Saturday, March 06, 2021

Constructive vs Dismissive Objections

It's worth distinguishing two very different ways of presenting an objection, and the two associated dialectical roles that an objection can play.

(1) Constructive objections serve the role of creating a dialectical opening, posing a challenge to which the target is invited to respond.  Questions like: "How would your view deal with X?" or "How much of a problem do you think Y poses for your view?" are paradigmatically constructive objections, as I'm using the term here.  A key feature of constructive objections is that they are not presented as presumptively decisive; if anything, the opposite might be the case: the critic may well presume that their target has a good response available, and they're curious to learn what it is.

(2) Dismissive objections, by contrast, aim to shut down the dialectic, demonstrating that the target view is hopeless and that no further time should be wasted discussing it.  They may typically take the form of statements rather than (genuine, non-rhetorical) questions.  By their nature, dismissive objections are presented as presumptively decisive, though of course the critic need not be dogmatic about this: while expecting that the target has no good response, they should still remain open to being surprised.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Guest Post: The Problem of Large Distances in Value Holism

My thanks to long-time reader Evan Dawson-Baglien for contributing the following guest post on 'The Problem of Large Distances in Value Holism':

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Value holism in population ethics appeals to a number of strong moral intuitions that human beings possess. By allowing one to reject the principle of Mere Addition, it in turn allows one to reject the Repugnant Conclusion. It also allows rejection of smaller-scale versions of the Repugnant Conclusion which are perhaps even more repugnant, such as the idea that it is morally neutral to kill someone and replace them with a new person whose life will contain the same amount of utility as the first person’s remaining years.  However, value holism also conflicts with strong intuitions about the relevance of distant events to the creation of new people.  It seems strange to say that we need to have fewer children if we somehow discovered that there was a utopia beyond the light cone of our universe, or that the correctness of the Many Worlds Theory of quantum mechanics might have some bearing on the question in either direction.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Most Important Thing in the World

Sometimes we may dismiss a problem as "not the most important thing in the world".  Which raises the (surprisingly neglected!) question: what is, literally, the most important thing in the world?

In 'The Case for Strong Long-Termism', Greaves & MacAskill argue that the correct answer is: improving the long-run future. I'll try to summarize some of the core considerations here (with any flaws in the exposition being my own), but interested readers should of course check out the full paper for all the details.

First note that the near term -- the next hundred years, say -- is a vanishingly tiny proportion of all time, and contains an even tinier proportion of all the valuable entities (e.g. sentient lives) that could potentially exist (if we don't wipe ourselves out first).  It would seem to follow, on almost any plausible population axiology (whether 'total', 'average', or anything in-between -- so long as it does not intrinsically discount the value of future lives relative to current ones), that the overall value of the world will be determined almost entirely by the (quantity and) quality of far-future lives.  All of us existing today are, by comparison, a single speck of dust in the desert.  We matter immensely, of course, but no more than any other speck, and there are an awful lot more of them, in aggregate, than there are of us.

So if there's anything we can feasibly do to improve the trajectory of the long-run future, in expectation, the value of doing so seems likely to swamp every other possible consideration.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Against Anti-Beneficent Paternalism

In a previous post, I argued that "undue inducement" worries are typically deeply misguided, and that banning good compensation is contrary to the interests of the very people that it's intended to help.  In this post, I want to raise a different objection: that even if allowing and/or incentivizing beneficent actions (such as kidney donation, or challenge trial participation) would "induce" some people to perform beneficent acts that they might later regret (or that they wouldn't have agreed to if thinking more clearly), it may nonetheless be the case that banning this would be morally even worse.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Parochialism of Metaethical Naturalism

I've previously suggested that naturalism can't account for substantive boundary disputes (and I mean to turn that into a proper paper sometime soon).  But as I've been working on my Moral 2-Dism paper I've found another sense in which metaethical naturalism entails a troubling kind of parochialism.  It's this: to avoid the Open Question Argument, naturalists now hold that there is an a posteriori identity between certain moral and natural properties (on the model of water and H2O).  This entails that moral terms are 2-D asymmetric, i.e. have differing primary and secondary intensions.  This in turn means that what our moral terms pick out at a world may differ depending on whether we consider the world 'as actual' or 'as counterfactual'. But this is objectionably parochial: (our assessments of) the moral facts should not differ depending on our location in modal space.

The Absurdity of "Undue Inducement"

Have you heard that it's "unethical" to pay people for janitorial work?  After all, the poor have greater need of money, and so would be more likely than the rich to take up such an offer.  To protect them from this "undue inducement", we should outlaw payment for janitorial work, and hope that enough (preferably middle-class) folks volunteer in their stead that we aren't wallowing in filth.  Sure, we can predict that things will be a bit filthier as a result, but it's worth this social cost to protect the poor from janitorial jobs.  I'm sure that our current janitors would appreciate being put out of work, right?

Friday, January 29, 2021

There's No Such Thing as "Following the Science"

Ezra Klein quotes a Harvard epidemiologist's criticism of the FDA for blocking rapid at-home Covid tests: "They are inadvertently killing people by not following the science."

I agree with the spirit of the criticism (and was heartened to read that Biden’s surgeon general nominee agrees that the FDA has been "too conservative"), but it's worth clarifying that the FDA's failure here is fundamentally ethical, not scientific.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Risk of Excessive Conservatism

In 'Lessons from the Pandemic', I summarized what I took to be some of the biggest mistakes of the pandemic response, and tried to give a sense of the scale of the potential damage done, along with some concrete suggestions for how we might have done vastly better.  Some readers (e.g. here) seemed of the opinion that only those with "authority" should express such opinions, which I obviously disagree with.  But to better help such readers, it might be helpful to bracket any particular empirical details or examples and focus instead on the most general overarching claim of my post: that excessive conservatism risks immense harm in a pandemic.

One doesn't need a medical degree to see that this more modest (yet still important) claim is true.  For it does not require us to establish that some unconventional pandemic policy truly would be much better; it suffices to note that an unconventional pandemic policy easily could be much better -- i.e., there's a non-trivial probability of this -- and since excessive conservatism would dismiss such unconventional proposals out of hand, such conservatism poses a significant risk of immense harm.  Since it is worth guarding against significant risks of immense harm, it is worth guarding against excessive conservatism in a pandemic. 

To turn this into a more pointed critique of the medical/policy establishment (and elite public opinion), we can simply observe that there is no evidence that said establishment (or elite opinion) is suitably aware of this risk, or that they have taken suitable steps to guard against excessive conservatism.  Quite the opposite, I think: the publicly-available evidence (including establishment pronouncements, presented justifications, and policy decisions) all give off the strong appearance of extreme conservatism.  And of course we have background knowledge that institutions tend to be conservative, and that conventional medical ethics in particular is extremely conservative -- as evidenced by opposition to utilitarian policies like kidney markets.  So we should all go into a pandemic with a moderately high prior for the view that mainstream institutions and opinion are likely to be excessively conservative.  What I'm trying to do is to draw attention to how grave a risk this is, especially in a pandemic.

Is it conceivable that their conservatism is all for the best in the end?  Sure, it's possible.  Is that any kind of problem for my critique?  No, of course not.  We should press for clear cost-benefit analysis from pandemic policy-makers even if it turns out that such improved epistemic procedures would -- remarkably -- yield the same substantive policies at the end of the day.  For there is at least a non-trivial chance that we could do much, much better.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Lessons from the Pandemic

It's generally recognized that our (American) response to the Covid-19 pandemic was disastrous. But I think far fewer appreciate the full scale of the disaster, or the most significant causal levers by which the worst effects could have been avoided.  (Yes, Trump was bad.  But his public health disinformation and politicization of masking -- while obviously bad -- may prove relatively trivial compared to the mammoth failings of our public health institutions and medical establishment.)  Much of the pandemic's harm could have been mitigated had our institutions been properly guided by the most basic norms of cost-benefit analysis.  Consider:

Epistemic Calibration Bias and Blame-Aversion

People typically treat having an importantly false belief as much more problematic than failing to have an importantly true belief.  They're more concerned about being over-confident than being under-confident in their credences.  But why?  Is such an epistemic asymmetry warranted?

I'm dubious.  The ideal is to be epistemically well-calibrated: to have just the degree of confidence in an important proposition that is warranted by your evidence, such that in the long run exactly X% of your "X% confident" beliefs turn out to be true -- no more and no less.  Moreover, it seems to me that we should be equally concerned about miscalibration in either direction.  If we are underconfident (or withhold judgment entirely) when our evidence strongly supports some important truth, that's just as bad, epistemically speaking, as being correspondingly overconfident.