Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Puzzling Conditional Obligations

If you make a promise (and haven't been released from it), then you're obliged to keep your promise.  The obligation is, in a sense, conditional. Note that you've no moral reason to go around making extra promises just so that you can keep them.  Keeping promises isn't a good to be promoted in this way.  (We might instead think that keeping a promise is neutral, while breaking one is bad.)

It's natural to think that obligations that are in this way "conditional" should mimic this axiological structure: being bad to violate, but neutral between complying and cancelling. For if they were positively good to comply with, that reason would seem to transmit up the conditional and yield us an unconditional reason to get yourself into a position where the obligation (applies and) can be met.

With this in mind, the following putatively conditional obligations begin to look puzzling:

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Ruling out Helium-Maximizing

Joe Carlsmith asks: is it possible you should maximize helium?  Robust realism per se places no constraints on what the normative truths might end up being.  So, in particular, there's no guarantee that what we objectively ought to do would hold any appeal whatsoever to us, even on ideal reflection -- the objective requirements could be anything!  (Or so you might assume.)

But I think that's not quite right.  Metaphysically, of course, the fundamental normative truths are non-contingent, so they could not really be anything other than what they in fact are. Epistemically, the fundamental normative truths are a priori (if knowable at all), so it's not clear that erroneous views are "possible" in any deep sense.  A somewhat wider range of views may be "possible" in the superficial sense that we don't currently know them to be false, but unless you're a normative skeptic, we can currently know that pain is bad and that maximizing helium is not the ultimate good.

Friday, October 01, 2021

New Blogs of Note

Three new-ish blogs (from the past year or so) that I figure are worth highlighting:

(1) Cold Takes - Holden Karnofsky (of GiveWell and Open Philanthropy fame) writing on themes relating to "avant-garde effective altruism".  See especially his "Most Important Century" series, on why humanity needs to prepare for some wild changes.

(2) Hands and Cities - by Oxford philosophy grad (and Open Philanthropy research analyst) Joe Carlsmith. I just discovered this blog a week or so ago, but have been digging through the archives a bit and really enjoying it. I especially recommend 'On future people, looking back at 21st century longtermism', 'On the limits of idealized values' (exploring puzzles for subjectivists about how to select the appropriate idealization procedure), and 'Can you control the past?' (on decision theory).  He's clearly influenced by Eliezer Yudkowsky, but is actually good at philosophy, which makes for an interesting combination.

(3) Astral Codex Ten - Scott Alexander's new blog.  Probably everyone already knows this?  But I mention it here in case there are any deprived souls out there who could still benefit from the pointer.  See, e.g., 'The Moral Costs of Chicken vs Beef', 'The Rise and Fall of Online Culture Wars', stuff on charter cities, schooling, and the FDA.

Are there any other new blogs of note that you've been enjoying recently?  Share a link in the comments, if so...

Friday, September 24, 2021

Agency as a Force for Good

One fundamental reason for favouring consequentialism is the basic teleological intuition that the primary purpose of agency is to realize preferable outcomes.  If you have a choice between a better state of affairs and a worse one, it's very natural to think that the better state of affairs would be the better option to choose.

A slightly different way to put it is that if it would be good for something to happen, then it would be good to choose for it to happen.  Our agency is itself part of the natural world, after all, and while it is distinctive in being subject to moral evaluation -- misdirected exercises of agency may be wicked in a way that unfortunately directed lightning strikes are not -- it's far from clear why this should transform an otherwise desirable outcome into an undesirable one.  There's nothing obviously misdirected (let alone "wicked") about straightforwardly aiming at the good, after all.

Consequentialism thus fits with an appealing conception of agency as a force for good in the world. Left to its own devices, the world might just as easily drift into bad outcomes as good ones, but through our choices, we moral agents may deliberately steer it along better paths.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Helen interviewed on Idealism

In a rare online appearance, Helen is interviewed on Mind Chat by Philip Goff and Keith Frankish about her book-in-progress, The View From Everywhere: Realist Idealism Without God.

For highlights, see especially:

36:00 - Helen explains the basics of her novel form of idealism (and how it differs from Berkeley's).

53:45 - Why idealism is more plausible than you might have thought.

58:20 - How idealism enables a direct realist account of perception like no other.

1:56:42 - Why philosophy monographs should be followed up with a "for kids" version.

There's also a bunch of interesting meta-philosophical discussion throughout, reacting to Helen's explanation that she only has about 30% credence in idealism, and correspondingly aims not to convince others that it's true, but just that they should take it more seriously than they had previously.

Check out the full interview on YouTube.

Companies, Cities, and Carbon

This is terrible journalism:
While [donating $1 billion to protect forests] is certainly notable, Bezos’s commitment to protecting the environment serves as a stark reminder that much of his legacy and largely untaxed fortune was built by companies that have staggering carbon footprints. Amazon’s carbon emissions have grown every year since 2018, and last year alone, when global carbon emissions fell roughly 7 percent, Amazon’s carbon emissions grew 19 percent.

Economic activity is (for the time being) carbon-intensive. Amazon constitutes a huge and (especially during the pandemic) growing portion of the US economy. There's nothing said here to suggest that Amazon is unusually inefficient (from an environmental perspective); the author is really just complaining that Amazon is a large and growing part of the economy. (Horrors! They even had the gall to keep the economy going during the pandemic, when other companies did the green thing and shut down, bless their empty coffers...)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Discounting Illicit Benefits

In 'The Means and the Good' (Analysis, forthcoming) Matthew Oliver argues that pluralist consequentialists can accommodate intuitions against using others as a means, on the model of how they can accommodate intuitions about desert:

Just as it is bad for Emily to benefit from a stolen manuscript, it is bad for anyone to benefit from the use of another’s body or resources as a means. We can call this impersonal badness an impersonal-use-cost. As with a stolen manuscript, good results that are produced by using another person’s body or resources are heavily offset by an accompanying impersonal-use-cost.

By, in effect, discounting illicit benefits, we get the result that killing one to save five does more harm than good.  But we also get the result that killing one to prevent five others from each killing one to save five likewise does more harm than good.  (I think the most natural way to understand this is not to regard the second-order killing as in itself extra bad; the killing is just as intrinsically bad as any other death, the problem is instead that any good that would follow from it -- including the prevention of other wrongful killings -- gets massively discounted.)

It's a clever and interesting view!  But it seems really vulnerable to my argument against constraints, namely, that it unacceptably devalues the lives of the innocent victims who might be rescued.  Once an innocent person has been killed in an (even wrongful) attempt to save five, it really matters whether those five are ultimately saved or not!  So we shouldn't discount the value of their lives, no matter the illicit nature of the agent's act (however bad it may have been, that harm has already been done).  Otherwise, we would violate the moral datum that One Killing to Prevent Five >> Six Killings (Failed Prevention).

My reframing of the view in terms of "discounting illicit benefits" brings out the problem most starkly.  But I think it's just a verbal difference, and Oliver's original formulation in terms of an offsetting "use cost" (proportional to the illicit benefits) has the same implications.  Does that sound right?  Do correct me if I'm wrong...

Sunday, September 05, 2021

JCVI endorses Status Quo Bias

The UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recently recommended against vaccinating children under 16 against Covid, despite granting that "the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms." (Of course, aggregated over a subpopulation of millions, even "marginal" improvements in risk profile can result in several saved lives and scores or hundreds fewer hospitalizations.  And, as Deepti Gurdasani makes clear in this thread,* all the evidence should lead us to expect the "unknown" risks from Covid to outweigh those from the vaccine, so taking uncertainty into account should lead us to regard vaccination as all the more important.)

So what's behind the JCVI's verdict?  They are at least admirably transparent:

In providing its advice, JCVI also recognises that in relation to childhood immunisation programmes, the UK public places a higher relative value on safety compared to benefits.

It's important to be clear on what this really means. Note that this is not invoking any kind of philosophically defensible harm/benefit asymmetry.  (Many people think it's more important to reduce suffering than to promote happiness, but that's not what this is about.)  Vaccines aren't to make you happy. The "benefits" they provide are specifically safety benefits, i.e. against other health risks.  So what the JCVI is really saying is that they place higher value on protecting people from potential harms from vaccines than on protecting people from potential harms from COVID.

That is deeply messed up.

I just hope that greater philosophical clarity here will help people to see how messed up it is (and so change these institutions' values in future).  Every time some dopey bureaucrat claims they're prioritizing "vaccine safety" over "benefits", they need to be met with the response: No, you're prioritizing safety from vaccines over safety from COVID.

That's clearly indefensible.  We just need to make it clear that this is in fact what they are doing.  Don't let them obscure the reality of status quo risks behind a weasel-word like "benefits".  The choice isn't between "safety vs benefits", it's "safety [against lesser vaccine risks] vs safety [against greater covid risks]".

* = Thanks to Dan Fogal for the pointer.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Sauce for the Gander

The Texas anti-abortion law enshrines the idea that others' interests legally trump an individual's right to bodily integrity.  Of course, many would question whether a six-week embryo really has morally significant interests yet, but put such worries aside for now.  I'm interested in how broadly this principle should be applied.  For there are many needy individuals out whose moral status is much clearer than that of an embryo.  Just consider any dialysis patient, for example.  If bodily integrity is no longer sacrosanct, should we not pass laws mandating the removal of excess kidneys to help those in need?  Better yet, since most of us (I think) still regard violations of bodily integrity as a serious moral cost, perhaps one could instead mandate just that those who have mandated that others' bodily integrity be violated for another's sake should themselves be subject to mandatory kidney donation.  They've already implicitly consented to the principle at stake, after all.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Tendentious Terminology in Ethics

Ethical theorists may sometimes engage in "persuasive definition": re-defining an evocative phrase for their own purposes, in a way that their opponent will reasonably regard as inaccurate and unfair.  Two examples that always annoy me are "treating someone as a mere means" and the "separateness of persons".  Opponents of consequentialism all too often trot out these phrases to indicate deep flaws in consequentialism. But it only works for them if they first redefine these terms to mean something that has nothing to do with the literal meaning of treating someone as a mere means or the separateness of persons.  You might as well redefine "terrorist" to denote adherents of the opposing views, and then complain that your opponents are all terrorists.  It's dishonest rhetoric, and ought to be avoided.  In this post, I'll explain my two examples, and why I consider them so misleading.  Others are welcome to comment with other examples -- especially any that you think consequentialists may be guilty of!