Sunday, April 25, 2010

Huemer's Self-Defeat Argument

Michael Huemer forcefully advocates Phenomenal Conservatism (PC), the view that intuitive 'seemings' are prima facie justified. That is: "If it seems to S that P, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some justification for believing that P." (We should further add that, for Huemer, any possible defeaters must themselves be grounded in appearances.) He takes the following "self defeat argument" [quoted from our seminar handout] to rule out all competing views:
1. (Almost) all beliefs are based on appearances. (Exceptions: faith, self-deception.)
2. A belief is justified only if it is based on something that is a source of justification.
3. Therefore, there are justified beliefs only if appearances are sometimes a source of justification. (From 1, 2.) (Faith and self-deception are obviously not sources of justification.)
4. If PC is false, then appearances are never a source of justification.
5. So if PC is false, then no belief is justified. (From 3, 4.)
6. So no one is justified in believing any alternative theory to PC. (From 5.)

I'm not sure that (6) follows from (5). Some philosophers who either haven't seen or aren't convinced by Huemer's argument may find that some alternative theory X seems right to them, and if PC is true then this undefeated appearance can justify their belief in X. But never mind that: the conclusion in (5) is strong enough to establish PC (just tollens on the further premise that some beliefs are justified).

A more serious flaw, I think, is premise 4.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Increasingly Subjective 'Oughts'

Consider the following variant on Parfit's Mineshafts case. Suppose ten lives are in danger, and an agent is presented with five options (A - E), with the following information. Exactly one of options A and B will save all ten, while the other will cause all ten to die, and the agent has no way to discover which is which. Option C is guaranteed to save nine and kill one. Option D is guaranteed to save one and kill nine. Option E is guaranteed to save five and kill five.

I take it to be clear that the agent ought to opt for the safe option C, so as to save 9/10 lives. The standard concept of 'ought' (the one that's relevant to deliberation, etc.) is thus evidence-sensitive. We can stipulate a technical usage according to which the agent 'objectively ought' to choose option A (supposing that that is the one that will actually save all ten lives), but that doesn't seem as central as the evidence-sensitive 'ought'.

Let me add some further details to the case. Suppose that our agent was raised to believe that happy lives are bad whereas pain and death are good. (He finds this just as subjectively 'obvious'-seeming as we find the opposite claims.) Should this affect how we are to evaluate the agent's options? I'm inclined to think not. The agent should (in the standard, evidence-sensitive sense) still choose option C, but because he's so morally misguided he likely won't realize this. His messed up upbringing might excuse his error when he instead chooses D, but it sure doesn't justify choosing to bring about eight extra deaths.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Outsourcing Lectures

Interesting stuff in the NYT:
Some imagine a situation in which the bulk of introductory course materials are online, as videos or interactive environments; students engage with the material when convenient and show up only for smaller seminars. “In an on-demand environment, they’re thinking, ‘Do we really need to show up face to face at 8 a.m. with 500 other students to take Psychology 101?’ ” Mr. Schonfeld says. [...]

Mr. Schonfeld sees still more potential in “unbundling” the four elements of educating: design of a course, delivery of that course, delivery of credit and delivery of a degree. “Traditionally, they’ve all lived in the same institutional setting.” Must all four continue to live together, or can one or more be outsourced?

Marquis on Contraception and Identifying Victims

Marquis' (1989) 'Why Abortion is Immoral' famously argues that abortion deprives the fetus of a "future like ours". Towards the end of the paper, he argues that "nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception" (p.201). I think this view is defensible, but not for the reasons he suggests.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Birthday Gifts - GiveWell

It's my birthday tomorrow, and if any readers are feeling in a generous mood, please consider donating a little something to GiveWell [through Facebook causes -- recommended to help promote philanthropic social norms -- or directly]. As I previously wrote of meta-charities: "rather than trying to directly help the less fortunate, we would do better to serve as a 'catalyst' that boosts the effectiveness of others' giving."

You can learn more about GiveWell's approach at their (always interesting) blog, now linked from my blogroll.

Update: $200 raised -- thanks all!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Maybe it's an April Fools Joke?

Not sure how else a review like this could get published in NDPR:
In philosophy, the nonidentity problem has become the leading paradigm. In the succession of paradigms, as described by Thomas S. Kuhn, it is the "normal science" of today. In this anthology, virtually none of the articles explicitly labels the nonidentity problem as esoteric, far-fetched, or generally outlandish. What a pity. It would have benefited from such a radically sceptical view.

The nonidentity problem, if it were relevant, would be of utmost importance for moral judgements in areas such as climate change or reparations, and philosophers have remarked on that. Why is it, then, that outside philosophy there is no talk about the nonidentity problem at all? [...] Are non-philosphers [sic] just too dumb to recognize the problem or are Roberts and Wassermann misled when they claim that the problem is broad and deep?

After this false dichotomy, the reviewers (Jörg Chet Tremmel and Ned Chambers) go on to describe their two "objections" to taking the non-identity problem seriously. The first is reincarnation:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dorr on Modal Realism

Lewis famously identified 'possible worlds' with spatiotemporally isolated regions (call them 'Lewis-worlds'). But, as Cian Dorr points out in 'How to be a Modal Realist', the view is much improved by jettisoning this claim. There doesn't seem any principled reason for taking spatiotemporal boundaries to be of any fundamental modal significance (and it makes it harder for Lewis to accommodate extra-worldly modal facts, like "possibly, there are at least two Lewis-worlds"). Instead, the best version of the view goes something like this:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Korsgaard's "Inquiring Murderer" problem

Suppose a Nazi knocks at your door, asking whether the fellow peeking out of your upstairs window is a Jew. (He is.) Is it okay to lie to such inquiring murderers? Kant notoriously insisted that you must never lie. Korsgaard, recognizing the absurdity of this claim, tries to show that a Kantian may lie to deceivers (compatibly with the Formula of Universal Law). But, as we'll see, this only helps with some versions of the 'inquiring murderer' case. There's an important class of cases where Korsgaard seems committed to the same absurd response as Kant.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Jobs for Philosophizing

Tuomas writes:
[I]f all you care about is getting a high paid position at a top university in the US, then listen to Leiter. But if you’re looking to do philosophy, the kind of philosophy that you want to do, then you’d better think in terms of the best possible supervisor for you rather than the placement record of the program.

Maybe I'm misreading him, but here Tuomas seems to be focusing exclusively on doing philosophy during grad school. This seems short-sighted: many of us are looking to do philosophy, not just for five years, but for the rest of our lives. Getting a job at a "top university" (or top liberal arts college) is instrumental to doing philosophy. The truly dedicated may still find time to do research on top of a 4/4+ teaching load, or even a non-academic job, but it's gotta be more difficult that way.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

In Defense of (some) Free Riding

Randy Cohen defends the commonsense view that if you've paid for a book, it's okay to illegally download a digital version of it:
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag the technology. Thus you’ve violated the publishing company’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.

I think this doesn't go far enough. Really, piracy (or 'free riding' generally) is only wrong if you would otherwise have paid for it. If you'd sooner go without than shell out the demanded price for a non-rival good, then you may as well free ride -- it's better for some (namely, you) and worse for no-one. Don't get me wrong: it's important that those who find the good worth the price do pay, so that there's incentive to provide such goods in the first place. It's merely those who wouldn't pay anyway who can, on this view, permissibly free-ride.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Anti-Consequentialism and Axiological Refinements

Many common objections to utilitarianism -- e.g. cases involving unexperienced harms or sadistic majorities -- are really objections to a particular theory of the good, rather than to the core idea that we ought to promote the impartial good. So when faced with such objections, it's worth asking not just whether the action seems wrong, but whether the outcome is really desirable in the first place. If not, the consequentialist has a simple response: the act is indeed wrong, precisely because it doesn't maximize what's (genuinely) good.