Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Future of Consequentialism

One objection to consequentialism is that there's no way we could even begin to guess at the full (long-term) consequences of our actions, millenia into the future. As such, we would seem to be 'morally blind', unable to attain moral knowledge. Now, I need to take this objection especially seriously, because - as an indirect utilitarian - I tend to think that the standard "counterexamples" to consequentialism (e.g. the organ-harvesting doctor) fail to take the big picture into account, and thus mistake what consequentialism would actually recommend. But then, it must be asked, when we do consider the big picture, what does consequentialism recommend?

The difficulty is exacerbated by the butterfly effect: the smallest changes in initial conditions can have momentous consequences, as the differences ripple outward, each sparking off a cascade of new differences itself, which accumulate and become ever more significant as time progresses. In a way, it's both gratifying and awe-inspiring: every decision we make, everything we do, has a profound impact on the course of future history. (This is the more ego-friendly way of thinking about determinism.) But what chance do we have of foreseeing this future?

Actually, I think we can generally know pretty well what sorts of actions are likely to produce a better future. These judgments are fallible, of course, but that's true of everything. It's possible that some particular repugnant action (murder or sadistic torture, say) will just happen to ultimately prove beneficial. But the vast majority of the time that surely won't be the case. So, as indirect utilitarians, we play by the numbers and adopt that "practical morality" or strategy that will give us the best results that are really possible for us. I think it's interesting to ask what sort of practical morality would be recommended by this long-term view. The most morally salient action-types will be those which are in some sense self-propagating, setting up a "cycle" that will continue to echo through the generations. Bearing this in mind, child abuse is perhaps one of the most evil things in the world -- not just because of the damage done to the individual victim, but because it risks corrupting his psychology in such a way as to perpetuate the "circle of violence", as the victim grows up to become an offender themselves. Any one individual's suffering is not so significant in the grand scheme of things, however. So the long-term view might lead us to conclude that non-viral actions (might murder be an example?), which don't tend to self-replicate in this fashion, are not so serious. That is, we might be forced to conclude that it is better for an abuser to kill his victims rather than release them, if the former evil would be less "contagious". This is a surprising result. I'm curious to hear what others think of it.

The very best actions will also be those which tend to propagate themselves. Education stands out, for me, as a very significant issue here. But that's a topic for a future post. More generally, virtuous character seems to be pleasantly contagious. There are some people I've known whose sheer goodness makes me too want to be a better person. Random acts of kindness can inspire the recipient to "pass it forward" (there was a neat movie built around this idea), again creating a ripple effect which builds towards a significantly better future. Compassion, generosity, sincerity, and passion, all strike me as viral virtues. Each individual instance tends to do some minor good, and also tends to influence others to replicate it. Similarly, but in a negative fashion, for the vices: selfishness, deceitfulness, hatred, and perhaps apathy.

This is all very speculative, admittedly. (A philosopher's attempts at armchair sociology are probably not to be trusted.) So, if my meta-theory is correct, then our moral theorising will need to become more empirically informed about what I have called "viral" or "contagious" action-types. The future of consequentialism thus depends upon progress in developmental psychology, sociology, and the social sciences generally, if it is to survive skeptical concerns about the future.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I miss spare time

Like before, every day I think of new topics I want to blog about. Unlike before, I don't seem to have time to actually get around to writing them up. It's most distressing. (Also unlike before, I now have some income. So I guess it isn't all bad.) Still, as the guy on Jurassic Park says, "Life will find a way..."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

So False as to be Meaningless?

Sean at common sense philosophy discusses the sentence: "Caesar is a prime number."

Apparently some people (including Carnap) think this claim is not false. They don't think it's true either, of course, but rather meaningless -- just like "Caeser is and." Though I agree about the latter, I think the former sentence is simply false. This is because, as Sean points out, there is a set of all prime numbers, and Caesar is not among its members. This undeniable fact immediately entails that Caesar is not a prime number, and hence "Caesar is a prime number" is false. I wonder if some might be tempted to deny it meaning simply because it is so very false, necessarily and obviously so, that no-one would ever even dream of seriously entertaining the thought that it might be true. Then, rather like how something might be so cold that it "burns", so some sentences might be so false that they no longer seem it. Very odd.

Despite the failure of this particular example, there are some sentences that seem genuinely meaningless despite syntactic conformity, such as Chomsky's famous example: "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously." Though I'm actually tempted to just call that one false too. It is not the case that colourless green ideas sleep furiously. Ideas don't sleep -- furiously or not, and whatever shade of colourlessness they might come in!

What do people usually make of claims about non-existent subjects, e.g. "The present king of France is bald." False or meaningless? Is there any sort of consensus on this issue?

What is it about a sentence that makes it meaningful (or not)? Consider the condition that a sentence either violates syntactical requirements or else contains nouns that fail to refer. Is that condition necessary for meaninglessness? Is it sufficient? Are there any better criteria you can offer?


Philosophers' Carnival #22

The 22nd Philosophers' Carnival is here. I especially liked Clark's post on (Continental) phenomenology vs. theory. Hallq's post on taking skepticism a step further reminds me of Reid's response to skepticism. Actually, I've been meaning to blogroll Hallq for a while now. I should get on to that...

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tags for Categories

Two bits of news, both involving the wonderful I've added a linkroll of comments I make to other blogs. It should be on the main page sidebar, just below the list of (this blog's) "recent comments".

You may have noticed I haven't updated my manual 'categories' for several months. It's just too much work. (I can usually find more recent posts using a site-search anyway.) But ecmanaut has come up with a very useful-looking Greasemonkey [see here] script which makes it easier to categorize your blog posts using tags. So I'm trying that out now. The only complication is that I already tag other websites, so to isolate my blog posts I will tag them with 'PhilosophyEtc'. This can then be combined with topical tags to yield my blog archives by category (e.g. tools). I'll eventually add the most important category links to my sidebar, for ease of access.

P.S. See here for an introduction to tags and why they're so well suited for forming Blogger categories.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Upcoming Carnival

Time flies. The next Philosophers' Carnival is coming up on Monday. Be sure to send in a submission by the weekend, to give the host plenty of time (and content!) to prepare.

Also remember that you're welcome to nominate others' posts using the simple and convenient nominations system.

[Update: Not much time left!]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Choosing to Oppose Suburban Sprawl

PC argues that "sprawl is good; regulation is not" -- yet another example of libertarian short-sightedness. He points out that sprawl can help bring down housing prices, and concludes that it must be 'good', without considering all the negative consequences. Outward development has environmental costs, increases traffic congestion and commuting times along arterial roads, leads to increased water demand, requires expensive new infrastructure, and makes alternative modes of transport (walking, cycling, public transport) infeasible for most.

The Greater Christchurch region is far from unregulated at present. But further regulations, as recommended by careful urban planning, could have significant benefits nonetheless. Compared to "business as usual" for the next 35 years, the council's Option A (which concentrates new development in the central city, building 'up' rather than 'out') will save 2110 hectares of land, $130 million in public infrastructure costs for new housing, $100 million in anti-congestion costs, $400 million per year motoring costs, and 212 L water per second. Although commuting times and vehicle emissions are set to worsen in either case, the increases can be alleviated by 10 and 15 percentage points, respectively. Further advantages include better community facilities within easy access of most citizens, and much improved transport options -- with walking, cycling, and public transport all becoming much more viable and attractive options.

It's far from clear that the benefits of cheaper housing can offset all these other factors. What is clear is that it's terribly irresponsible to just ignore all these complications and advocate for further sprawl solely on the basis of its benefits and without considering the costs.

PC adds: "Sprawl is good. It's about choice, and letting people afford to have one."

The Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy team solicited feedback from local residents about the options for our region. They made their choice. Only 3% opted for "business as usual". An overwhelming number of people explicitly asked for improved transport options (e.g. more cycleways), greater environmental responsibility, urban redevelopment, and stricter regulation to prevent sprawl.

(Full disclosure: I'm currently working with the Christchurch City Council to analyse the UDS feedback and assess the consultation process.)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Gender and Green Co-Leadership

Frogblog has a post attempting to justify the Greens' archaic (so 1990s!) requirement that their co-leaders be of different genders. I tried to post a comment there, but it got eaten by their spam filters. (You'll see why.) So I'll reproduce it here instead:


So why not choose the two best people for the job? Your only relevant comments are that "each gender brings a particular world view and life experience to the role", and "gender is the most fundamental *difference* between people and a key physical identifier that everybody shares."

But that's silly.

Gender is not the most fundamental difference between people. I share a lot more in common with a well-educated female philosophy student than I do a senile fundimentalist male.

Physical differences don't matter. Character matters. Ideas matter. But chromosomes and genitalia? Not so much.

Any two individuals will bring "a particular world view and life experience to the role." If you want diversity of worldviews and experience, why not select for that directly, rather than falling back on a sexist and unreliable proxy? It would make far more sense to encourage complementary idealist/pragmatist co-leaders, like - I take it - Jeanette and Rod were.

With the loss of Rod, you need another pragmatist, not another penis.


P.S. I'd also add that Frog's opening up a can of worms by suggesting that gender is a "fundamental difference" between people -- a group affiliation so significant as to justify prejudging individuals solely on its basis. Such stereotype-based reasoning was precisely how conservatives of old rationalized keeping women out of politics. And, as I've said before, discrimination doesn't suddenly become okay when pure-hearted liberals engage in it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Impossibly Conceivable Counteractual?

That last post got me thinking: isn't counteractuality an example of something that is ideally conceivable and yet metaphysically impossible?

On the standard understanding, p is metaphysically possible iff there is some possible world where p is true. But there is no possible world at which any world other than our own is really actual. (Just like there is no other country from which Wellington is not the capital of New Zealand. Once the index is fixed, the truth of an indexical statement is likewise fixed, no matter where you might "ask" it from. Our world is the only 'actual world' in the modal multiverse -- a static fact that's true everywhere you might ask of it, even on other possible worlds. See also my old post on modal indexicals.) So counteractuality is metaphysically impossible.

(It seems a straightforward consequence of this that there is no such thing as real possibility. The standard metaphysics of modality, as I understand it, thus commits us to narrow fatalism. This is a most unfortunate consequence. Perhaps I've just misunderstood the standard picture -- if so, I hope someone can reply and set me straight. Otherwise, I think, the standard picture is in serious need of revision. See the latter link for a somewhat radical alternative designed to avoid such problems. For now, though, I'm working with the standard picture.)

Nevertheless, it seems perfectly conceivable that some other possible world could have been actualized in place of ours. Indeed, I suggested in my last post that whenever we imagine, we imagine the fictional world as (counter-)actual. So we conceive of the impossible all the time. Unless there's something wrong with the analysis of possibility described above...

P.S. I've previously suggested a connection between conceivability and our explanatory practices, to the effect that, if Y is a conceivable alternative to some actual fact X, then we should want an explanation of why X is true rather than Y. Conceivability is the important notion, not metaphysical possibility. (Just as well, since the latter notion is so difficult to make sense of.) So, even if it's metaphysically necessary that our world is actual, it'd still be nice to have an explanation for why this world and not some other.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Actual Ambiguities

Consider the term: "the actual world". It means, transparently enough, something along the lines of "that possible world which is actual". As with many definite descriptions, this displays a sort of de dicto/de re ambiguity. On the one hand, we might take the term 'the actual world' as a straightforward description (or a kind of modal indexical), so that any possible world can refer to itself by using the term, if we conceive of that world as "counteractual" rather than merely counterfactual, i.e. when we conceive of that world as having been actualized in place of our own world. This is analogous to how the de dicto reading of "the U.S. president" allows it to refer to John Kerry in some possible worlds, even though Kerry isn't president in our world. Much like Kerry could have been president in place of Bush, so, perhaps, some other possible world could have been actual in place of our own. (I'm actually not convinced that's a meaningful suggestion. But I'll ignore such worries for now.)

Alternatively, we might take the term to be a sort of name or rigid designator, the description picking out an actual object, but thereafter holding the reference fixed throughout all possible worlds. So, for example, if we rigidly designate X = "the [actual] U.S. president", then 'X' is just another name for George W. Bush, and in counterfactual worlds where Kerry is president, it would be false to say "X is the U.S. President", because Bush wouldn't be. Applying this to our present problem, we might take "the actual world" to be a name rigidly designating our own particular world. On this reading, if my counterpart on a frozen possible world were to say "I'm actually cold" (in the philosophical sense of "I'm cold in the actual world"), then he would be saying something false, since in the actual world - i.e. our one - I'm not cold. On the de dicto reading previously mentioned, however, he might well be saying something true. It would be true just in case he was cold, on his world.

Okay, hopefully that's all clear. Now, I bring this up because it's relevant to a couple of recent posts over at Fake Barn Country. In one, Jonathan argues that we cannot believe metaphysical contingencies, because a belief that p just is a belief that actually p, but the truth value of the latter belief's content is metaphysically necessary (if true, it's necessarily true; if false, it's necessarily false). But this argument equivocates between the two senses of 'actually' described above.

A belief that p is only equivalent to a belief that actually p in the de dicto sense, i.e. where 'actually p' just means 'p in this world (conceived as actual)', that is, just plain 'p'. And there's nothing metaphysically necessary about the truth value of that. The stronger version doesn't work, because my frozen counterpart believes he is cold (i.e. "RC is cold"), but he doesn't necessarily believe that I, his actualized counterpart, am cold. He doesn't know anything about my situation. His beliefs are about his possible world, not mine. And a belief about his world is clearly not the same as a belief about my world. So, these counterfactual people show that a belief that p is not the same as a belief that actually p -- not in the strong (de re) sense that Jonathan requires.

In an earlier post, Jonathan made the following claim:

"Claim: To imagine a scenario is to imagine that the scenario obtains in the actual world."

I suggested in comments that this is only true in the de dicto sense. A better way to put it might be that we imagine scenarios as counter-actual, rather than actual. We don't imagine them taking place in this very world [the de re actual world], where I'm warm and Bush is president. Rather, it seems to me, we imagine scenarios (fictions especially) as taking place in some other world, a world which we then conceive of as being actual in place of our world.

None of the FBC guys seemed especially taken by the idea, which is odd, because it strikes me as obviously correct. (Then again, Jonathan thought his claim was obviously true too, which I strongly disagree with, so perhaps 'obvious' is a dangerous word to be throwing around in this discussion!) What do you guys think?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Exams are finally over. Blogging will resume when I can bear to think again. (Don't hold your breath.) In the meantime, don't miss a great new comment from Mike B. over on my old 'metaphysical contextualism' post. I especially liked the following passage:
[R]ather than thinking of misguided arguments, or misguided arguers, as victims of faulty thought processes, of a cracked lens, perhaps it is sometimes better to think of them as having a stuck lens, of lacking lubrication. Then, the best way of freeing up their mechanism is to bring up their image in your own lens, describe it carefully to them, and change your focus slightly, describing how one image changes into the next, so that they can see how a different view can be gained, until you get back down to the image you want.

As for me, the piano beckons, and then some flighty fictions I want to read...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Paternal Responsibility

There's some tension in feminist thought regarding paternal responsibility. On the one hand, feminists typically hold that a pregnant woman has absolute discretion over whether to get an abortion or see the child to term, with no obligation to consult the father or consider his wishes. Yet if the woman chooses to have the baby, the father is held responsible and made to pay child support. This seems unjust.

To be held responsible for an outcome, one must have some control over it. The father certainly shares responsibility for the pregnancy (assuming he had sex voluntarily). But since childbirth in the feminist utopia depends upon failure to abort, one can only be responsible for childbirth if one is responsible for a failure to abort. And if the decision to abort or not is made without so much as consulting the father, one cannot plausibly hold him responsible for it. If abortion is accessible (in the broadest sense of the term, including moral and emotional considerations, etc.) to the mother, but she unilaterally decides against it, then her continued pregnancy is her responsibility and hers alone. She could have avoided it, but chose not to. It would be unjust for her to force others to pay the costs of her decisions.

Now, Dr. Pretorius makes the obvious point that the child's welfare matters here too. I certainly wouldn't deny that. But amongst all the snarkiness he doesn't seem to have noticed that this doesn't actually help his position any. That a child has the right to be adequately provided for does not in itself entail who has the burden of fulfilling this right. Presumably the burden falls on those who are responsible for bringing the child into the world -- with social welfare as a 'safety net' if required. In the case of the unilateral feminist described above, it was the mother who was solely responsible. If she is too poor to adequately provision her child, the state should step in and help (for the sake of the kid, who should not be punished for his mother's selfishness).

Pretorius actually suggests the more specific principle:
(P) Children have the right to be [financially] supported by their biological parents.

This is not plausible. Suppose a mad woman extracted sperm from you whilst you were sleeping, and used this to get herself pregnant. Nine months later, the bills start arriving, demanding that you pay for this child that you never even knew you had. Are you obliged to pay them? If the mad woman is married, and the otherwise sane couple are taking good care of the kid, does the child really have a further right to be financially supported by you in particular? Is he somehow harmed if the money comes from somewhere else instead?

Or, less fantastically, consider a case where the father is a rape victim, and ask all those same questions. It seems clear that if someone is manipulated into becoming a biological parent against their will, then they are not responsible for the child, and hence it would be unjust to hold them responsible by forced child support payments. That's not to deny the child's basic rights to welfare. It's just to deny that the manipulated victim is the one who has to fulfill them. If a general welfare right cannot be adequately fulfilled by those responsible, then the burden passes to society as a whole (social welfare), not any particular non-responsible individual.

The crucial question now is whether the father in our original "unilateral feminist" scenario was "manipulated into becoming a biological parent against [his] will". As previously noted, it's crucial here whether abortion is "accessible" to the mother, in the broadest sense of the term. Given the normal progression of things, being responsible for conception typically suffices to carry over into responsibility for the consequently born child. But if abortion is a live option, then childbirth is not just a consequence of conception. It's a consequence of conception plus the decision not to abort. If the man is excluded from the latter decision, then he cannot be held responsible for it.

So, we should reject (P). Indeed, quite apart from the unfair attributions of responsibility, it's a pretty ludicrous right in its own, uh, right. From the point of view of the child's welfare (which Pretorius purports to be concerned with), what matters is that his needs are met. It does not matter who meets them. So (P) is not really about the child's welfare at all. It's about holding the father personally responsible. But that's something that feminists cannot reasonably do if they want to exclude the father from prior important decisions.

One might object that some of the child's needs are special in the sense that they can only be met by the biological father. This is obviously false concerning financial needs: child support payments are not intrinsically more valuable than social welfare payments of the same amount. But it is more plausible in connection to emotional needs. Perhaps fathers have a moral obligation to love their children, no matter the circumstances of the birth. (Though I think in at least some cases this would be an unreasonable demand, as the prior examples make clear.) Regardless, this cannot be a legal obligation -- you can't sue people into becoming good fathers. Forcing money out of them certainly won't help.

In fact, considerations of the child's welfare should lead us to reconsider paternal exclusion from the decision not to abort. The unilateral feminist is intentionally bringing into the world a child who will have an uncaring father. That seems at least somewhat irresponsible. If she could abort it and instead (say) have a child a year later with a more dedicated father, that seems clearly preferable from the next generation's point of view. (Indeed, it seems preferable from everyone's point of view, assuming feminists are correct about how harmless abortion is.)

Dr. Pretorius attacks unwilling fathers by saying: "you know, sometimes you don't just have the right to do whatever you want regardless of how it affects other people." Yet in the immediately preceding sentence he was insisting that a woman has the "right" to carry her baby to term, no matter how this affects the father (or, presumably, the child itself). Very ironic.

Bringing a child into the world is a very serious undertaking, and can be a significant burden for those who do not welcome it. Recognizing this, feminists embrace abortion for the choice it affords women, allowing them to avoid this burden. But why are men deprived of the same choice, the same chance to say, "No, I'm not prepared to accept this responsibility right now"?

Doesn't it go against liberal principles to allow one person to unnecessarily burden another against their will? If so, then men - just like women - cannot fairly be burdened with an unwanted child. Either the child can be brought to term without incurring rights against the father, or else the father too should be allowed to abort it. (The former sounds more plausible.) For feminists agree that, even post-conception, a child is an unnecessary burden. It may be aborted if that would be most convenient for the woman. It seems plain sexism not to extend the same courtesy to men.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Feed of the Day

Well, that's nice. Hop over to and you'll see this blog featured as their "feed of the day".