Thursday, January 06, 2022

Longtermism Contra Schwitzgebel

In 'Against Longtermism', Eric Schwitzgebel writes: "I accept much of Ord's practical advice. I object only to justifying this caution by appeal to expectations about events a million years from now."  He offers four objections, which are interesting and well worth considering, but I think ultimately unpersuasive.  Let's consider them in turn.

Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 in review

[Past annual reviews: 20202019 & '182017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005, and 2004.]

Off the blog:

The biggest development for me was joining as lead editor.  I then completed their chapters on population ethics and theories of well-being, and wrote a new chapter outlining some basic arguments for utilitarianism.  More to come soon!

For more traditional academic publications:
* Parfit's Ethics appeared in print with Cambridge University Press. (Summary here.)
* 'Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk' (summarized here) was accepted by Public Health Ethics.
* 'Negative Utility Monsters' was published in Utilitas.

I'm also pretty excited about various works-in-progress that are currently under review, especially my new paradox of deontology...

Blog posts:

Normative Ethics

* The Cost of Contraints -- sets out the core of my "new paradox of deontology".  Further developed in Preferring to Act WronglyWhy Constraints are Agent Neutral, and Discounting Illicit Benefits.

The Most Important Thing in the World -- is plausibly the trajectory of the long-term future.

Three Dogmas of Utilitarianism -- (i) Confusing value with what's valuable; (ii) Neglecting fittingness; and (iii) Treating all interests as innocent.

* Agency as a Force for Good -- and the appeal of consequentialism.

Learning from Lucifer -- If Satan would be a consequentialist, should the good guys be likewise (just, you know, with better goals)?  Or is there a deeper asymmetry between right and wrong?

* Tendentious Terminology in Ethics -- against common uses of "mere means" and "separateness of persons" talk.

Is Effective Altruism Inherent Utilitarian?  I suggest not.  There's a weaker normative principle in the vicinity, potentially shareable by any other sensible view, which should be difficult to deny. In a later post, I call this: Beneficentrism: The view that promoting the general welfare is deeply important.

* Consequentialism's Central Concept may be importance rather than rightness.

* What's at Stake in the Objective/Subjective Wrongness Debate? Seems terminological.  Appeal to "what a morally conscientious agent would be concerned about" doesn't help, because (my Moral Stunting Objection shows) a morally conscientious agent wouldn't be concerned about right or wrong per se.

Welfare and Population Ethics

* Is Conscientious Sadism still bad?

* Parsimony in Theories of Welfare -- is it really a relevant consideration at all?

* The Limits of Defective Character Solutions -- and why they don't help with the non-identity problem.

* Stable Actualism and Asymmetries of Regret -- actualist partiality is defensible once you subtract the possibility of elusive permissions.

Pandemic Ethics

* Lessons from the Pandemic: blocking innovation is bad.

* Epistemic Calibration Bias and Blame Aversion -- we're often too scared of being wrong, and not sufficiently attuned to the risks of failing to be right (e.g. by instead remaining non-committal) when it matters.

* There's No Such Thing as "Following the Science" -- normative principles are needed to bridge the is/ought gap.  Better slogan: Follow Decision Theory!

* Appeasing Anti-Vaxxers -- and why it's wrong.

* Imagining an Alternative Pandemic Response -- with vaccine challenge trials, targeted immunity via variolation, and immunity passports to spare many (e.g. healthy young people) from lockdowns.

Applied Ethics

* Companies, Cities, and Carbon -- blaming large corporations for proportionately large carbon emissions makes no more sense than blaming large cities. 

Five Fallacies of Collective Harm -- Critiquing the five main reasons why people falsely believe that collective difference-making doesn't require individual difference-making.

The Absurdity of "Undue Inducement" argues that there's no in-principle basis for objecting to monetary incentives to (e.g.) research participants.  If concerned that an offer might be exploitative, the solution is to pay more, not less.

* Against Anti-Beneficent Paternalism - as a general rule, we shouldn't prevent people from doing good (even if we aren't entirely certain of the quality of their understanding or consent).

* Puzzling Conditional Obligations -- if positively good to comply with, then you ought to have unconditional reason to get yourself into position to meet the putative obligation.


* The Parochialism of Metaethical Naturalism - the basic moral facts should not differ depending on our location in modal space (i.e. which world is actual).  But synthetic metaethical naturalism, with its 2-D semantic asymmetry, violates this principle.

* Ruling out Helium-Maximizing -- without giving up robust realism. 

* Why Belief is No Game - pragmatists (like Maguire & Woods) are wrong about what people are rationally criticizable for, and hence wrong about what reasons there are.


* Philosophical Pluralism and Modest Dogmatism - On why we should welcome philosophical dissensus.

* Querying vs Dismissive Objections - are you aiming to create a dialectical opening (to which you'd like to hear a response), or simply shutting things down?  When is the latter appropriate?

* Commonsense Epiphenomenalism - could the view be less weird than everyone tends to assume?

* Helen interviewed on Idealism -- including why Idealism might warrant up to 30% credence.

* New Blogs of Note -- three recommendations.

* Zach Barnett's guest post on 'Meeting Taurek's Challenge'.

* Philosophy Spotlight posts from Eden Lin, Jess Flanigan, and Hrishikesh Joshi.  I'm still waiting for other blogs to join in!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk (forthcoming in PHE)

My latest paper, 'Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk', has just been accepted for publication in Public Health Ethics. Here's the abstract:

Conservative assumptions in medical ethics risk immense harms during a pandemic. Public health institutions and public discourse alike have repeatedly privileged inaction over aggressive medical interventions to address the pandemic, perversely increasing population-wide risks while claiming to be guided by “caution”. This puzzling disconnect between rhetoric and reality is suggestive of an underlying philosophical confusion. In this paper, I argue that we have been misled by status quo bias—exaggerating the moral significance of the risks inherent in medical interventions, while systematically neglecting the (objectively greater) risks inherent in the status quo prospect of an out-of-control pandemic. By coming to appreciate the possibility and significance of status quo risk, we will be better prepared to respond appropriately when the next pandemic strikes

The central idea is that heuristics of ambiguity-aversion and favouring inaction over (potentially risky) action can be expected to backfire terribly in circumstances -- such as a pandemic -- in which "business as usual" is leading us towards disaster.  Instead, I suggest that our policy and institutional responses to such emergency circumstances need to be rebalanced towards (i) liberalizing access to experimental treatments and vaccines, and (ii) requiring an explicit cost-benefit analysis to justify any sort of vaccine obstructionism (e.g. failure to immediately grant Emergency Use Authorization to any credible candidate vaccine early in the pandemic, and of course any post-authorization suspensions).

Other key points of the paper:

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Consequentialism's Central Concept

Ethical theories are typically formulated as centrally concerning the concept of right action.  Introductory ethics classes may define competing theories as offering different completions of the sentence: "An act is right iff...".  And that probably works well enough for deontological theories, which are centrally concerned with delineating the boundaries of permissibility and obligation.  But I think it's very misleading to treat consequentialist theories as seeking to answer this question.  (And I expect virtue ethicists would have similar complaints.)

If forced into a deontic mould, it's natural to default to maximizing consequentialism: An act is right iff it maximizes value (or, more precisely, produces no less value than any alternative option).  But the concept of rightness has connotations that fit poorly with consequentialism, as many (from Railton to Norcross) have pointed out.  For example:

Friday, December 03, 2021


Philosophical discussion of utilitarianism understandably focuses on its most controversial features: its rejection of deontic constraints and the "demandingness" of impartial maximizing.  But in fact almost all of the important practical implications of utilitarianism stem from a much weaker feature, one that I think probably ought to be shared by every sensible moral view.  It's just the claim that it's really important to help others.  As Peter Singer and other effective altruists have long argued, we're able to do extraordinary amounts of good for others very easily (e.g. just by donating 10% of our income to the most effective charities), and this is very much worth doing.

It'd be helpful to have a snappy name for this view, which assigns (non-exclusive) central moral importance to beneficence.  So let's coin the following:

Beneficentrism: The view that promoting the general welfare is deeply important.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Indefensibility of Post-Vaccine Lockdowns

Reasonable people may disagree about the justifiability of early-pandemic lockdowns (while awaiting the availability of vaccines), but this is just nuts:

Austrian officials’ decision to impose a lockdown that will last at least 10 days and as many as 20 came after months of struggling attempts to halt the contagion through widespread testing and partial restrictions. Starting Monday, public life in the country is to come to a halt, with people allowed to leave their homes only to go to work or to procure groceries or medicines.

What's the justification for this?  When vaccines are freely available to all, Covid isn't a serious threat except to those who refuse the vaccine, and thereby accept personal responsibility for the consequences. If policymakers are worried about hospital over-crowding, unvaccinated adults suffering complications from Covid should go to the back of the line.  If the unvaccinated are not willing to accept the risk of death due to a lack of hospital beds, they can either (i) get vaccinated, or (ii) stay home or take other precautions while local case rates are high.  But if they insist on risking their health, and get seriously ill as a result, they've no-one to blame but themselves.  It's simply not reasonable to infringe upon everyone's liberties for fear of harms that individuals have it within their own power to mitigate or avoid.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Updates to

Back in July, I mentioned our new introduction to population ethics.  Since then, I've also added a chapter on Theories of Well-being, and -- brand new as of today -- Arguments for Utilitarianism.

I'm inclined to think the best case for utilitarianism stems from simply reflecting on what fundamentally matters (and one who doesn't find the utilitarian answer here intuitively compelling is unlikely to be much moved by any other argument in support of the view).  But I'm also pretty moved by the charge against non-consequentialist views that they are steeped in status quo bias, so I was pleased to be able to make that case here.  (I don't recall seeing the point discussed so much elsewhere -- it strikes me as unduly neglected.)

The other big news today is that we're kicking off a new series of Guest Essays with an excellent article by Jeff Sebo on 'Utilitarianism and Nonhuman Animals':

This essay advances three broad claims about utilitarianism and nonhuman animals. First, utilitarianism plausibly implies that all vertebrates and many invertebrates morally matter, but that some of these animals might matter more than others. Second, utilitarianism plausibly implies that we should attempt to both promote animal welfare and respect animal rights in practice. Third, utilitarianism plausibly implies that we should prioritize farmed and wild animals at present, and that we should work to support them in a variety of ways.

Enjoy!  (And maybe consider adding the relevant articles to your syllabi if you teach on any of these topics...)

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...