Monday, February 29, 2016

Student Spotlight: Intrinsically Irrational Instrumental Desires

I had always assumed that only ultimate ends, or telic / final / non-instrumental desires, could be intrinsically irrational.  (Think Future Tuesday Indifference.)  Instrumental desires, by contrast, may happen to be irrational if based on a false and irrational means-end belief, but then the problem is extrinsic to the desire itself -- the problem instead lies with the false belief, and one could presumably imagine circumstances in which the means-end belief would be true, thus making the instrumental desire in question a perfectly reasonable way of achieving one's goals.

Or so I assumed. (And I think it's a fairly common assumption.)

University of York undergraduate philosophy student Lorin Thompson (mentioned here with permission) drew my attention to an interesting class of counterexamples.  We can obtain intrinsically irrational instrumental desires if we consider instrumental desires that are essentially self-defeating.  His example is the "desire to think of a number, in order to not think of a number (simultaneously)."  The implicit means-end belief -- that one can achieve avoiding thinking of a number, by means of thinking of a number -- is logically incoherent, and the resulting instrumental desire is thus intrinsically (rather than merely extrinsically) irrational.

It's a cool case!  At the very least, I'll need to re-write my essay question for future years to ask something like whether there are "unworthy" ultimate ends rather than just "intrinsically irrational desires", as it now turns out that even Humean subjectivists should make room for the latter.

Does anyone know whether such cases have been discussed before, or could it potentially be a new contribution to the literature if Lorin were to write up his paper for an academic journal?

Friday, February 26, 2016

7 Things Everyone Should Know about Philosophy

Inspired by the ignorance of Bill Nye the science guy...

Some things I wish everyone know about philosophy:

(1) Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" does not imply that your existence depends upon your thinking.  It is merely intended to show that a thinker cannot coherently doubt their own existence.

My Giving Game results

In my Effective Altruism class this past week I've run a "giving game", getting the students, in small groups, to discuss & decide where to donate £100 of my money.  It was quite interesting.

One potential downside of requiring the decisions to be made by consensus in small groups (of three or four students each) was that this ended up creating a bit of a bias towards conservative / "safe" choices from GiveWell's top charities, rather than more speculative (but potentially high upside) options about which there were disagreements within the group.  For example, one group had members initially supporting animal welfare, climate change mitigation, and criminal justice reform, but since they couldn't resolve these disagreements in the hour allotted for discussion and debate, they ended up agreeing to fund a deworming charity instead.  Another student favoured existential risk reduction, but again could not reach consensus on this within their group.

If I do this again in future years, I might try to think of an alternative way of implementing the giving game to allow the students a bit more free reign. E.g., one option would be to give each student £50 (or whatever) that they can allocate individually, or perhaps with the additional requirement that they must find / convince at least one other student in the class to share their choice of charity (to encourage argument and discussion).  Discussion could then proceed in small groups of rotating membership (rather than having fixed groups as we did this year).  Something I'll think about, anyway.

As for the verdicts, following my students' directions, I have just donated:
* £200 to the Against Malaria Foundation,
* £200 to GiveDirectly,
* £100 to each of SCI and Deworm the World,
* £100 to Project Healthy Children,
* £100 to Cool Earth,
* £100 to Animal Equality, and
* £100 to Basic Needs (an international mental health charity).

Most of these donations got a further 25% boost from UK Gift Aid; for UK taxpayers, donating via the GWWC Trust is very helpful in this respect!

What charities do you consider most effective?  Comments / suggestions welcome!  (I'm quite partial to meta-charities, myself...)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Opposite Day: "Charity begins at home" edition

It's been almost a decade since my evil twin Ricardo last posted on this blog. I invite him back today to share a horribly misguided speech that he recently gave as part of a debate in St Andrews on the topic 'Charity begins at home'. (They needed someone to defend that awful claim, and I wasn't entirely comfortable about it myself, so sent along my evil twin to do the job. Here's what he came up with...)