Friday, September 24, 2021

Agency as a Force for Good

One fundamental reason for favouring consequentialism is the basic teleological intuition that the primary purpose of agency is to realize preferable outcomes.  If you have a choice between a better state of affairs and a worse one, it's very natural to think that the better state of affairs would be the better option to choose.

A slightly different way to put it is that if it would be good for something to happen, then it would be good to choose for it to happen.  Our agency is itself part of the natural world, after all, and while it is distinctive in being subject to moral evaluation -- misdirected exercises of agency may be wicked in a way that unfortunately directed lightning strikes are not -- it's far from clear why this should transform an otherwise desirable outcome into an undesirable one.  There's nothing obviously misdirected (let alone "wicked") about straightforwardly aiming at the good, after all.

Consequentialism thus fits with an appealing conception of agency as a force for good in the world. Left to its own devices, the world might just as easily drift into bad outcomes as good ones, but through our choices, we moral agents may deliberately steer it along better paths.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Helen interviewed on Idealism

In a rare online appearance, Helen is interviewed on Mind Chat by Philip Goff and Keith Frankish about her book-in-progress, The View From Everywhere: Realist Idealism Without God.

For highlights, see especially:

36:00 - Helen explains the basics of her novel form of idealism (and how it differs from Berkeley's).

53:45 - Why idealism is more plausible than you might have thought.

58:20 - How idealism enables a direct realist account of perception like no other.

1:56:42 - Why philosophy monographs should be followed up with a "for kids" version.

There's also a bunch of interesting meta-philosophical discussion throughout, reacting to Helen's explanation that she only has about 30% credence in idealism, and correspondingly aims not to convince others that it's true, but just that they should take it more seriously than they had previously.

Check out the full interview on YouTube.

Companies, Cities, and Carbon

This is terrible journalism:
While [donating $1 billion to protect forests] is certainly notable, Bezos’s commitment to protecting the environment serves as a stark reminder that much of his legacy and largely untaxed fortune was built by companies that have staggering carbon footprints. Amazon’s carbon emissions have grown every year since 2018, and last year alone, when global carbon emissions fell roughly 7 percent, Amazon’s carbon emissions grew 19 percent.

Economic activity is (for the time being) carbon-intensive. Amazon constitutes a huge and (especially during the pandemic) growing portion of the US economy. There's nothing said here to suggest that Amazon is unusually inefficient (from an environmental perspective); the author is really just complaining that Amazon is a large and growing part of the economy. (Horrors! They even had the gall to keep the economy going during the pandemic, when other companies did the green thing and shut down, bless their empty coffers...)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Discounting Illicit Benefits

In 'The Means and the Good' (Analysis, forthcoming) Matthew Oliver argues that pluralist consequentialists can accommodate intuitions against using others as a means, on the model of how they can accommodate intuitions about desert:

Just as it is bad for Emily to benefit from a stolen manuscript, it is bad for anyone to benefit from the use of another’s body or resources as a means. We can call this impersonal badness an impersonal-use-cost. As with a stolen manuscript, good results that are produced by using another person’s body or resources are heavily offset by an accompanying impersonal-use-cost.

By, in effect, discounting illicit benefits, we get the result that killing one to save five does more harm than good.  But we also get the result that killing one to prevent five others from each killing one to save five likewise does more harm than good.  (I think the most natural way to understand this is not to regard the second-order killing as in itself extra bad; the killing is just as intrinsically bad as any other death, the problem is instead that any good that would follow from it -- including the prevention of other wrongful killings -- gets massively discounted.)

It's a clever and interesting view!  But it seems really vulnerable to my argument against constraints, namely, that it unacceptably devalues the lives of the innocent victims who might be rescued.  Once an innocent person has been killed in an (even wrongful) attempt to save five, it really matters whether those five are ultimately saved or not!  So we shouldn't discount the value of their lives, no matter the illicit nature of the agent's act (however bad it may have been, that harm has already been done).  Otherwise, we would violate the moral datum that One Killing to Prevent Five >> Six Killings (Failed Prevention).

My reframing of the view in terms of "discounting illicit benefits" brings out the problem most starkly.  But I think it's just a verbal difference, and Oliver's original formulation in terms of an offsetting "use cost" (proportional to the illicit benefits) has the same implications.  Does that sound right?  Do correct me if I'm wrong...

Sunday, September 05, 2021

JCVI endorses Status Quo Bias

The UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recently recommended against vaccinating children under 16 against Covid, despite granting that "the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms." (Of course, aggregated over a subpopulation of millions, even "marginal" improvements in risk profile can result in several saved lives and scores or hundreds fewer hospitalizations.  And, as Deepti Gurdasani makes clear in this thread,* all the evidence should lead us to expect the "unknown" risks from Covid to outweigh those from the vaccine, so taking uncertainty into account should lead us to regard vaccination as all the more important.)

So what's behind the JCVI's verdict?  They are at least admirably transparent:

In providing its advice, JCVI also recognises that in relation to childhood immunisation programmes, the UK public places a higher relative value on safety compared to benefits.

It's important to be clear on what this really means. Note that this is not invoking any kind of philosophically defensible harm/benefit asymmetry.  (Many people think it's more important to reduce suffering than to promote happiness, but that's not what this is about.)  Vaccines aren't to make you happy. The "benefits" they provide are specifically safety benefits, i.e. against other health risks.  So what the JCVI is really saying is that they place higher value on protecting people from potential harms from vaccines than on protecting people from potential harms from COVID.

That is deeply messed up.

I just hope that greater philosophical clarity here will help people to see how messed up it is (and so change these institutions' values in future).  Every time some dopey bureaucrat claims they're prioritizing "vaccine safety" over "benefits", they need to be met with the response: No, you're prioritizing safety from vaccines over safety from COVID.

That's clearly indefensible.  We just need to make it clear that this is in fact what they are doing.  Don't let them obscure the reality of status quo risks behind a weasel-word like "benefits".  The choice isn't between "safety vs benefits", it's "safety [against lesser vaccine risks] vs safety [against greater covid risks]".

* = Thanks to Dan Fogal for the pointer.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Sauce for the Gander

The Texas anti-abortion law enshrines the idea that others' interests legally trump an individual's right to bodily integrity.  Of course, many would question whether a six-week embryo really has morally significant interests yet, but put such worries aside for now.  I'm interested in how broadly this principle should be applied.  For there are many needy individuals out whose moral status is much clearer than that of an embryo.  Just consider any dialysis patient, for example.  If bodily integrity is no longer sacrosanct, should we not pass laws mandating the removal of excess kidneys to help those in need?  Better yet, since most of us (I think) still regard violations of bodily integrity as a serious moral cost, perhaps one could instead mandate just that those who have mandated that others' bodily integrity be violated for another's sake should themselves be subject to mandatory kidney donation.  They've already implicitly consented to the principle at stake, after all.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Tendentious Terminology in Ethics

Ethical theorists may sometimes engage in "persuasive definition": re-defining an evocative phrase for their own purposes, in a way that their opponent will reasonably regard as inaccurate and unfair.  Two examples that always annoy me are "treating someone as a mere means" and the "separateness of persons".  Opponents of consequentialism all too often trot out these phrases to indicate deep flaws in consequentialism. But it only works for them if they first redefine these terms to mean something that has nothing to do with the literal meaning of treating someone as a mere means or the separateness of persons.  You might as well redefine "terrorist" to denote adherents of the opposing views, and then complain that your opponents are all terrorists.  It's dishonest rhetoric, and ought to be avoided.  In this post, I'll explain my two examples, and why I consider them so misleading.  Others are welcome to comment with other examples -- especially any that you think consequentialists may be guilty of!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Ethics of "Off-Label" Vaccinations for Kids

The WSJ reports that some parents hope to get their kids (under 12) vaccinated against Covid, as "the FDA’s approval generally means vaccines are eligible for off-label use, meaning beyond approved populations."  However, "the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have emphasized that the safest thing for this group of children is to wait for more data to be analyzed."

I'm curious whether it's really true that waiting is "safest", or whether these advisories ignore status quo risk. I don't have the empirical knowledge to answer what really would be safest here, but questions worth asking include:

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Why Constraints are Agent Neutral

My previous post argued that deontologists must prefer not to violate deontic constraints, or those constraints would lack normative significance. There is one last way that they might avoid my argument that constraints trivialize killing, namely, by holding that while the agent must prefer to abide by constraints, bystanders should prefer that the agent acts wrongly, killing one to save five.  This post will set out why I think that view is mistaken.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Preferring to Act Wrongly

Deontologists hold that it's wrong to kill an innocent person, even to prevent five other such killings. Does it follow that they should prefer Five Killings over One Killing to Prevent Five?  If so, my previous argument kicks in to demonstrate that they care insufficiently about killing.  In this post, I want to argue that the alternative -- preferring to act wrongly -- results in an even worse theory.