: both stem from the demand to take values seriously, and move beyond cheap talk.)  Interestingly, it's a challenge that applies more or less whatever our values are.  If we really care about X, for any X, why aren't we investing more of our resources (time, money, or whatever) into X, when effective opportunities present themselves (or into searching for effective opportunities in the meantime)?  The honest answer, I guess, is that we often don't really care about these things as much as we'd like to think we do.  But we surely do often care at least some, and then it may just be a kind of habitual inertia that prevents us from doing more.  The challenge from EA -- to put our values into practice -- might then prompt us to bring our behaviour more into line with our reflectively-endorsed values. (Or so I hope!)

Some possible examples:

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.