Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Ambiguously Normative Testimony

Suppose that a reliable Oracle tells us that there's a non-natural property shared by most but not all of the things we antecedently believed to be bad (and that no other non-natural property more closely tracks our beliefs about badness).  What's a non-naturalist to do?  Should we conclude that the Oracle is talking about badness, and revise our normative beliefs accordingly?  Or revise our belief in non-naturalism so that no normative revisions are necessary?  Presumably it depends upon the details, i.e. how confident we are in the normative belief that would be revised vs how confident we are in our non-naturalist metaethics.  I'd certainly sooner give up my non-naturalism than believe that torturing animals is okay, for example.  But I think there are at least some cases where it'd be reasonable to revise my moral beliefs instead (e.g. if the alternative view struck me as substantively plausible enough to be a serious contender for being the moral truth of the matter, even if it wasn't what I was antecedently inclined to believe).

In his new paper, 'A Dilemma for Non-Naturalists', Bedke argues that this makes me immoral.  In this blog post I want to establish two things: (1) that some such moral belief revisions can be perfectly reasonable and innocuous, and (2) that the fundamental structure of the 'dilemma' has nothing to do with non-naturalism.  It can be generalized to apply regardless of one's metaethical view.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Deontic Pluralism [draft paper]

Abstract: Consequentialist views have traditionally taken a maximizing form, requiring agents to bring about the very best outcome that they can.  But this maximizing function may be questioned.  Satisficing views instead allow agents to bring about any outcome that exceeds a satisfactory threshold or qualifies as "good enough".  Scalar consequentialism, by contrast, eschews moral requirements altogether, instead evaluating acts in purely comparative terms, i.e., as better or worse than their alternatives.  After surveying the main considerations for and against each of these three views, I argue that the core insights of each are (despite appearances) not in conflict. Consequentialists should be deontic pluralists and accept a maximizing account of the ought of most reason, a satisficing account of obligation, and a scalar account of the weight of reasons.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

When Killing is Worse than Letting Die

Consider two plausible ethical claims: (1) It's much worse to kill someone for money than it is to refrain from saving a life due to the monetary cost. (2) There's no intrinsic or fundamental significance to the distinctions between doing and allowing, killing vs letting die, etc. (It's notoriously difficult to give a sound metaphysical account of these distinctions that seems to be getting at anything fundamentally important, after all.) Together, these points suggest that we should want to account for such distinctions having a kind of indirect significance -- say, by typically correlating with something else that has intrinsic significance.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Good Motives, Act-Features, and What Matters

Commenting on my 'Right Wrong-Makers' draft, Doug Portmore suggested to me that (i) virtuous agents should care about what ultimately matters, and (ii) this is not the same as any feature of actions, and so in particular isn't the same thing as an action's right- (or wrong-)making features.

That seems literally correct, but I think needn't really threaten the intended meaning of the suggestion that there's an intimate connection between virtuous motivation and right-making features. We perhaps just need to be a bit more careful in articulating the relevant connection.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Consequentialism, Moral Worth, and the Fitting/Fortunate Distinction

In 'Consequentialism and Moral Worth' (forthcoming in Utilitas), Nathaniel Sharadin discusses the idea that acts done for the "right reason" have a special normative status (moral worth / praiseworthiness).  The "right reasons" here are usually assumed to be the right-making reasons, but Sharadin argues that consequentialists should reject this assumption, and instead consider the "right reasons" to be whatever motivations would be best to have (and hence are recommended by the theory).  This strikes me as deeply confused, neglecting the distinction between fitting and fortunate character.  As I put it in my recent paper on right-makers:

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

New Draft on Right-Making Features

I've a new draft paper, 'The Right Wrong-Makers', which argues as follows:
Right- and wrong-making features ("moral grounds") play important normative roles, e.g. in morally apt or virtuous motivation.  They have, however, been systematically misidentified. Canonical statements of our moral theories tend to summarize, rather than directly state, the full range of moral grounds posited by the theory. Further work is required to "unpack'' a general criterion of rightness and identify the features that are of ground-level moral significance. Focusing on the simple example of utilitarianism, I show how careful attention to the ground level can drastically influence how we think of our moral theories.

I'm testing out the PhilPeople "sessions" feature with this paper, so you're welcome to comment over there if you also want to try it out.  (Blogged or emailed suggestions are also always welcome, of course!)

P.S. It seems PhilPeople automatically "invites" everyone you make a session visible to (which in this case was my entire PhilPeople "peer network").   So apologies to anyone who receives an unwanted email invitation -- I didn't intend that to happen!

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Negative Utility Monsters

Many consider Nozick's "utility monster" -- a being more efficient than ordinary people at converting resources into wellbeing, with no upper limit -- a damning counterexample to utilitarianism.  It doesn't seem intuitively right, after all, to give all our resources to this one individual and deprive everyone else in the world, even though this would (ex hypothesi) maximize aggregate welfare.

A standard response is to question the coherence of the scenario.  It doesn't even seem like a good outcome, after all, which may be taken to cast doubt on whether we are really imagining sufficiently high monster welfare to really outweigh all the suffering of everyone else in the world.  More directly: I don't think I can positively conceive of arbitrarily high welfare packed into a single life. Further, I think there are principled reasons to think this impossible -- but even if I'm wrong about that, our imaginative resistance is enough to explain away our intuitions about the putative utility monster.

An interesting way to support this response, I think, is to consider a twist on the case where the utility monster begins from a baseline status of arbitrarily massive suffering.  If we now imagine that any given resource can either make any other person a little happier or else make a much greater impact on relieving the suffering of the negative utility monster, it seems clear that the latter option is the morally better way to go.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Acts, Attitudes, and the Separateness of Persons

My previous post discussed the first of Seth Lazar's two objections to my account of the separateness of persons. Here's the second:
Chappell thinks the objection has to do only with attitudes. His token-pluralistic utilitarianism can, in its deontic verdicts, be extensionally identical to token-monistic utilitarianism (according to which only aggregate well-being is non-instrumentally valuable), but preferable since it encourages us to adopt the appropriate attitude to the losses inflicted in the pursuit of the overall good. This misunderstands the separateness of persons worry. It has nothing to do with our attitudes: it concerns instead what we ought to do. We ought not assume that benefits to one person can cancel out same-sized costs to another.

I agree with that last sentence.  Indeed, that is the heart of my account of the separateness of persons: that we should not treat people as fungible, such that "benefits to one person can cancel out same-sized costs to another".  However, whether costs are cancelled or merely outweighed is precisely something that (I show) has implications for fitting attitudes rather than for what acts are ultimately most worth performing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Constitutive Instrumentality: a response to Lazar

Seth Lazar's forthcoming paper, 'Moral Status and Agent-Centred Options' contains some interesting objections to my 'Value Receptacles' paper.  Here's the first:
Chappell’s treatment of the separateness of persons has several weaknesses. First, what does it mean to value aggregate well-being non-instrumentally, while valuing the well-being of individuals only instrumentally? The view seems a straw man. Aggregate well-being is composed of the well-being of individuals. If aggregate well-being is a noninstrumental value, then individual well-being is a non-instrumental value, since aggregate well-being just is all the individual well-being taken together. Treating different people’s well-being as totally fungible is a conceptual mistake, hence not a charitable interpretation of the separateness of persons objection. 

This is incorrect.  An important upshot of my paper was that we need to recognize two very different kinds of instrumentality.  The most familiar kind is when one thing is a causal means to another, as (e.g.) in the case of money being useful for buying desired objects.  But we should also recognize the possibility of one thing being a constitutive means to another.  This is what's going on in the case of someone who most fundamentally cares about a kind of good in the aggregate, rather than having any basic, non-derivative concern for the particular instances that make up the aggregate.  Their concern for the instances is wholly derivative of their concern for the whole, in a way that makes them entirely indifferent to internal variation (e.g. in the identities of the instances) as long as it doesn't affect the overall value of the whole.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sub-experiences and Minimal Duration

Suppose that our conscious experiences have a certain minimum duration, say 100 ms.  Take a subject experiencing a second of pleasure, and let 't1' denote the first 50 ms time period, 't2' the next 50 ms, and so on through to 't20'.  So the subject experiences pleasure from t1 - t20.  Do they experience pleasure at t1 (and accrue a proportionate momentary welfare boost at this time)?

I'm inclined to answer 'yes'.  But this may seem to entail that both whether you're experiencing pleasure at a time and whether you accrue positive momentary welfare can be extrinsic, not fixed by the intrinsic properties of the moment.  After all, if the agent had been knocked unconscious after t1, then they would not have experienced any pleasure during this period due to the associated neural activity lasting for less than the minimum experiential duration.  Their neural activity at t1 will only get to (partly) constitute a pleasant experience if it continues on for at least another 50 ms.  This gets especially puzzling if one posits an open future.  It might then be indeterminate at t1 whether the agent is currently experiencing pleasure -- the facts about the agent's t1-experiences would not be settled until a later time (perhaps at t3 they get retroactively 'fixed').  That seems weird.