Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hallucination, Virtual Reality, and Reality

Some consider virtual reality to be akin to mere hallucination, whereas others see it as potentially on a par with physical reality. Both seem possible to me (depending on the precise nature of the VR we're imagining), so let's try to clarify matters by drawing some distinctions. First, we can consider the epistemic dimension of whether you remain aware (on some level) that you're in a virtual world, or if the VR is all-consuming. More importantly, I think we can identify variation along a metaphysical dimension of sorts, as per the following three alternatives:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Marginally Beneficial Rule-breaking

Most everyone agrees that you should break the rules if that's the only way to avoid disaster. But it seems intuitively objectionable that Act Consequentialism tells us to (say) break a promise whenever doing so would be even the slightest bit better than keeping it. Well, maybe. I agree that there's something troubling about the agent who breaks a promise the moment it seems like there's something (marginally) better he could do. But such an agent is not, I will argue, what a competent act consequentialist would look like.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reasons and Rule Consequentialism

It can be useful to formulate moral theories in terms of their implications for normative reasons, since this brings into view their substantive commitments. For example, I recently argued that this methodology allows us to deflate global consequentialism into mere act consequentialism. I now want to see what it can tell us about rule consequentialism.

Rule Consequentialism and Changing Circumstances

Suppose an evil demon rules over a world for the first of two epochs. In this first epoch, he tortures anyone who fails to internalize a stringent rule requiring them (unconditionally) to greet others by punching them in the guts. (To be clear, the demon doesn't mind if by some psychological fluke this disposition fails to manifest in action. He just wants to make sure that everyone has the wicked disposition.) In the second epoch, the demon leaves the people to their own devices. Then, at the end of the second epoch, the world will end. These facts are common knowledge. What should the people do?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Desirable vs. Rationality-Enhancing Dispositions

We previously noted that dispositions (e.g. internalized rules) can have other consequences besides producing downstream acts in the agent herself. (In particular, other agents might harm or reward you directly on the basis of whether you possess some disposition.) This suggests that we can distinguish (i) dispositions that have high expected value, all things considered, and (ii) dispositions that have high expected value in respect of the downstream actions they'll tend to produce. We can call the former class of dispositions 'desirable', and the latter 'rationality-enhancing' (on the assumption that rational actions are those that maximize expected value).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Foot on Courageous Wrongdoers

We might think of words such as ‘courage’ as naming characteristics of human beings in respect of a certain power, as words such as ‘poison’ and ‘solvent’ and ‘corrosive’ so name the properties of physical things. The power to which virtue-words are so related is the power of producing good action, and good desires. But just as poisons, solvents and corrosives do not always operate characteristically, so it could be with virtues. If P (say arsenic) is a poison it does not follow that P acts as a poison wherever it is found. It is quite natural to say on occasion ‘P does not act as a poison here’ though P is a poison and it is P that is acting here. Similarly courage is not operating as a virtue when the murderer turns his courage, which is a virtue, to bad ends. Not surprisingly the resistance that some of us registered was not to the expression ‘the courage of the murderer’ or to the assertion that what he did ‘took courage’ but rather to the description of that action as an act of courage or a courageous act. It is not that the action could not be so described, but that the fact that courage does not here have its characteristic operation is a reason for finding the description strange.

-- Philippa Foot, 'Virtues and Vices', p.16.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Defective Deliberateness

Consequentialism tells us that the correct answer to the question what to do is simply whatever's best. Critics object that attempts to calculate what's best often turn out badly. This is often taken to imply that consequentialism is self-effacing: it tells us to ignore its guidance, and forget that it is true. But this is too quick. While it's always an empirical possibility that it'd be most rational to induce irrationality in ourselves, it's less clear that our ordinary non-calculative dispositions are examples of this. That is, I would question whether they must be thought of as manifestations of irrationality (anti-consequentialism).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Acts and Meta-Acts

In 'Can Consequentialism Cover Everything?', Bart Streumer claims that according to consequentialism "there is no normatively significant difference between performing an act and bringing it about that an act is performed." This isn't quite right. It would be more accurate to say that the pro tanto reasons for and against φ-ing count equally for or against bringing it about that one φs. But we must leave open the possibility of the latter ("meta") action being influenced by other reasons in addition. After all, this act may have additional consequences besides just the consequences of the downstream act of φ-ing, for there's no guarantee that all else is equal between the two acts in question.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Reasons Deflate Global Consequentialism

I'm beginning to think that global consequentialism isn't really a distinctive position in its own right. It may be better understood simply as act consequentialism that takes care to not make straightforwardly false claims about the consequential value of other evaluands (like rules, motives, etc.). Global consequentialists recognize that these other evaluands might bring about good or bad consequences by "external means" other than the agent's own downstream actions. But the denial of this is not anything so principled as an opposing position. It's just an oversight.

Here's the structure of my argument. I take as a premise the assumption that substantive normative claims must fundamentally concern normative reasons (of one kind or another). The core of my argument thus hinges on identifying what categories of practical reasons there are, about which consequentialist theories may then make substantive claims. When we do this, I argue, we find that there is nothing more for global consequentialism to be besides act consequentialism that avoids silly oversights.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Painless Meat and Anthropomorphic Objections

Discussed here (via Robin):
Might “pain-free” be the next sticker slapped onto a rump roast? … Progress in neuroscience and genetics in recent years makes it a very real possibility. …

One objection to the idea of knocking out pain in livestock is that it could mean they put themselves in harm’s way...

But why would such merely physical "harm" matter?

Chancy Decisions and Actualist Obligations

More from Jackson & Pargetter (1986):
Actualism implies that Procrastinate ought to say no, and that he ought to say yes and then write. It is impossible to do both. It seems we have a refutation of Actualism.

However, Actualism does make it possible for agents, including Procrastinate, to do everything they ought. To see this we need to bear two facts in mind: (a) the reason Procrastinate ought to say no is that even were Procrastinate to say yes, he would not write, and (b) the reason Procrastinate ought to say yes and then write is in part that Procrastinate can say yes and then write. Suppose Procrastinate did just this; then it would be false that were he to say yes, he would not write -- the subjunctive conditional would have a true antecedent and a false consequent -- but then it would be false that Procrastinate ought to say no. [...] And he would in this case do all that he ought. [p.242]

That's fine as far as it goes. But so far we have a very limited theory: it tells us only what we objectively ought to do when there are determinate counterfactuals. The next step is to relax one of these assumptions, and so extend the Actualist theory to cover (epistemic or metaphysical) chanciness.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Stakes of the Actualism-Possibilism Dispute

I should say "disputes", since the issue of evaluating options is importantly different from that of selecting options. As Jackson & Pargetter put it in their seminal 1986 paper, 'Oughts, Options, and Actualism':
There are two matters that need to be borne in mind when considering what ought to be done in terms of the option approach. One is the evaluation of options. We have urged the plausibility of evaluating options in terms of what agents would do were they to adopt them. That is Actualism. The other matter is how to select the right set of options. That depends on exactly which question you want the answer to. If you want the answer for some action as to whether an agent ought to do it, look at the set consisting of the action and what the agent would do instead; if you want the answer as to what an agent ought to do at or during some time, look at all the maximally relevantly specific actions possible at or during that time. (p.255)

I whole-heartedly agree with their Actualism, for reasons articulated in my post 'Ignoring Reality Ain't So Ideal Either'. When possibilists say that Professor Procrastinate ought to agree to review the paper (since he could, even though he actually won't, do the job on time) they are making a substantive error in their evaluation of the token decision that Prof. P. faces at this time.

I have more difficulty grasping the point of the 'selection' debate.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Satisficing and Salience

Michael Stocker (Plural and Conflicting Values, p.321) writes:
Maximizers hold that the absence of any attainable good is, as such, bad, and that a life that lacks such a good is therefore lacking. I disagree. One central reason for my disagreement stems from the moral psychological import of regretting the absence or lack of any and every attainable good. This regret is a central characterizing feature of narcissistic, grandiose, and other defective selves. It is also characteristic of those who are too hard on themselves, who are too driven and too perfectionistic.

This doesn't strike me as a good (truth-indicative) reason to disagree with the Maximizer. It may be bad, or even in a sense inappropriate ("defective"), to regret every little regrettable thing. But those things may be regrettable all the same.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Resolutions and Rational Bootstrapping

The best rules (or dispositions) and the best actions may come apart in theory. Fortunately, a reflective agent may be able to limit the damage by means of what Ainslie (1975) calls "private side bets".

Consider Kavka's toxin puzzle. Many philosophers think that a rational person couldn't win the prize, because by the next day they would no longer have any reason to drink the toxin -- and, recognizing this, they will be presently unable to intend to so act. To be successful in situations like this, agents require the internal power to 'bootstrap' additional reasons into existence. (Note that the terms of the game specify that you're not allowed to employ external incentives to win the prize. So you can't make a bet with anyone else that would give you additional reason to follow through and drink the toxin.) Intuitively, the solution seems to be that you should just make a resolute commitment - a promise to yourself - to drink the toxin. The hope is that this internal act of self-promising will provide you with a new reason - an internal incentive - to go ahead and drink the toxin, thus allowing you to intend this action and to reap the rewards.

Scanlon on Rational Revision

What's the best way to introduce undergrads to the idea that one can reason about ethical questions? Suggestions welcome. In the meantime, here's a nice passage from Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other (pp.66-67):

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Open Thread: critic's edition

As before:
Sometimes, when reading a blog, you may get the feeling that the blogger's posts are infused by a fundamentally misguided assumption. But such deep-rooted disagreements can't typically be raised within the scope of any particular post. So consider this open thread an invitation. Do you find yourself raising an eyebrow at some of my basic presuppositions? Any disagreements that run so deep you wouldn't even know where to start? Try here!

I'd especially like to invite readers to offer two kinds of criticism:
(i) Identification of inconsistencies or other mistakes which you think I should (perhaps after a bit of argument) be able to recognize as such.
(ii) Intractable disagreements -- where we just have radically different starting points, such that you doubt you could bring me to agree with you even after protracted argument.

The first kind would probably be more useful to me, but even the second could be interesting.

Oh, and it's an open thread, so you're also welcome to discuss anything else (philosophy or blog-related) you like.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Are there Virtues of Ignorance?

Julia Driver argues that modesty essentially involves ignorance (underestimation) of one's self-worth. Intuitively, modesty is a virtue. So this would count against traditional accounts of virtue (as involving moral perception or an internal orientation towards the good), and in favour of her instrumental account. But there are reasons to doubt whether modesty essentially involves ignorance after all.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

What is Virtue?

I'm not asking for a list here, but rather something more like a partial conceptual analysis: what is at stake when philosophers argue about virtues? What are they arguing about?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

"Sitemaps" for Blogger

Amanda at Blogger Buster has a useful guide on 'How to Create a Sitemap with Google Feed Control'. This lets you create a page that automatically lists all the posts that are categorized under various 'labels'. (It doesn't include the full posts -- just a "table of contents" -- so is much easier to navigate than Blogger's default label pages.) I've so far set up four such lists:
(1) Ethics Sitemap (for my various ethics and political theory categories)
(2) LEMMing Sitemap - Language, Epistemology, Metaphysics and Mind
(3) Useful Lists of Blog Posts - for higher-order labels like "favourite posts"
(4) Full Sitemap -- all my categorized posts on one page.


... here for the 3 Quarks Daily 2009 philosophy prize. (The top 20 entries by vote will make it through to the final round, to be judged by Dan Dennett.)

I submitted my entry on 'Reflecting on Relativism', which I hope represents an appropriate balance between substantive argument and general accessibility. See here for links to the other nominees.