Thursday, August 13, 2020

Innocuous vs Unjust Systemic Discrimination

It's now widely recognized that problematic discrimination need not involve malicious attitudes: certain political structures might systematically disregard the interests of ethnic minorities, for example, even if nobody involved was "racist" in the traditional sense of harbouring prejudicial attitudes.  Still, sometimes people -- even highly-respected philosophers! -- move from this to the opposite error of assuming that any disparity in group outcomes is in itself constitutive of unjust discrimination against the disadvantaged group.  I've found this especially common in debates about QALYs. (One may, of course, raise reasonable questions about how QALY values are determined in practice: perhaps they fail to accurately track the welfare facts in some cases, adjusting down for certain disabilities that are actually harmless. But my target here is the more sweeping complaint that any form of the metric will be "ageist" and "ableist" simply in virtue of its being systematically disadvantageous for the elderly and (detrimentally) disabled, relative to an alternative system that sought to indiscriminately save as many lives as possible.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Moral Theory and Motivational Contingency

Parfit sometimes suggested that Act Consequentialism might best be understood, not as a moral theory, but as an external rival to morality.  The implicit thought seems to be that morality involves some essentially social mode of thought (perhaps concerned with public codes, or norms of praise and blame, or what principles you'd want everyone to accept), AC does not depend upon any such mode of thought, but it nonetheless offers an account of what you really ought (rather than just "morally ought") to do.

I'm not a fan of that conception of morality, largely because it seems to devalue it, depriving morality of its interest and significance -- if it is not what you really ought to do, then who cares what you "morally ought" to do?  Putting that worry aside, though, it does seem interesting that (only?) consequentialists are apt to regard their normative commitments as not contingent upon being the true moral theory.  That is, if I learned that Kantianism was true, my response (besides incredulity) would be to say, "So much the worse for morality."  In that sense, I don't particularly care about morality, and don't think anyone else should either.  (You should lie to the murderer at the door to save lives, and I don't care about any sense of "wrong" in which doing more good is "wrong".)  But I suspect that, if the roles were reversed, Kantians would not react analogously.  (Can any Kantian readers confirm?)

If that's right, I wonder if anything interesting follows from this observation.  Might it suggest that consequentialism matters more than other theories?  Others seem to depend upon inheriting the normative halo of "morality", whereas consequentialist properties have such clear intrinsic significance that no further halo is required!  Ha, maybe.  More neutrally, it may just be that other theories are so closely tied to some essentially social mode of thought that it's harder to make sense of them mattering without also being what matters morally -- and such a connection needn't have any implications for how much they matter.

A related question (which I owe to David Enoch): how -- if at all -- would (and should) your motivations change upon learning that the meta-normative error theory is correct, and nothing objectively matters at all?  Insofar as you had proper de re desires for what you previously took to be good, it isn't clear why these would be contingent or conditional upon your normative (or meta-normative) beliefs.  Our concern for each individual's welfare, at least, presumably should not be conditional in such a way.  Perhaps deontological concerns -- e.g. to avoid violating rights even if it would overall help people more -- are more appropriately conditional on their actually being right, leaving deontological moral motivation more vulnerable to the threat of moral scepticism?

Another possible exception, even for consequentialists, might involve distant-future non-identity cases (about which it seems difficult to muster direct concern and motivation).  Consider some case where we can either help the already-existing global poor (with no expected downstream effects), or we can bring it about that a whole generation of people a million years hence will be much better off (than the different generation that would otherwise exist in their place).  For purely theoretical reasons, I currently prefer the greater distant good.  But if I came to believe in error theory, I would be much more tempted to just go with my gut, indulge my narrow sympathetic impulses, and help the already-existing people.  (Perhaps a more virtuous consequentialist would have a less theoretically-contingent commitment to the distant future!)

Any thoughts?  Which of your moral motivations do you regard as theoretically contingent in these ways?

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Parfit's Ethics (manuscript)

Over the last few months, I've been working on a short book manuscript on Parfit's Ethics, for Cambridge University Press' Elements in Ethics series.  I've finally completed a (rough) first draft, which interested readers can view or download here.  (Please email me with any comments or suggestions: I have until the end of the month to submit the manuscript.)

The chapters cover:
  1. Rationality and Objectivity
  2. Distributive Justice
  3. Character and Consequence
  4. The Triple Theory
  5. Personal Identity
  6. Population Ethics
I've always thought that Parfit's Reasons and Persons contained the highest ratio of important insights per page of any philosophical work.  It stands to reason that a summary of this work, if done well, might be able to surpass that record.  So that's my (overly ambitious) hope for this little book.  On the other hand, Parfit's work notoriously defies easy summary.  So... see what you think.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Right Wrong-Makers (forthcoming in PPR)

My latest paper, 'The Right Wrong-Makers', has been accepted for publication in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research!  I actually think this is the best (and most significant) paper I've written.* The basic setup:
Stocker (1976) famously lamented the "moral schizophrenia", or disharmony "between one's motives and one's [normative] reasons," that he associated with modern ethical theories. Our moral theories appear to furnish us with highly abstract fundamental justifications--invoking the likes of aggregate utility, reasonable rejectability, universalizable maxims, or the balance of prima facie duties. Ordinary moral motivation, by contrast, often involves concern for particular, concrete individuals|and rightly so. This divergence between justification and apt motivation is all the more striking because many contemporary moral theorists explicitly endorse principles linking the two. Others (especially consequentialists) have responded by disavowing this link, effectively embracing the charge of schizophrenic disharmony. But I think such disavowals are a mistake. 
This paper offers a different kind of response to Stocker's charge. We can reject the assumption that our moral theories furnish us with highly abstract fundamental justifications, normative reasons, or moral grounds. Our theories may advert to highly abstract properties in specifying their criteria for right action: that which fills in the blank in statements of the form, "An act is right iff __." But we need not take those canonical criteria to themselves be the theory's fundamental moral grounds. Instead, I propose, we should interpret them as summarizing the full range of moral grounds posited by the theory. Highly abstract summary criteria are compatible with appropriately concrete and personal ground-level concerns. Harmony may thus be restored. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What if Authors could Respond to Referee Comments?

I'm sure any academics reading this can relate to the following experience: despite one referee's glowing report, your paper is rejected on the basis of referee 2's confident "devastating objection," which in fact involves a simple misunderstanding that you could easily correct in a sentence or two, if given the chance.  But of course you are not given the chance: the top journals are overloaded with submissions, so tend to outright reject any paper that doesn't receive uniformly positive peer reviews.

It's a frustrating (and frustratingly common) experience for the author.  But it also contributes to the systemic overburdening of journals, as the author now needs to (perhaps make minor tweaks and then) send their paper out to a new journal, which must find all new referees.  It would've been more efficient if the original journal could have disregarded the confused report, and just sought the one replacement referee.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

What Makes Your Papers Worth Reading?

Given how many academic papers are out there, it would be useful to have more filtering and discovery mechanisms for helping us to find the ones we might be most interested in.  One thing that could help is if authors themselves offered a concise 'overview' of what they think makes their various papers worth reading (when they are).  Many of us already list our papers on our websites, but (i) standard academic abstracts rarely do a good job of explaining why a paper is worth reading, and (ii) who reads academic websites anyway?  So I'm going to take a stab at doing this in a blog post, and invite others to follow suit (whether on Facebook or wherever you like: feel free to additionally post your response in the comments here, especially if your research interests overlap with mine at all). What lessons from your work do you wish were more widely appreciated?

Ordered by how much I happen to like each paper today:

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Three Neglected Advantages of Controlled Infection

I've increasingly come to think that my previous post on when SARS-CoV-2 Controlled Voluntary Infection is worthwhile was excessively pessimistic.  I previously noted the benefits of low viral load (variolation), timing the burden on the medical system, and enabling people to safely return to normal life.  Three additional factors to consider include:

(1) Controlled infection enables pre-symptomatic treatment, which tends to be more effective (in some cases yielding "virtually total protection" against an illness whilst still developing protective antibodies and subsequent immunity to reinfection).

(2) Reducing accidental spread.  Each person who undergoes CVI (followed by two weeks quarantine) is someone who won't unknowingly acquire an asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic) infection and spread it to others without realizing.  This makes everyone else much safer.

(3) With reduced spread comes reduced overshoot beyond herd immunity.

It's completely insane that nobody seems to doing the necessary research to find out just how effective CVI could be, especially when some parts of the world are (either deliberately or de facto) pursuing a strategy of herd immunity via uncontrolled infectious spread, which we have every reason to expect to be vastly inferior.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Giving Game 2020 results

This semester, I got my 'Effective Altruism' class to decide how to allocate $5000 in donations between the four EA funds. (Half the funds were provided by UM Ethics Programs, as the result of an internal grant request I submitted for this purpose. The other half were matching funds from my personal charitable budget.)  Our resulting breakdown was as follows:

* Global Health & Development: $2500
* Animal Welfare: $700
* Long-Term Future: $1450
* Effective Altruism Meta: $350

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Academic pay cuts vs job cuts

Hopefully the financial situation for universities next year will turn out to be less dire than many fear. And hopefully what cost-cutting measures are needed can largely be achieved by cutting down on non-academic "bloat" together with temporary reductions to discretionary budgets (turning research "travel" virtual, etc.).  But suppose that this isn't enough, and your department needs to spend less on academic salaries.  How should this be done, to minimize harm?

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Beneficent Retirement and Academic Successorships

In 'The Paradox of Beneficial Retirement', Saul Smilansky argues that "for a great many people, the best professional action that they can currently take is to leave their profession" (337) -- on grounds that they could reasonably expect to be replaced by someone better (!) -- and, moreover, that the personal costs they'd thereby incur (especially if eligible for a comfortable retirement) would be much smaller than the costs otherwise borne by the un- or under-employed.

In the academic case, I suspect that a similar conclusion may follow without the need for invidious comparisons.  Even supposing that one is above average in philosophical mettle, productivity, and so forth, so long as one has already enjoyed a long career in the discipline, it's likely that in most cases (not all, of course!) one's most valuable contributions have already been made, and the discipline would benefit more from hearing new voices.  (This seems especially likely given the hyper-competitiveness of the job market in recent years: we all know that there's an immense amount of philosophical talent out there, struggling to secure stable academic employment.)