Saturday, August 17, 2019

Normativity for Value Realists

At the recent Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (great conference, btw), I was surprised to learn that Alastair Norcross doesn't believe in normative reasons.  He's happy to speak of "moral reasons", "prudential reasons", and even "Nazi reasons", but seems to view these all as objectively on a par. He happens to prefer the morality framework of standards to the Nazi one, and will condemn Nazis accordingly, but not in any way that implies that they are making an objective, framework-independent practical error.  In interpreting this view, since I don't think that framework-relative "reasons" are genuinely normative reasons at all ("Nazi reasons" do not count as providing genuine considerations in favour of genocide), Alastair's view strikes me as a form of normative nihilism.

Interestingly, though, Alastair is a value realist.  He thinks there is intrinsic value (and disvalue), and seems to accepts a traditional hedonistic account of these (the wrong view, IMO, but not our topic for today).  Such Value Realism may naturally lead one to a broader Normative Realism, I think, in a couple of ways.  So I'll address the rest of my post to any readers who share Alastair's starting point of Value Realism without Normative Realism, and see whether either of these arguments is persuasive.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Does Welfare have Diminishing Marginal Value?

Many people are drawn to the Prioritarian view that "Benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are." (Parfit 1997, 213)  Importantly, this is not just the (utilitarian-compatible) idea that many goods have diminishing marginal value, so that better-off people are likely to benefit less than worse-off people from a certain amount of material goods.  Even after accounting for all that, the idea goes, the interests of the worse-off just matter more; we should even give a lesser benefit to the worst off rather than a (genuinely) slightly greater benefit to someone who is already well-off.

This view always struck me as deeply misguided. By effectively attributing diminishing marginal value to welfare itself, you can end up implying that even considering just a single individual, it might be "better" to do what is worse for him (e.g. giving him a smaller benefit at a time when his quality of life is lower, rather than a greater benefit at a different time).

But there is a closely related view that is more theoretically cogent.  Rather than attributing diminishing marginal value to welfare itself, you attribute it to the basic goods that contribute to one's welfare (happiness, etc.).  This goes beyond the familiar idea that material resources have diminishing instrumental value, say for making you happy.  We are now introducing a kind of non-instrumental diminishing value, by saying that happiness itself makes more of a difference to your welfare the less of it you have.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Options without Constraints

Now up at PEA Soup. (Related to my earlier post, 'When Killing is Worse Than Letting Die', but with a neater framing / set-up, I think.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Philanthropy Vouchers and Public Debate: Political vs Civic Advocacy

It's interesting to compare the ways we talk and think about political vs non-political (civic/philanthropic or market) agents, advocacy, and organization.  Consider the common objection to Effective Altruism, that it allegedly "neglects the need for systemic change."  I've rebutted this objection before, but a different aspect of it that I want to focus on today is that the criticism seems to presuppose that only politics can be systemic.  But why assume that?

Monday, July 08, 2019

Charity Vouchers: Decentralizing Public Spending

People sometimes object to the charitable tax deduction on grounds that it is "undemocratic", incentivizing wealthy individuals to exert philanthropic influence instead of filling the public purse. On the other hand, well-targeted philanthropy surely achieves more good than paying extra to the government (which may just go to paying down the public debt, funding unnecessary wars, military parades for the Great Patriotic Leader, corporate welfare, and tax breaks for the wealthy).  If choosing where best to donate your money, "the US government" would seem an unlikely answer.  We recognize that charities could use extra funds more effectively. So it seems worth exploring ways to boost the philanthropic sector whilst avoiding the potential downside of concentrating power in the hands of the ultra-wealthy. The obvious solution: charity vouchers.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

MacAskill on Aid Skepticism

The whole paper is great, but I especially wanted to share his concluding remarks:

Often, critics of Peter Singer focus on whether or not aid is effective. But that is fundamentally failing to engage with core of Singer’s argument. Correctly understood, that argument is about the ethics of buying luxury goods, not the ethics of global development. Even if it turned out that every single development program that we know of does more harm than good, that fact would not mean that we can buy a larger house, safe in the knowledge that we have no pressing moral obligations of beneficence upon us. There are thousands of pressing problems that call out for our attention and that we could make significant inroads on with our resources. Here is an incomplete list of what $10,000 can do (noting, in each case, that any cost-effectiveness estimates are highly uncertain, with large error bars, and refer to expected value):
  • Spare 20 years’ worth of unnecessary incarceration, while not reducing public safety, by donating to organisations working in criminal justice reform (Open Philanthropy Project 2017b).
  • Spare 1.2 million hens from the cruelty of battery cages by donating to corporate cage-free campaigns (Open Philanthropy Project 2016).
  • Reduce the chance of a civilisation-ending global pandemic by funding policy research and advocacy on biosecurity issues (Open Philanthropy Project 2014).
  • Contribute to a more equitable international order by funding policy analysis and campaigning.
In order to show that Singer’s argument is not successful, one would need to show that for none of these problems can we make a significant difference at little moral cost to ourselves. This is a very high bar to meet. In a world of such suffering, of such multitudinous and variegated forms, often caused by the actions and policies of us in rich countries, it would be a shocking and highly suspicious conclusion if there were simply nothing that the richest 3% of the world’s population could do with their resources in order to significantly make the world a better place.The core of Singer’s argument is the principle that, if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do so. We can. So we should.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Aim(s) of Practical Deliberation

My new paper on 'Deontic Pluralism' argues for "a maximizing account of the ought of most reason, a satisficing account of obligation, and a scalar account of the weight of reasons."  One question that emerges towards the end of the paper is whether we really need all of this.  Can we identify a sense of 'ought' that has primacy in virtue of its special relevance to first-personal deliberation—i.e., as the sense of ‘ought’ that a conscientious agent has in mind when they ask themselves, “What ought I to do?”

I've previously cast doubt on the idea that the deliberative question has a suitably fixed and determinate meaning. But even just focusing on the choice between the ought of most reason and the ought of minimal decency (or blamelessness), we aren’t obviously forced in either direction here, e.g. by the constitutive norms of agential deliberation. Some agents in some contexts are particularly concerned to at least meet the standards for minimal decency, whereas others are more morally ambitious. We can certainly say that it’s better for agents to do better. But it isn’t clear that there’s much more we can say beyond this trivial evaluative observation. In particular, I see no clear basis for insisting that there is just one proper aim of deliberation.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Actualism, Evaluation and Prerogatives

In his new paper, 'An Argument for Objective Possibilism', Pete Graham argues that Actualism has trouble with cases of merely permissible (i.e. not required) beneficial sacrifice.

Suppose that the agent can now save two out of three lives, but knows that if they do, they will subsequently choose to save the third life at the cost of losing their leg.  Graham suggests that Actualism must treat this as equivalent to the choice of saving three lives at cost of losing a leg, or letting all three die, and that such sacrifice is not required.  But it's absurd to permit the agent to let all three die when they could have saved two lives at no cost.  So, Graham argues, Actualism is false.

It's an interesting objection.  I think the Actualist has a couple of different options for how to respond.

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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