Sunday, August 01, 2021

Parsimony in Theories of Welfare

[I ended up cutting the 'simplicity' section from the introductory essay on 'Theories of Welfare' that I'm working on.  But I rather like the following little argument, so thought I'd share it here...]

It's an interesting question which kinds of simplicity have epistemic significance. Should hedonists think it more likely that there are fewer pleasures in the world, since that would entail fewer items of value?  Presumably not. Alternatively, once we have admitted a certain type of thing into our ontology, we may not need to worry too much about how many instances (or “tokens”) of that type exist.

If this latter understanding is correct, then pluralists could likewise argue that we have already admitted the property of being a welfare value into our ontology, so whether we attribute it to just one type of thing or to many types does not ultimately change our ontological commitments. Whatever our theory of welfare, we are all committed to the exact same array of natural and normative properties. We just dispute which natural properties the normative ones are attached to.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Cost of Constraints

[An excerpt from my paper-in-progress on the paradox of deontology, setting out my core argument...]

Let's begin with some cases.^[The first two are drawn from Setiya (2018).]  In all of these cases, the background setup involves five other agents who are each about to murder a different innocent victim. Protagonist may be in a position to prevent these five murders, by means of himself killing a sixth individual. (The precise details shouldn't matter for our purposes--feel free to fill in the story however seems most sensible to you.) Against this background, compare the following four possible outcomes:

Five Killings: Protagonist does nothing, so the five other murders proceed as expected.

One Killing to Prevent Five: Protagonist kills one as a means, thereby preventing the five other murders.

Six Killings (Failed Prevention): As above, Protagonist kills one as a means, but in this case fails to achieve his end of preventing the five other murders.  So all six victims are killed.

Six Killings: Instead of attempting to save the five, Protagonist decides to murder his victim for the sheer hell of it, just like the other five murderers.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Is Objective List Theory "Spooky"?

[I'm currently working on a new introduction to theories of welfare for, and am wondering whether to include the following.  Two big questions: Do you agree that "spookiness" worries seem like a common basis (especially amongst students / non-specialists) for rejecting objective list theories?  And if so, do you find the substantive discussion here to be helpful?]

Resistance to objective list theories may sometimes stem from the sense that there is something metaphysically extravagant, disreputable, or “spooky” about the objective values that it posits. But competing theories of welfare are arguably in no better position with regard to such metaethical concerns. Wellbeing is an inherently normative notion: it is that which is worth pursuing for an individual’s sake. (If you are not describing something that matters in this way, then whatever it is that you are giving an account of, it cannot truly be welfare. A thoroughgoing normative skeptic or nihilist must deny that there is any such thing.)^[Expressivists may give an anti-realist gloss on what “mattering” amounts to. But then they can just as comfortably extend this gloss to the kind of first-order “objectivity” posited by objective list theories.]

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

New Introduction to Population Ethics

I recently took over as the lead editor for, where we've just published a new introduction to population ethics.  Check it out!  (And feel free to email me with any suggestions or corrections.)

My favourite bit was translating Johan Gustafsson's critical range view into the colloquial idiom of "meh" lives and "value blur" (with thanks to Helen for suggesting the term 'meh').  Here's a selection, minus footnotes and illustrations...

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Philosopher Spotlight: Hrishikesh Joshi

I'm delighted to introduce another great "philosopher spotlight" entry, this time from Hrishikesh Joshi!

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My work focuses on neglected topics and perspectives within moral and political philosophy. I often employ a philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) approach, by using tools from the social sciences in trying to analyze philosophical problems. In my view, there are these large vistas of underexplored terrain, and what motivates me to do philosophy is the desire to explore that terrain by using the methods and distinctions our discipline has developed. It’s a Wild West out there and I’d rather settle that territory than remain in the crowded coastal cities.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Philosopher Spotlight: Jess Flanigan

Thanks to Jess Flanigan for contributing this guest post, sharing her interesting and provocative work, as part of my ongoing "philosopher spotlight" series.  Enjoy!

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My published research falls into three categories. I am interested in rights and their enforceability, public health policy, and economic justice issues. In this post I’ll say a bit about my research, hopefully in a way that explains how these topics are all related. Then I’ll talk a bit about the things I’m working on lately. Instead of listing the titles of each paper, each link will just say what the paper is about. If you’re interested in that argument you can click through to see where it’s published.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Limits of Defective Character Solutions

In some cases, our intuition that an act is "wrong" may be better explained in terms of the action's revealing a defect of character (e.g. standard counterexamples to consequentialism involving the reckless performance of expectably-bad actions that could only prove optimal by unknowable fluke).  But this philosophical maneuver requires care.  A good test for its prima facie viability is to "naturalize" the case so that the outcome results from purely natural causes, without any agential intervention.  We can then ask: is this is an overall undesirable outcome?  If so, then that would -- contra the character strategy -- suffice to provide objective reasons for an agent not to act so as to bring about that bad outcome.  But if not, i.e. if the outcome itself -- absent any agency -- seems unobjectionable, then it's at least prima facie natural to expect that the act of producing that fine outcome should likewise qualify as unobjectionable.  If our intuitions rebel against an agent performing such an act, we may do better to look to the agent, rather than to the act, as being the true source of the problem.

Monday, June 21, 2021

The Paralysis of Deontology?

MacAskill & Mogensen's Paralysis Argument (forthcoming in Phil Imprint) argues that deontological constraints entail paralysis, once long-term indirect effects are taken into account:

According to most non-consequentialists, reasons against doing harm are weightier than reasons to benefit. Since you have no greater reason to expect that benefits as opposed to harms will predominate among the indirect effects of any action you perform, it therefore seems that you should try as best you can to avoid bringing about any significant indirect effects through your actions at all. Since virtually anything you do will inevitably result in significant numbers of indirect harms, you should therefore try to do as little as possible.

It's a cute argument!  I recommend reading the full paper, where they address (and handily dispose of) a number of possible responses on behalf of the deontologist. For example, the Arms Trader case (p. 17) shows that it won't do to exclude causal chains that involve others' voluntary choices.  And Mystery Box cases (p. 20) similarly warn against excluding convoluted causal chains. They ultimately conclude that the best option for deontologists is to embrace extreme demands: "to escape paralysis, your every motion must be at the service of posterity." (p.34)

But I wonder if deontologists might get by with some more conservative revisions to their views. In our recent reading group discussion of the paper, David O'Brien (mentioned with permission) suggested that something like the Doctrine of Double Effect seems well-suited to resist M&M's argument.  For even if we can, in some sense, foresee that our acts will have long-term effects some of which are harms, we generally do not intend those harms, or use them as a means to whatever everyday goals we are pursuing.  So if deontic constraints are restricted to harms that feature in our intentions, or that we make use of as a means, paralysis may be avoided.

Of course, not all wrongs involve intended harms in this way.  But that's fine.  It's a familiar point that DDE is a supplemental principle, not the entirety of a moral theory.  At a minimum, DDE proponents should agree with consequentialists that even merely foreseen harms (or "collateral damage") can make an act wrong if they outweigh the expected benefits.  The trickier question is whether DDE suffices for all the distinctively deontological constraints that the non-consequentialist might have wanted.  I'd guess that most additionally want some kind of harm/benefit asymmetry, e.g. to rule out fatally driving over one (as collateral damage) on the way to rescuing five (p.7).

At this point, I suspect that our deontological intuitions are mostly just tracking the salience of the harm.  If you see or touch the harmed person, we're apt to attribute outsized importance to the harm. Distant future harms to unknown ("statistical") victims, by contrast, seem maximally non-salient, and so avoid activating deontological intuitions.  As a result, the suggestion that there could be deontological constraints against these sorts of harms can seem intuitively absurd.  But insofar as we doubt that salience provides a sufficiently principled basis for counting some harms more than others, we may be forced to conclude that deontological constraints against salient harms are ultimately in no better position.

It's a nice challenge, at any rate, which deontologists will need to address if they want to appeal to anything stronger than the Doctrine of Double Effect.

[Update: I've been pointed to Nye's very similar 2014 paper, 'Chaos and Constraints', which also contains some nice arguments against appealing to the DDE here, e.g. by comparing lesser means-harms with greater collateral harms.]

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Conscientious Sadism

I've previously argued that sadistic pleasure (in oppressing the innocent) lacks value. But consider a complication.  Suppose this time that the sadistic majority are all conscientious utilitarians who would never willingly increase net suffering in the world.  They all appreciate that their victim's suffering is a bad thing in itself, and so would genuinely prefer to realize the same amount of pleasure without any suffering at all, if possible.  But alas, this just isn't possible in the circumstances.  We may further suppose that they would each be willing to themselves be tortured in order to generate greater net pleasure for their companions.  But alas, this isn't possible, either.  Their only options are to torture an unwilling innocent person, generating population-wide sadistic pleasure, or do nothing and have uniformly neutral experiences throughout the population.

In this revised case, many will of course still think it would be wrong to torture the innocent.  But I wonder whether this assimilates it to a standard sort of rights-violation scenario (e.g. involving non-sadistic pleasure), or whether we should still regard the sadistic pleasure itself as entirely lacking in value?

Friday, June 04, 2021

Email subscriptions update

My old email subscriptions provider (Feedburner) is apparently shutting down next month, so I've set up a new service with MailChimp -- see the "subscribe via email" form towards the bottom of the sidebar if you'd like to be added to the list.  Hope it works.  Tomorrow I'll try to transfer over the 160-odd subscribers from my Feedburner list, but if you find that you aren't getting email updates any more, maybe try re-subscribing manually, check your spam folder, and then let me know if the problem persists...

P.S. I still personally recommend RSS using a service like Feedly, if you follow multiple blogs.  I also share most of my posts on Twitter and FB for those who prefer that, but I gather those platforms are less reliable as their algorithms will determine which content ends up getting presented to you.