Thursday, February 20, 2020

Emergence and Incremental Impact

In 'What’s Wrong with Joyguzzling?', Kingston and Sinnott-Armstrong claim that individual greenhouse gas emissions never make a difference.  I find this to be a deeply bizarre claim, since they don't dispute that large amounts of GHG emissions together make a difference, and that large amounts of GHG can be produced by adding together many smaller amounts.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

When is Inefficacy Objectionable?

There's something I find puzzling about the dialectic on this issue.  Many philosophers suggest that there is an "inefficacy problem" or objection to consequentialism. But we need to take care to correctly diagnose what is supposed to be problematic.  If we truly are incapable of securing some good outcome, after all, it would hardly seem fair to fault a theory that (correctly) tells us that we needn't bother.  Our practical inefficacy per se cannot sensibly be held against a theory; it may just be a sad fact of life.

Really the issue here concerns a kind of mismatch between individual and collective verdicts that appears to result from collective action problems (voting, polluting, etc.) in which we combine (apparent) individual inefficacy with (apparent) collective efficacy.  But even here, care must be taken in our identification of the relevant group or 'collective'.  Suppose that everyone else is determined to bring about the collectively harmful outcome, and are certain to do so no matter what I do.  Then there's no point in delusional attempts to "cooperate" that are guaranteed to fall on deaf ears.  Permitting laxity in the face of such inefficacy is not a "problem", it's sensible -- the plainly correct verdict in this case.  The fault here clearly lies with the bad actors, not with our moral theory.

So we further need to specify that we're concerned with collective harms that could result from those who are successfully following the target moral theory.  (This clarifies why the previous scenario was not objectionable: the one follower of consequentialism did not, as a "group" of one, actually do any harm.)  More generally, the key structural feature is to generate a kind of "each/we dilemma" in which each person acts rightly in bringing about a situation that they collectively abhor.  The agents' shared moral theory would then be a failure by its own lights, in a tolerably clear and important sense: it would be (as Parfit showed common-sense morality to be) collectively self-defeating.

Curiously, the recent literature on the inefficacy objection largely focuses on arguments which, even if successful (in establishing inefficacy), would not establish collective self-defeat.  The strongest arguments for thinking that individual consequentialists shouldn't bother Φ-ing are, I think, equally reasons for thinking that consequentialists collectively shouldn't Φ.  So there is then no real mismatch between the individual and collective moral verdicts.

Consider the arguments mentioned (from Nefsky's recent survey piece) in my previous post:

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Nefsky on Tiny Chances and Tiny Differences

In her Philosophy Compass survey article, 'Collective Harm and the Inefficacy Problem', Julia Nefsky expresses skepticism about appeals to "expected value" to address worries about the ability of a single individual to really "make a difference".  In section 4.2, she notes that the relevant cases involve either "(A) an extremely small chance (as in the voting case) or (B) a chance at making only a very tiny difference."  Addressing each of these in turn:

Monday, January 20, 2020

Yang/Warren: that's the ticket!

There's a lot to be said for Yang as a presidential candidate: he's funny and likeable (able to use humour to deflate Trump's chest-thumping appeal to voters' lizard-brains), an "outsider" candidate (which in recent history appears to be a necessary feature for Democratic candidates to actually win the presidential election), and betting markets currently give him the highest conditional probability (amongst those with a greater than 1% chance of nomination) of beating Trump if nominated (77%).  Yang's automation-focused economic narrative seems broadly plausible, and may have a real chance of combating the immigrant-demonizing narrative peddled by Trump & co, and winning over swing voters in key states.  As a NY Times editorial board member wrote of their interview: “He really seemed to have an almost emotional sense of what people have been going through and what the problems are. His portrait of the fundamental economic problems were more moving than Bernie’s, and Bernie has been selling this for 30 years.”

Friday, January 10, 2020

Parfit's Cat

My favourite story from Simon Beard's Parfit Bio:
"Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do." This was the opening sentence of Derek Parfit's philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons. He believed that it was the best way to begin his book because it showed something important about people. Often we are not as special as we think we are. For instance, when people simply do what they want to do they appear to be utilizing no ability that only people have. On the other hand, when we respond to reasons, we are doing something uniquely human, because only people can act in this way. Cats are notorious for doing what they want to do, and the sense of proximity between a cat and its owner pleasingly heightens our sense of their similarity. Hence, there could be no better way for this book to begin. 
However, there was a problem. Derek did not, in fact, own a cat. Nor did he wish to become a cat owner, as he would rather spend his time taking photographs and doing philosophy. On the other hand, the sentence would clearly be better if it was true. To resolve this problem Derek drew up a legal agreement with his sister, who did own a cat, to the effect that he would take legal possession of the cat while she would continue living with it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 (and '18) in review

(Past annual reviews: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004.)

I didn't get around to this last year due to being in the midst of an international move (not an easy process with a toddler, to put it mildly, but worth it nonetheless).  So I guess this post can serve to summarize my past two years of blogging...

Epistemology, Metaethics, and Mind

* Philosophical Expertise, Deference, and Intransigence argues that we should only be moved by peer disagreement (and related phenomena) when we take the other person's views to be evidence of what we ourselves would conclude upon ideal reflection.  So there's no epistemic pressure to defer to even your acknowledged "philosophical superiors" if their starting points are too different from your own.

* Why a related (intransigence-based) argument against cognitivism goes wrong.

On Parfit on Knowing What Matters - responding to Parfit's response to my paper. (Includes a summary of my original paper's central claims.)

Ambiguously Normative Testimony - why Bedke's objection to non-naturalism over-generalizes.

Normativity for Value Realists -- if you don't believe in (genuine) "Nazi value" you shouldn't believe in (genuine) "Nazi reasons" either.  (May have converted Norcross to normative realism!)

* Sub-experiences and Minimal Duration -- what's the best way to make sense of experiences that have a minimum duration?

Applied Ethics

* How to Make a Difference -- exposing the fallacy in claims that "individual action" is necessarily inefficacious in the face of global problems.

Three kinds of offsetting -- exploring what kinds of harms can (or cannot) be morally "offset", and why.

Worthless Harm-Prevention and Non-Existence -- how some great harms might nonetheless not be worthwhile to prevent.

Is Price-Gouging Good? - maybe!

Police Shootings: Mortal Threats vs Tragic Mistakes - how to tell if there are too many of the latter.

The Value of Academic Research -- there's more to it than Michael Huemer realizes.

Political Theory

Charity Vouchers: Decentralizing Public Spending with follow-up posts:
Philanthropy Vouchers and Public Debate: Political vs Civic Advocacy
What Compassionate Conservatism Could Be

Ideological Ascent and Asymmetry - can you always diagnose whether someone's political behaviour is "unreasonable" in a completely value-neutral way (abstracting away from the details of what's under dispute)?

Ethical Theory

Constitutive Instrumentality: a response to Lazar - how to make sense of fungible values.

* Is the 'separateness of persons' better understood as constraining our actions or our attitudes?  I argue for the latter.

* Negative Utility Monsters - a twist on the original case may serve to undermine its intuitive force.

Does Welfare have Diminishing Marginal Value? - an alternative (utilitarian-compatible) way to capture prioritarian intuitions: assign DMV not to welfare, but to the basic goods (e.g. happiness) that contribute to one's welfare.

Consequentialism, Moral Worth, and the Fitting/Fortunate Distinction - why consequentialists should not conflate "right reasons" with "consequentialist-recommended motivations".

Good Motives, Act-Features, and What Matters - how to understand talk of "right-making features".

When Killing is Worse than Letting Die -- when the victim is more salient, (all else equal) the harmful act reveals a worse quality of will.  In other cases, there may be no moral difference between killing vs letting die. (Related: Options without Constraints at PEA Soup.)

Actualism, Evaluation and Prerogatives - addresses an objection from Pete Graham.

The Aim(s) of Practical Deliberation - is there a fact of the matter about "how high" we morally ought to aim?  I defend a pluralist answer.

Stacking Time-Relative Interests and Acquired Tastes and Necessary Interests -- exploring McMahan's account, and developing it in response to objections.

Off the blog...

Four of my previously-accepted papers appeared in print this year:
* 'Willpower Satisficing' (Noûs)
* 'Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons?' (APQ)
* 'Fittingness Objections to Consequentialism' (OUP)
* 'Overriding Virtue' (OUP)

I also wrote a new paper, 'Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good' (summarized here), that I'm pretty excited about.  (It aims to put to rest the debate between maximizers, satisficers, and scalar consequentialists, by showing how the views are best understood as not actually being in conflict with one other.)

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Comparing US vs UK Academia

Having been back in the US for a full year now, it's interesting to compare how differently academia works here compared to in the UK (where I worked for the preceding 4.5 years).  I much prefer the US system, personally, but will try to offer an even-handed overview here.  Others are of course welcome to contribute their own observations in the comments (or email me if they'd prefer their comment to be posted anonymously).  I especially welcome any corrections if my observations aren't representative in some respects.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

What Compassionate Conservatism Could Be

The old conservative ideology held that low taxes on the rich were essential for economic growth, the benefits would "trickle down" to help everyone, and private charity could step in to help should any of the "deserving poor" somehow be left by the wayside.  But trickle-down economics is now widely discredited, and the extraordinary levels of inequality found in the US are becoming harder to defend. One option for economic conservatives is to just change the subject: ramp up racial animus and other cultural tensions to distract from one's continued attempts to rework the economy in ways that serve only the wealthiest individuals.  That seems pretty evil to me, but it sadly seems to be the way that many are going these days.  Sad realities aside, though, I'm interested in whether there's logical space for a more intellectually and morally ambitious form of conservatism that could provide a worthwhile counterpoint to (e.g.) Elizabeth Warren's ambitious liberalism.

I think there could be, though it would look very different from what conservatives defend today.  I think there could be a worthwhile form of (genuinely) compassionate conservatism that began by appreciating liberal critiques of radical wealth inequality, and the need for redistributive taxation, but that responds by offering an alternative -- "small government" -- solution of what to do with the raised funds. Rather than tasking untrustworthy politicians with solving society's problems, and creating high-stakes political conflicts over the form taken by the big-government "solution", compassionate conservatives could decentralize public spending by disbursing philanthropic vouchers back to voters, who then each direct their own share of the public purse to whatever non-profit organization(s) they deemed best.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

How to Make a Difference

Steven Hales complains that we (folk and academic ethicists alike) focus too much on individual action:
We like to believe that when it comes to the great global issues of our time—climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction—that we each can make a difference. A small one maybe, but a real and significant difference, nonetheless. [...] That’s a mistake. It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution. [... W]hen it comes to global-scale issues, what individuals do is somewhere between 100 percent pointless and 99.9999999 percent pointless.

There's something right about this, but the central claim is crucially wrong.  After all, if you're able to alleviate just 0.0000001% of global harms, that's actually quite a lot of good you've done!  You may have saved someone's life, or slightly increased the chance of humanity's continued survival, or slightly increased the average quality of life for future generations (and either of the latter two may in fact involve astronomical amounts of good).  Once we grasp the magnitudes involved, it becomes clear that having a proportionate impact is far from pointless.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Police Shootings: Mortal Threats vs Tragic Mistakes

Police sometimes face mortal threats.  They also face innocent people whom they mistakenly judge to pose a mortal threat.  If too slow to react to the former, the police risk being killed.  If too quick to react to the latter, they risk killing innocent civilians.  What is the right way to balance these risks?  Three options present themselves: