Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: My Web of Beliefs

It's been a busy year, and looking back I realize that I haven't written half as many blog posts as in previous years. (Though I have been reading a lot more work by other philosophers. PhilPapers makes it much easier to keep track of journals and find new online articles to read, and my Kindle's e-ink renders such electronic documents a pleasure to read.) In any case, in this post I'll try to pick out some highlights from what I have written, so as to track my philosophical development. [Cf. 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.] Like much blogging, this is primarily an exercise in self-indulgence, but I hope the compilation of links may also prove to be of interest to some (e.g. new or irregular) readers...

Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy

In First Principles and False "Primafication" I warn against the tendency of some (esp. axiomatic libertarians) to mistake a general principle for a first principle. Manipulation and Rationality argues that "We should welcome 'interference' that serves to mitigate the stupidity caused by our natural biases, enabling us to make more rational decisions instead."

Elsewhere I discuss (Velleman's argument against) Making Suicide an Option; whether it's Unjust Discrimination to save the life of whoever has the greater quality-adjusted life-expectancy; whether Death Harms Non-Persons (with special reference to reductionism about personal identity across time); and when is The Worst Time to Die.

Ethics - most of my blogging was on this topic (unsurprisingly), so it might be worth identifying more specific sub-topics that I focused on.

Moral Methodology - The Importance of Implications argues that "instead of assessing what combination of words sounds natural to our ears (as if we were mere grammarians), we should be assessing the real content of the claim, as revealed by its philosophical (e.g. normative) implications." This search for substantive philosophical content was a common methodological theme driving my arguments this year, applied variously to claims about welfare (as in the above link), virtue, global consequentialism, and to (part of) the Actualism-Possibilism Dispute.

Reasons - 'Reasons-Talk and Fitting Attitudes' summarizes (and defends) my current views here (which have probably developed a fair bit, at least in their explicitness, over the year -- though in directions that were foreshadowed by older posts). Many of my examples listed in the previous section used 'fitting reasons' talk as a diagnostic test of substantive normative claims. Reasons and Rule Consequentialism, by contrast, uses reasons-talk to illuminate the structure of the moral theory. [See also my PEA Soup post on 'Analyzing Act, Rule, and Global Consequentialism'.]

Actualism/Possibilism in Non-Ideal Theory - an early post, Ignoring Reality Ain't So Ideal Either, showed that the present decisions of responsible moral agents need to take a realistic view of their moral failings and likely future behaviour, insofar as this is not within their present control. Chancy Decisions and Actualist Obligations further elaborated this core 'actualist' idea, which I then defended against some interesting but I think ultimately misguided objections from Doug Portmore's new manuscript-in-progress. I eventually converted Doug to my view in the course of our (very fruitful) discussion of Actualism and Complex Actions.

Welfare - 'Confusing Welfare and Happiness' diagnoses the errors in a paper arguing (rather poorly) for Welfare Hedonism. Stakes and Sakes explores a puzzle for the metaethical understanding of welfare in terms of what's desirable "for one's sake".

Objects of Ultimate Concern - I argue Against person-affecting views so as to defuse Person-Centered Objections to Value Holism. (This requires making Three (or Four) Distinctions in Goodness, rather than just the usual two.)

Moral responsibility - Culpable Ignorance and Double Blame explores some ideas about moral responsibility that I eventually develop into an argument against Rosen's MR skepticism.

Rational Akrasia discusses the central insight of Arpaly's book Unprincipled Virtue. On a more applied note, this helped me to see an important (neglected) distinction between Implicit Bias and Implicit Malice. (Though it must be noted that there are difficulties involved in clearly distinguishing Corrupt Minds from Honest Mistakes, or Psychological Inputs and Processes.) I also appreciated Arpaly's insistence on Disambiguating 'Autonomy'.

Consequentialist Agents - in preparing for my generals exam on this topic, I wrote a series of posts [Evaluating Character, Satisficing and Salience, Defective Deliberateness, Desirable vs. Rationality-Enhancing Dispositions, Marginally Beneficial Rule-breaking, and more to come...] culminating in my manifesto: 'Consequentialist Agents: Fittingness and Fortune', and my exploration of the relation between Sophisticated Consequentialism and Rationality Irrationality.

Other notable posts include: Against a Defense of Future Tuesday Indifference, my taxonomic post on Structures of Dynamic Desire (instrumental, conditional, etc.), The Mark of the Instrumental (on how to tell that, contra Keller, relationships are not of merely instrumental value), and my argument that Apparent 'Virtues of Ignorance' are better understood as virtues of salience.


Moral Principles, Objective Generalizations revisits an old hobby horse of mine: that we shouldn't think a view is relativistic just because the general principles admit of exceptions. Relativism and Genuine Disagreement then concedes some ground (but not too much) to MacFarlane's claim that truth-relativists can accommodate the phenomenon of genuine disagreement when linguistic relativists cannot. [See also 'The Deliberative Question'.]

Accommodating Common Sense explores some important methodological issues, especially concerning the relation of consequentialist moral theory to "common sense", and the relative unimportance of distinctively moral 'rightness' in comparison to the all-things-considered 'ought' of most reason.

Returning to more traditional metaethics, I suggest that Parfit's Triviality Objection (against metaethical naturalism) fails (though I ultimately agree with him that non-naturalism is a more satisfactory view). I also argue against Parfit on Epistemic and Practical Rationality. In particular, I argue (contra Parfit) that an epistemic mis-step can also render downstream practical "states" (i.e. desires or actions) liable to rational criticism.


This year I revisited such old favourite topics as Peer Disagreement, the epistemic priority of graded over all-out belief, and the essential irrationality of global skepticism.

A more novel move was to draw a certain distinction between Personal [non-ideal] vs. Objective [ideal] Justification (as seen, e.g., when one is reasonably misled about non-obvious truths of Reason).

Philosophical Data looks at whether there's any "neutral" way to settle what needs to be explained (a major sticking point between 'realists' and debunking 'skeptics' of various sorts). Reversing Metaphysical and Epistemic Priority examines when it's legitimate to reason from pre-theoretic 'knowledge' of a domain to conclusions about the domain of its alleged reduction basis, rather than vice versa. (E.g. For modal realists to conclude that there must be many concrete worlds, or for actual-outcome consequentialists to conclude that murdering Bob must have bad long-run consequences. Intuitively, the former example is okay but the latter isn't.)

Mind, Metaphysics, and Methodology

Hallucination, Virtual Reality, and Reality distinguishes various levels of 'virtual reality', arguing that some (but not all) would constitute genuine reality.

Turning now to methodology: I propose that the metaphor of 'meta-gaming' illuminates a class of common philosophical mistakes (e.g. Berkeley's "inconceivable" unconceived tree), as well as a more subtle mistake that can arise in attempts to understand the zombie argument. (See also Understanding (Zombie) Conceivability Arguments: Part I for some more common problems.) 'Imagining the Unseen' examines some related methodological problems in moral philosophy.

Finally, I brainstormed some examples of Philosophical Strategies and Misleading Philosophical Jargon -- readers are invited to add to either list.

Meta-Blogging and Technology

Do group blogs have an obligation to seek out female (or other 'minority') contributors? I offer my two cents (responding to Brian Weatherson) in Blog Diversity Obligations. The other big issue in "blogging ethics" this year was the malicious 'outing' of pseudonymous blogger Publius. I discuss the broader issue in Respecting Pseudonymity.

My list of favourite Browsing / Blogging Hacks are likely to be of use to anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet (don't miss the quick fix for slow-loading PDFs). Tech-savvy folks may also appreciate my unofficial RSS feed for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. (If you don't know what RSS is, and you regularly visit more than one or two websites, then you should drop everything and go here to learn more.) 'Read Anything on Kindle' offers a number of useful tips for getting the most out of your e-book reader.

Lastly, after questioning what the ideal media for philosophy would include, I look more closely at the pros and cons of Academic Blogging in particular.

Happy New Year!


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