Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Link-Finder Tool

Johan at Ecmanaut has created an incredibly useful bookmarklet, which instantly finds any links to your blog (or any domain name you choose) on the page you're viewing. Every blogger's dream: no more scouring the page trying to find the link where those detected hits were coming from!

His instructions aren't too clear, though, so let me help:
  1. Click the link above to go to Ecmanaut's page.

  2. Click the "site domain name" button, and replace his blog address with your own.

  3. Scroll down to the second block of code, and click and drag it into the "quicklinks" bar at the top of your browser screen -- a.k.a. the "bookmarks toolbar folder". (You might then want to right-click on it, select 'properties', and enter a suitable name, e.g. "find links".)

Then you're ready to go! Just click the newly created bookmarklet whenever you want to find any links to you on the current page. Enjoy! (And thanks, Johan!)


Monday, January 30, 2006

You learn something new every day

Ten Top Trivia Tips about Philosophy!

  1. Philosophy was originally called Cheerioats.
  2. In Chinese, the sound 'philosophy' means 'bite the wax tadpole'.
  3. Tradition allows women to propose to philosophy only during leap years.
  4. The Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter is made entirely of philosophy.
  5. Oranges, lemons, watermelons, pineapples and philosophy are all berries!
  6. If you toss philosophy 10000 times, it will not land heads 5000 times, but more like 4950, because its head weighs more and thus ends up on the bottom!
  7. Philosophyology is the study of philosophy.
  8. Philosophy can be seen from space.
  9. American Airlines saved forty thousand dollars a year by eliminating philosophy from each salad served in first class.
  10. Philosophy is actually a fruit, not a vegetable!
I am interested in - do tell me about


Philosophers' Carnival #25

The latest Philosophers' Carnival is now up at the Uncredible Hallq. It was good to see so many submissions this time around, and from a lot of new voices -- I don't think Hallq ended up having to use the nominations list at all. (Which might be a pity in some respects, as there are some interesting posts there too.) Some of the 'regulars' were missing though, and this may have led to a bit less 'core philosophy' than usual.

Update: I should highlight the fun discussion with Alonzo Fyfe about morality and reasons for action.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Teacher Co-ops

A fascinating suggestion from Stumbling and Mumbling (a highly recommended blog, BTW):
In many businesses where professional standards and skilled employees are the key to success, employee ownership is the norm; law firms, accountants, hedge funds, vet and medical practices are routinely partnerships of professionals.

Why shouldn’t this model be extended to teachers? Why shouldn’t schools be co-operatives/partnerships of teachers who compete against each other?

This would have several merits:

1. The combination of co-operative ownership and competition would raise standards.

2. It would give teachers more genuine professional autonomy.

3. Groups of like-minded teachers (say, according to their views on different educational theories) would bind together. The resulting difference in teaching methods would let us see what works and what doesn’t.

4. It accords with the economic theory of property rights – that employees should own organizations where human capital is the key asset.

Now, I want to be vague about the precise blueprint here; there are loads of possibilities. All I’m saying is that teacher-controlled schools should appeal to both “left” – because it puts workers/teachers in charge – and “right”, because it introduces competition. It’s also consistent with economic theory. So why not at least think about it?

If there are any other New Zealand bloggers reading this: do you think there's any chance of such reforms being considered here? (And do you think they should be?)

Doing and Allowing

There's some interesting discussion over on Jonathan Ichikawa's blog about the doing/allowing distinction. Jonathan denies that this distinction has any great moral significance. (Call this the "Moral Equivalence Thesis", or MET.) In defending this position, he makes an important point: those who would attack MET need to first make sure that their examples actually involve corresponding (in)actions.

For example, it's no use pointing out that murdering someone is much worse than failing to prevent them from walking into the street where the murderer secretly lay in wait. For here the 'doing' and the 'allowing' do not match up. The action is an intentional killing, whereas the inaction is merely aimed at a walk in the street. As Jonathan explains: "The apt comparison is between (knowingly) killing someone and (knowingly) refraining from preventing her death."

I've always thought the greatest worry for MET was its disturbing implication that we're all responsible for the unnecessary deaths in third world countries (whenever we fail to give to Oxfam). But what would the 'action' corresponding to this 'inaction' be? The inaction seems ubiquitous in our lives, rarely considered, and largely necessary for our luxurious standard of living (though of course occasional sacrifices would not be too trying for us). Moreover, it is only very indirectly related to the eventual deaths.

Bearing these facts in mind, I think the corresponding 'action' would go something like this: Imagine our 'day-to-day' bank account is set up to transfer its contents to Oxfam at the end of each month. (Perhaps at the start of the month it gets refilled from our savings account, or some of our income is deposited straight into it, or whatever.) Then, whenever you spend money from this account, you are acting in a way that reduces the amount of money Oxfam receives from you. (You know this well enough, though you might rarely give it a second thought.) Your actions indirectly cause more people in third world countries to die; just like your actual inaction does. It seems clear that the two are morally equivalent.

I think MET remains extremely plausible once clarified in the above scenario. When we take care to ensure that the actions and inactions (or 'doings' and 'allowings') are genuinely corresponding, then we find that MET is a much less radical thesis than we might originally have thought. The action described above is not morally equivalent to directly killing people, at least not without adding many further assumptions. So MET alone does not imply that we might as well have shot a poor person when we failed to give to charity.

No, even in this extreme case, when MET is properly understood, it appears to be quite plainly true. And this is even more obvious, I think, in cases like euthanasia. Denying MET here can lead to bizarre results. We might end up with life-support machines that are built to automatically turn themselves off unless the operators press a button. That way, the patient's death would be purely due to the doctor's "inaction", and not his "actions". But I'm sure you'll all agree that this is a superficial difference, and that it couldn't be any better or worse to flick the switch off than to refrain from pressing the "stay on" button.

And this superficiality is precisely what MET recognizes. Whether technically "action" or "inaction", "doing" or "allowing", it's really all the same.

(A speculative final note: I think this ties in with the "baseline" issue discussed in my post on framing thought experiments. Perhaps "actions" are seen as deviating from the 'natural way of things', whereas "inaction" simply leaves things at the baseline. If so, the lack of any metaphysical grounding for this ghostly notion of a 'true baseline' should provide us with further grounds for doubting the significance of the doing/allowing distinction.)


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Fetishizing Moral Purity

(Or: What do deontologists value?)

I just fell across some confused remarks from KBJ:

One can value human life intrinsically and nonabsolutely. That is, one can value it for its own sake (because of the kind of thing it is), but be willing to trade it for some greater good. Since valuation is a matter of degree, one can value human life very much without valuing it absolutely. For example, I might be unwilling to kill an innocent human being in order to save 10 innocent human beings but willing to kill an innocent human being in order to save 1,000 or 1,000,000 innocent human beings. Being willing to sacrifice an innocent human being does not make my valuation of innocent human beings extrinsic; it makes it nonabsolute.

In the example discussed, the value of human life is not being outweighed by some other value. Rather, it is being outweighed by a greater quantity of the same value, namely, the welfare of innocent people. For a crass analogy: if an investor is willing to spend some money now in order to earn more tomorrow, this plainly is no indication of his placing less weight on the value of money. Indeed, such behaviour is precisely what we would expect from one who places supreme value on money. Likewise, a willingness for utilitarian exchanges like those described in the quote is precisely what one would expect to see in someone who places supreme value on human life.

Insofar as deontologists are unwilling to make such exchanges, they show themselves to not value human life "absolutely".* On the contrary, they appear to barely value human life at all, since they care less about the million lives than they do about getting their hands dirty. It seems that what the deontologist really values absolutely is his own performance or avoidance of certain act-types (e.g. killing).

* = That is, if "absolutely" in this context means "above all other values", as suggested by KBJ's framing of it as a matter of "weight" rather than "structure". Or perhaps it means that lives have infinite value. But, at best, that would simply make the various scenarios incommensurable. It couldn't provide a basis for prefering the death of millions to the killing of one. Alternatively, I wonder whether "absolute value" might involve a category error. The 'absolute' in moral absolutism typically refers to inviolable side-constraints on action. As explained in the linked post, these are not aimed at realizing some value; they are simply constraints on what any moral agent may do. I have doubts about whether this is a coherent picture, though, so I will stick with value-talk throughout this post.

It's not as if the deontologist even values the general prevention of evil acts like killing. He wouldn't get his hands dirty in order to prevent a million other killing-acts performed by others. No. His values are quirkier than that. It's only the value of his own actions that looms large in his moral evaluations. (Incidentally, this leads to standard deontology being collectively self-defeating, as Parfit has shown.)

As you might be able to tell, such priorities strike me as kind of moral fetishism. We should recognize that what matters is human welfare. Sanctimonious "moral absolutists" don't. They instead think that what matters is to keep their own hands clean, no matter the suffering of others. (Moderate deontologists, such as KBJ, are not so bad. They think their moral purity is more important than the death or suffering of a few others, but if the stakes were high enough they would eventually relent and commit terrible acts in order to prevent much worse.)

Having said all that, my indirect utilitarianism would probably lead me to largely agree with them in practice. It's just as a matter of theory that the values of non-consequentialists are warped.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Upcoming Carnival

[Updated to move to front from 24/1: Last days now, do hurry!]

The next Philosophers' Carnival is fast approaching. If you have a philosophy blog, be sure to submit an entry by the end of this week. (And if you read philosophy blogs, you're welcome to nominate posts by someone else.)

Also, we're always on the lookout for new volunteers to host the carnival. Check out the guidelines, and email me if you're interested.

Blogging Philosophical Pedagogy

Trent at the newly revived Rochester philosophy blog has a couple of recent posts on pedagogy, describing how he introduces modal operators to students and how to respond to students unimpressed by the constraints of logic (for the latter problem, I recommend Gensler's strategy!). Sharing such pedagogical suggestions strikes me as a really helpful use of blogs. I probably won't be doing much (if any) teaching for another couple of years yet, but I imagine such tips could come in useful, and I find them interesting anyhow. There was once a whole blog (Metatome) dedicated to philosophical pedagogy, but it sadly seems to have died a silent death.

Anyway, I'd just like to invite all the philosophy tutors and lecturers out there to share their tricks of the trade. Feel free to post them in comments here, or on your own blog, or try to bring Metatome back to life...

BTW, one other neat example I can point to is Uriah's old post on outfoxing plagiarists. Very clever.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Ethics of State Lotteries

Government should not be in the business of exploiting the cognitive deficiencies of its citizens for monetary gain. Right? But state lotteries do just that, as Abbas at 3 Quarks Daily argues. Gambling establishments exploit known human weaknesses in probabilistic reasoning. That's just not how the State ought to treat its citizens. Granted, at least the profits go to charity, but as Majikthise explains, this effectively amounts to a form of regressive taxation:

State lotteries are often justified on the grounds that they raise money for social programs, especially those that target the neediest members of society. However, the poorest members of society tend to spend (and, by design lose) the most on lottery tickets. Some state lottery proceeds fund programs that benefit everyone, not just the poor. Often state lottery money is being systematically redistributed upwards--from lotto players to suburban schools, for example.

So the utilitarian argument doesn't necessarily go through. More good might be achieved by having these poor lottery players instead spend their gambling money on supporting their own families.

But how about the hedonic benefits these individuals receive from their gambling? Presumably they find it fun. (I can't understand why, but never mind that.) So, as Lindsay goes on to suggest, "maybe the fun of playing the lottery combined with the revenue for social programs justifies their existence on the whole." Also, if people are going to waste their money anyway, better to do some good through state lotteries than merely having them enrich private casino operators, I figure. And it would be overly paternalistic to ban all gambling establishments. So, depending on the empirical facts, I think providing a state lottery could, perhaps, be morally permissible.

What seems patently immoral is all the advertising which actively encourages Lotto gambling. (Here in New Zealand we're bombarded with TV ads asking viewers to imagine "what would you do if you won [Lotto] this Saturday?" I imagine other countries are similar.) For the government to spend money trying to manipulate us in this way just seems entirely indefensible. They have lost sight of the public good, and their responsibility to promote it. The government is not a business, and should not be driven by the "profit motive" -- especially if this revenue is coming from those who can least afford to pay it.

So while it might be permissible to provide a state lottery, it seems quite irresponsible for the government to promote it through manipulative advertising. Such actions could be expected to have bad consequences, for the reasons quoted above.

What if the manipulated viewers enjoy it, though? If the Lotto advertisements provide them with an enjoyable (albeit false) hope, are they really being harmed? Well, as in the tricky multicultural cases, I think the answer depends on their counterfactual global preferences, which we can capture most easily through asking what their idealized self would recommend. If fully informed about the falseness of their hope, and the opportunity costs of wasting their money on the lottery, and the way their preferences have been manipulated through advertising - and all the other relevant facts - would these people still want their actual selves to go ahead and gamble? I can't answer that for sure, of course, but it seems plausible to think they would oppose it. And if that's so, then this indicates that the gambling is not really good for them, and that the false "pleasure" they get from it is not worth the costs. And hence the government manipulation is harming them. Bad government!

(As Abbas asks sarcastically, "why doesn't the government also get into the business of hawking Hock? It's legal, after all, and maybe we could raise enough money to start treatment programs for alcoholics. Maybe there would even be enough left over to house the homeless!")

Disjunctive Requirements

You shouldn't believe contradictions. For any given proposition, you should disbelieve either it or its negation. This claim is ambiguous. It might mean the wide-scope disjunctive requirement:
(WD) You ought to disbelieve either one of P or not-P (and it doesn't matter which, at least for the purposes of this requirement).

Or it might instead be proposing a disjunction of narrow scope requirements:
(ND) It is either the case that you ought to disbelieve P, or that you ought to disbelieve not-P.

For ND, it does matter which option you choose. One of them is the correct option, we just don't know which! WD, by contrast, can be satisfied equally well by either option. (Footnote 27 of Kolodny's 2005 illustrates this difference nicely. I can quote it if anyone wants further clarification.)

I find wide-scope requirements like WD interesting because, if normative, they open up a new aspect of (non-evidential) epistemic assessment. They might lead us to assess beliefs against internal standards of coherence and consistency, rather than the external standard of truth. I used this idea in an earlier essay to argue that there could be non-evidential reasons for belief: after all, even if there are no reasons at all to think that P is false, the mere fact that you believe not-P would seem to give you reason to disbelieve P, since doing so would bring you to satisfy requirement WD.

But I don't know how plausible that is. If all the evidence supports P, we might think it more plausible to simply insist that you ought to believe P, and - further - that there's nothing at all to be said in favour of disbelief, no matter that it contradicts your prior (ill-founded) belief that not-P. If you're more sympathetic to these claims, then you'll likely prefer ND to WD as the proper form of our non-contradiction rule.

Incidentally, this should not be confused with the simple narrow-scope conditional requirement:
(NC) If you believe that P, then you are rationally required to disbelieve not-P.

NC is plainly false as a universal principle. Sometimes rationality requires us to reject our prior beliefs in favour of their negations. This lends support to the wide-scope reading of the conditional:
(WC) Rationality requires that: if you believe that P, then you disbelieve not-P.

WC, unlike NC, may be satisfied by rejecting the antecedent (belief that P) as an alternative to fulfilling the consequent (disbelieving not-P). In fact, WC is logically equivalent to WD above (well, if we treat the earlier 'ought' as merely meaning "rationally required", leaving open the question of whether these requirements are genuinely normative). But this reminds us that there is a second way to revise NC. Rather than converting it into a wide-scope requirement, we might instead replace it with a disjunction of narrow-scope requirements, as in ND. So the problems with simple "NC"-style narrow-scope requirements need not lead us to accept wide-scope requirements.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Paradox for Subjective Rationality

I've written before about why rationality can't be too subjective. But here's another reason: it leads to contradiction. Consider Kolodny's two "core requirements" of rationality:
C+: If one believes that one has conclusive reason to have A, then one is rationally required to have A; and
C-: If one believes that one lacks sufficient reason to have A, then one is rationally required not to have A.

Now consider someone who believes that they have conclusive reason to do what they believe they lack sufficient reason to do. (Granted, this is a very odd belief to have. But I think it is possible. Perhaps they've been told that their beliefs have been manipulated by an evil demon into being unreliable [update: this is explained further in my comments below]. Or perhaps they're just incredibly irrational. Whatever.)

It would then follow from C+ that they are rationally required to do what they believe they lack sufficient reason to do. Call this action 'X'. That is, we have so far established that they are rationally required to X. But recall that our agent believes that they lack sufficient reason to X. It thus follows from C- that they are rationally required not to X. Putting these two results together, we find that our poor confused agent is both rationally required to X and rationally required not to X!

This violates what I will call the "consistency of rational requirements" principle:
(CRR) It is not possible for one to be both rationally required to A, and rationally required not to A.

In other words, rationality cannot make contradictory demands of us. It cannot demand both that we do something, and that we don't do it. That's just not a fair ask.

If (CRR) is true, as I think it is, then the case I provide above shows that Kolodny's "core requirements" cannot be true.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Misleading statistics: second-order ratios

I saw an ad on TV the other day, promising that its product would "kill 99% of most household germs", or something like that. Of course, "most" could mean anything over 50%, and to take a proportion (even 99%) of that will make it even less, so the promise doesn't really say much. It's almost as bad as the sales where everything is "up to 50% off" (which of course is consistent with most of the discounts actually being far less). Damn advertisers.

More generally though, it can be difficult to report second-order percentages in a non-misleading way. Suppose a political candidate starts with 10% of the vote. If someone reported that his popularity had "increased by 50%", you might be startled into thinking that he was now winning the race, with 60% of the vote. But they might instead merely mean to say that he increased his vote share by five percentage points, to a total of 15% -- which is, after all, half again as good as (hence, 50% improvement on) his original position of 10%.

Anyway, it would be nice if people took more care to resolve this ambiguity when reporting these sorts of statistics. Clarity might be achieved by describing the first sort of increase as "an improvement of 50 percentage points", which I think is more clearly talking about the first-order units. To report second-order percentages, one might specify the background set, e.g. "50% of his original 10 per cent share".

Such care might significantly improve 99% of some of the world.


Counterfactual Commitments

There was some interesting discussion over at Think Tonk recently. Clayton was arguing that theists can't fault Evolutionary Naturalism on the basis (advanced by Plantinga) that our rational faculties would be unreliable if EN were true. After all, such theists think we actually do have reliable faculties, and so if evolution created us just the way we are, then we would have the exact same (equally reliable) faculties. It's a neat - if flawed - argument, and provides a good opportunity to explore some modal issues that I'm interested in.

A key aspect of my response was to highlight two different ways of thinking about alternative possibilities. One is to treat them as standard counterfactuals, which involve presuppositions about what is actually the case. (For example, our judgment that if there was no H2O then there would be no water is based on the presupposition that the watery stuff of our actual acquaintence is H2O.) But there is another way to go, which is to conceive of the alternative as actual. (Call this conception "counter-actual".) For example, we might speculate about whether, perhaps, chemists are mistaken and water is actually composed of some other XYZ. Clearly our affirmation of the earlier counterfactual does not commit us to the absurd claim that if there is actually no H2O (because our watery stuff is really XYZ) then there is no water. Counterfactuals do not commit us to the corresponding counter-actuals.

This has important consequences for Plantinga's argument. Given the assumption that God created us with reliable faculties, the theist can't very well deny the counterfactual that if creatures evolved naturally to be just like we are, then they too would have reliable faculties. They must concede this much. But this doesn't entail the corresponding counter-actual. Plantinga can still consistently assert that if we actually evolved naturally, then we probably don't have reliable faculties. (I would dispute that claim, of course, but my point is simply that it is consistent with the aforementioned counterfactual.)

One way to understand this dialectic is to contrast the epistemic and metaphysical bases for the reliability of our faculties. Clayton points out that the reliability of our faculties supervenes on our constitution, and not its origins. So if we fix the constitution facts and let only the origins change, the 'reliability' facts will remain fixed. This is reflected in the counterfactual judgment.

However, suppose that our only reason for believing our faculties to be reliable is that we think God created us. Here it is facts about our origin, and not our constitution, that provide the epistemic basis for thinking our faculties to be reliable. So if we fix the constitution facts and let the origins change, then our beliefs about the 'reliability' facts should change. This is reflected in the counter-actual judgment.

These different judgments arise because counterfactuals map out a metaphysical modal space, whereas counter-actuals can instead be used to map out a sort of epistemic modal space.

I just thought that was an interesting point to clarify.

(Disclaimer: views and arguments attributed to 'Clayton' are presented here for dialectical purposes, and might not reflect Clayton's actual views. Readers are encouraged to read his blog for that.)

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Defective Yeti (HT: David Farrar) offers hilarity in the form of the George W. Bush text adventure game! It begins:
Oval Office
You are standing inside a White House, having just been elected to the presidency of the United States. You knew Scalia would pull through for you.

There is a large desk here, along with a few chairs and couches. The presidential seal is in the middle of the room and there is a full-length mirror upon the wall.

What do you want to do now?

You are not able to do that, yet.

Self-reflection is not your strong suit.

It's not that kind of seal.

They are two several chairs arranged around the center of the room, along with two couches. Under one couch you find Clinton's shoes.

You are unable to fill Clinton's shoes.

Do read the whole thing, it's guaranteed to make you laugh out loud!


Applied Aesthetic Metaphysics

A quick thought, inspired by the discussion here: many people apparently believe that "when you create something, you own it." Now, this has various ludicrous consequences when applied to mental creations. (Is it theft to hum a tune?) But we might avoid this problem by appealing to those philosophers who claim that melodies and such are discovered rather than created.

After all, we normally wouldn't hold that people get to own whatever they discover. (Einstein doesn't own the theory of relativity. Columbus doesn't own America.) So, if reasoning in the metaphysics of aesthetics leads us to conclude that artists discover pre-existing abstract forms, rather than "creating" their artworks, then this might significantly affect our legal and political philosophy, at least insofar as intellectual property is concerned. (Has anyone noticed this before?)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Autonomy and Power

There was some puzzlement expressed in our ethics class last year over why anyone would (non-instrumentally) want power over others. My suggestion was a simple one: we all recognize the value of autonomy, or having power over ourselves. Perhaps the power-hungry person conceives of domination as an extension of their autonomy, in some sense. Or, put another way: if power over yourself is (egoistically) desirable, why not power over others? Think of it as expanding your capacities, or sphere of influence, or some such.

So I think the difference comes in at the moral level. It's not that powerlust is some thoroughly irrational fetish; it's just that the harmful effect on others makes it morally inappropriate to pursue.

(HT: Neil. Though as a hedonist he probably finds the value of autonomy just as incomprehensible.)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Coming up, after the break

Yesterday was my last day of work with the City Council (till next summer, at least). It was a pretty cool job, actually, but it'll be nice to have a break nonetheless! Next, on 11 Feb, I fly over to Australia, to study at ANU for the year -- with none other than Dave Chalmers as my honours supervisor! I'm planning to do my honours sub-thesis on something related to modal two-dimensionalism, and possibly (er...) epistemic possibility. Should be fun :-)


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Super-human values

What really matters? I assume that the welfare of sentient beings has moral importance. Does anything else, on top of this?

Suppose that what is good for us is for our lives to go the way we (upon reflection) want them to. Then the fulfilment of such desires constitutes 'welfare value'. Clearly we can also value many other things, such as the advancement of human knowledge, or the completion of grand and noble projects. Some might even value diversity for its own sake, and want to sustain a wide variety of independent cultures and ways of life, even if some of those cultures are harmful to the people within them. (Someone who prizes this value might not want to see practices like female genital mutilation universally abolished, for example.) I will call these sorts of things 'personal values', in contrast to the 'welfare value' described above.

The question then arises: how important are personal values - either our own or other people's? Suppose I care greatly about building the next 'wonder of the world', much more than I care about "mere" human welfare. Would it be okay (morally? rationally?) for me to enslave the local populace and force them to build the great structure? (It sounds like an awful thing to do. On the other hand, I'm glad the Egyptians built the pyramids.) Must welfare values always outweigh our personal values? If we reject both these extremes, how should we balance the two?

And what should we think of other people's personal values -- do we have any reason to support them? Consider the case of Dying Deb:
Deb is on her deathbed, and her beloved childhood home is about to be demolished. The sadistic developers make you an offer to preserve the home if (and only if) you take Deb off her painkillers, so she will die a painful death. Deb would actually prefer this, because she cares more about the home than about her own welfare. You have the following options:

(1) Tell Deb about the offer (she will accept, suffer some pain, and have the home saved); or
(2) Ensure that Deb has a pleasant death (perhaps lying to her about the home; it will in fact be destroyed).

What should you do?

I'm inclined to think that (2) is better. Deb is more important than her old home, her own opinion to the contrary notwithstanding. Though this is a fairly extreme example. What if Deb only had to suffer a mild pinch? Or what if there was no cost at all? In the "no cost" case it seems like we have some reason to fulfil Deb's wishes, even if it won't make her any better off. So perhaps others' personal values do matter, it's just that they might be easily outweighed by welfare concerns.

The Pyramids case does bother me though. Taking a "big picture" view of things, sometimes welfare doesn't really seem all that significant compared to grand "super-human" ideals. (Perhaps this is just because my mind "zooms out" so far that I lose sight of it?)

What do you think? In particular, what do you think matters aside from welfare, and how important is it in comparison? (And do you think it has intrinsic value in the sense that it would be valuable even if no person valued it? Or is it a merely personal value? Does this difference matter?)

Lifeless Interests

Derek made the interesting comment:
Because utilitarianism denies the (moral) separateness of persons, it doesn't actually give equal concern to all persons. Rather, it gives equal concerns to all interests, and it thereby ignores the way in which various interests (and the thwarting or satisfaction of such interests) are integrated into individual human lives.

It only makes sense to be concerned with interests, thus detached from their integral role in individual, separate lives, if we assume there is some aggregate super-life to which they ultimately belong. Otherwise the utilitarian has mistaken the importance of people's interests within their lives for the importance of people's interests tout court. This may not be fair, and I'll be interested to see your reply.

I'm not sure that it's even possible to dis-integrate a welfare 'interest' from the life to which it belongs. (And if it's not possible, then utilitarians can't be doing it!) Rather, I think all the relevant facts about the role of the interest, as integrated in the life, are already built into the weight of the interest itself.

For example, consider my interest in dinner, in contrast to a starving man's interest in dinner. His interest in dinner will be much the greater, presumably because of the way it relates to the rest of his life. (Whether these interests are fulfilled or not will have a much more significant impact on his life than mine.) Utilitarianism takes all this into account, of course. If some interest plays an important role in one's life, then that makes it an important interest, and utilitarianism will recognize it as such. So I'm not sure how to understand the objection that's being suggested here.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Paths of Wisdom

What is the best way to understand the true nature of the objects of our conceptions (including ethics, truth, counterfactuals, etc.)? One option, which I think underlies much analytic philosophy, is to reify the conceived object - ascribing to it an independent existence - and then to inquire after the actual properties of this object. This treats the object ahistorically and on its own terms, focusing on what it is, not where it came from or how we learnt of it.

The latter alternative is suggestive of a naturalized philosophical methodology, informed especially by cognitive science. The focus is on the mental conception, rather than the thing conceived. (Compare the distinction between the mental state of belief, and the content or 'thing believed'.) Down this path, we might ask how the conceptions arise and what role they play in our broader cognition. Only later - if at all - would we step outside ourselves to draw metaphysical conclusions about external reality.

An even more extreme approach to 'naturalizing philosophy' would look to the evolutionary origins of our conceptual framework. (We now appear to be two steps removed from the original object of inquiry.) That is to ground humanistic philosophy upon evolutionary psychology.

So: which of these three paths is best? Or might they yield complementary insights?

Despite the enthusiasm of many evolutionary theorists, I'm not convinced that a scientific understanding of our origins is the be all and end all. In some cases, it rather seems to obstruct a fuller understanding of our experiences. Steven Pinker once described music as "auditory cheesecake" - a combination of stimuli which just happens to press all the right buttons to activate our neural pleasure centres. But this neglects so much of importance about our aesthetic experiences. Listening to Beethoven's Pastoral symphony, there is an undeniable beauty in it which simply cannot be captured by any account of our aesthetic experience that ignores the actual music! Or so it seems to me, at least.

There are interesting philosophical questions about the nature of beauty, and whether it is properly a quality of the object itself, or how we experience it, or some combination of the two; but these sorts of questions don't seem open to a purely scientific account. (Hence their being philosophical, rather than scientific, questions!)

Evolutionary (meta-)ethics is another example. An hypothesis about how moral behaviour evolved just doesn't seem to tell us that much about the real nature of morality itself. Perhaps it recommends a sort of skeptical anti-realism about ethics (and normativity more generally). But it seems to be leaving out something important, so I'm doubtful that such scientism can really provide the sort of deeper understanding that we're looking for here.

This might relate to my old post on the two conceptions of objectivity. Scientific objectivity proceeds by cutting things out of the picture. But if we want a fuller understanding (whatever that involves), we might do better to instead pursue the 'Hegelian' ideal of expanding our perspective. This would be undermined by the scientistic assumptions underlying the extreme forms of 'naturalized philosophy'.

What about the more mild approach? There's a lot of work being done now in the field of "moral psychology", for example. I don't really know anything about it though, so I've no idea how helpful or illuminating that may be to ethics. Two underexplored areas that I'd like to learn more about would be mathematical and modal cognition. How does the mind apprehend and manipulate mathematical objects? If we knew all the internal/psychological facts about our mathematical cognition, would that provide a full explanation of mathematical truths? Or would we still require something further, e.g. a platonic realm of mathematical objects, and facts about the same?

And what of modal cognition? How do people think about counterfactuals, or judge what is or isn't possible? And how does this cognitive processing relate to external facts? Could our beliefs have abstract truthmakers (e.g. numbers, or possible worlds) that are causally inaccessible to us? I'm not sure how that would work. But then what determines whether our beliefs on those topics are true? My hope here is that psychological research might provide us with the resources to find constructed truthmakers - a way to build truthmakers out of idealized mental processes, and thus avoid extravagant (Platonic) ontological commitments. This sort of constructivism seems very much more in line with the 'Hegelian' ideals pointed to above. So perhaps 'naturalized' philosophical methodologies aren't all bad?

Evolutionary Ethics and Meta-Ethics

Perhaps this is nothing new, but it just struck me that there are two very different ways one might try to ground ethics upon biological evolution. They differ in whether evolution is considered to have substantive or methodological significance. That is, evolution might come in at the level of normative ethics, or else meta-ethics.

The 'substantive' approach takes the evolutionary telos to underpin ethical normativity. It makes the normative-ethical claim that we ought to share and promote Mother Nature's "purposes". We might further distinguish 'forward-looking' and 'backward-looking' versions of this thesis. On the former, we ought to do whatever will promote the survival of our species, or our own genes, or something like that. On the latter, we ought to behave in ways that have previously been selected for by natural selection. Either variant seems terribly misguided, since there's no reason to think that evolutionary functions have any moral significance, or that humans are subject to such arbitrary 'externally imposed purposes'. (Though of course these goals might happily correlate with genuine values; survival of the species clearly bears some connection to human wellbeing, for example. They just aren't foundational to ethics, is all.)

Further, note that there's nothing particularly scientific about this view. There's nothing in evolutionary theory which says what humans morally ought to do. Rather, this view is a substantive philosophical thesis which (seemingly arbitrarily) claims that the moral good is tied to evolution in the ways described above. It's not good science, and it certainly isn't good ethics.

How about the 'methodological' approach? Rather than trying to build evolutionary considerations into the content of our moral theories, this meta-ethical approach remains neutral on the content and instead makes higher-order claims about the nature of ethical discourse itself. In particular, it suggests that, to gain insights into our ethical practices, we should look to their evolutionary origin. Suppose our moral behaviour evolved for the (biological) purpose of creating more stable societies and thus boosting our biological fitness. This explanation makes no mention of moral facts, and so might be used as the basis for a nihilistic 'error theory'. (I suppose this is not so much grounding ethics upon evolution, as using evolution to argue that ethics is groundless.) [Update: see comments for another, non-nihilistic, example.]

While attempting to build evolution into normative ethics is transparently stupid, its methodological use is much more interesting. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, actually. I'll explore the underlying ideas some more in my next post.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The 24th Philosophers' Carnival is up at Rad Geek People's Daily. It's a great collection of posts, as we've come to expect, and very nicely collated too, with Rad Geek drawing clever (if sometimes tenuous!) connections between them in that way which makes blog carnivals so fun. Maybe I should make this a new hosting rule :-)

In addition, a couple of my recent posts also made it into the latest Carnival of the Godless.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Defining Religion

H.E. offers "a minimalist analysis of religion that I'd argue, applies to all central cases of religion, excludes all beliefs and practices that are clearly not religion and explains why the borderline cases are borderline." Namely:
(1) The belief that there is some supernatural reality
(2) A cult -- public, private or both.
(3) The belief that there is some causal connection between the supernatural reality and the cult.

Sounds about right to me. See the linked post for more details.


Against the Priority View

This post assumes familiarity with my old post on utility, equality and priority. I've previously argued against egalitarianism; I now want to do the same for prioritarianism, i.e. the view that "benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are."

First we need a standard measure for quantifying benefits. I will employ the notion of a 'util' or unit of utility (i.e. individual welfare) to serve this end. I stipulate that all utils are of equal worth to the person who receives them. If the welfare value of my life increases from 2 to 3, this is exactly as good for me as an increase from 99 to 100 would be. They are also to be standardized between individuals, so a one util benefit for you is just as good for you as a one util benefit is good for me.

This is clearly wildly different from how material goods behave. $100 is worth a lot more to a starving man than to a millionaire. More generally, material goods are less valuable to you the more of them you have. We call this "diminishing marginal utility" (DMU). For example, the $100 might be worth 20 utils to the starving man, but only 1 util to the millionaire. Given a choice between giving the money to one or the other, utilitarianism recommends we favour the starving man with material goods; that is what will maximize total welfare in this imagined case.

Now, suppose we can either give a large benefit (in utils, not merely dollars!) to someone who is already well off, or else a smaller benefit to someone less fortunate. Which should we do? For utilitarians, the answer is simple: give the greatest benefit, without regard for who receives it. On the priority view, however, we might instead opt for the more egalitarian option.

I think that would be a mistake. It's a tempting mistake, insofar as our intuitions are more familiar with material goods and so find it difficult to ignore DMU. But ignore it we must, for recall that utility benefits - by definition - do not suffer from diminishing returns. We tend to assume that helping the worse-off will "make a bigger difference", i.e. benefit them more than offering similar help to someone more fortunate. It is important to be clear that this is not the case in the scenario I have described. The well-off person really would gain the greater benefit, in real (and not merely material) terms.

Here is why it's a mistake: consider a similar option but all within the life of just one person. He can receive a mild benefit when he is badly off, or else a larger benefit at a different stage of his life when things are going better for him. Which option is better for him? Well, by definition, the greater benefit is better for him. So if offered the choice, he should - if rational - prefer that you benefit his well-off self, rather than prioritizing his worse-off self.

But recall the definition of prioritarianism: "benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are." This suggests that giving the lesser benefit might matter more (be "better") than giving the greater benefit, in the case just discussed. Considering only this person's welfare, it might be better to do what is worse for him. This is an absurd and contradictory result.

So the priority view, as stated, is not universally true. In particular, it is not true within an individual's life. Defenders might hope to modify it into a purely inter-personal form, e.g. "benefiting distinct people matters more the worse off each person is." This restriction seems ad hoc, but never mind that for now. The problem is that it seems open to an analogous objection to the above.

Recall that benefits have been defined in terms of 'utils' which are an inter-personal standard measure of welfare. Each util I gain is just as good for me as each util you gain is for you. This much is stipulated. Also, let us define the welfare value of a life relative the zero baseline of a life that is barely worth living (for the person living it).

Now, let's say Ana currently has a welfare value of 100, and Bob's is 10. Suppose you have a choice between giving a benefit of +10 to Bob, or else +11 to Ana. Which is best, from a neutral point of view? Simply enough, +11 is better than +10, which is all it comes down to when giving equal weight to the interests of both involved. If you put the agents behind a "veil of ignorance", so they didn't know which person they were, they would (if rational) prefer you to choose the +11 benefit to Ana rather than the +10 to Bob. The fact that Bob is worse-off to begin with is irrelevant. What matters is how much better off each of them could be.

But prioritists would have us believe that the benefit to Bob matters more, because he is worse off to begin with. Although our only consideration is the welfare of these two individuals, we're supposed to believe that it might be better to do what is worse from their combined point of view. Again, this is an absurd and borderline contradictory result.

So we should reject the Priority View. Benefiting people matters more the greater the benefit is to the beneficiary. Their prior welfare level has no intrinsic relevance here. It is only relevant insofar as, say, it might be easier to benefit worse-off people, e.g. if the same material investments would yield greater benefits for them. But of course such factors are already taken into account by utilitarian principles. A preference for egalitarian or prioritarian principles may rest on a failure to understand this point.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Upcoming Carnival

After taking an extra week off for the holiday season, the Philosophers' Carnival will return next Monday. Send in your submissions by the weekend, if you haven't already! [Update: That means today!]

Expandable Sidebar and Ads Poll

With thanks to Hallq for the reminder, I've finally gotten around to adding 'expandable' functionality to my sidebar. (The linked post also offers instructions for expandable posts and comments, if you want either of those. I've already done the former, of course. Expandable comments are a tempting idea, but I think my main and archive pages are large enough already without loading in all the comments as well.)

Anyway, now my oversized blogroll is automatically compressed, and any interested readers must click the heading to make it expand. (The links should still count as usual for Google, TTLB, and other 'ranking' purposes.) I've taken advantage of the extra space to also include an expandable list of 'Favourite Posts' from this blog, organized into "light" reading accessible to general audiences, and "heavy" stuff that would probably only interest other philosophers.

Any suggestions are welcome, as always -- whether regarding the featured posts lists, or general template / site-design issues.

Also, I worry about whether the Google Ads might be annoying my valued readers (you!) too much. They're intended to target one-off visitors who come via a search query or whatever. It'd be neat to only have them display conditionally, say using a cookie to identify return visitors who select a "no ads" option. But I don't know how to write such code. (If anyone else does, do let me know!) In the past my advice has simply been to download Firefox and install the adblock extension.

But I'd like to check whether readers aren't willing to use Firefox (for whatever bad reasons) would strongly prefer that I get rid of the ads. They earn me about $10 per month, which is pretty useless anyway, though of course any free money is helpful to students! But if they're much hated then I'll consider trashing them. And if no-one cares then that'll put my mind at ease, and I can go back to forgetting all about them. Please take a moment to vote in the poll on my sidebar, and/or add further remarks in comments here. Thanks!

Update: The poll javascript is doing weird things to my template. So much for that idea. Feel free to leave a comment if you feel strongly, and otherwise I'll assume you don't care :)


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Transcendental Arguments

I want to discuss a type of argument which might be similar to what Kant called "transcendental arguments". (I'm not sure because I've never actually studied Kant. Must get on to that some day.) What I have in mind are those assumptions that we must make as a precondition to any sort of intellectual progress. Or, more generally, those things that we ought to believe because we've got nothing to lose by doing so. If they're false then we're screwed anyway, so we might as well just believe them and hope for the best. "Practical" might be a better label for this class of argument. After all, it's not as if the arguments do anything to establish the truth of the belief in question; they merely show that we might as well believe it.

The example I've used in the past is free will: If we can choose at all, then we must have free will. Therefore, anyone faced with the choice ought to choose to believe in free will. You can't possibly go wrong that way. Either you've got no choice at all, or else free will is the correct choice. Makes it pretty easy, don't you think?

This shows that we might as well believe in the preconditions for choice (namely, free will). For similar reasons, we might as well believe in the preconditions for rationality. Consider the laws of logic. I can't think of any non-question-begging justification for something so foundational as, say, modus ponens, or the law of non-contradiction. But we can't get anywhere without them. So we might as well just accept them, and hope for the best. (Thankfully, this seems to work.) The same goes for induction, and our assumption that the past is a reliable guide to the future.

Perhaps we should add in the notion of normativity (which I have difficulty getting a firm grip on). If there are normative truths, or facts about what we ought to do, then we ought to believe this. So either we ought to believe in normativity or else there aren't any facts about what we ought to do. So we can't possibly go wrong (i.e. against what we ought) by believing in normativity. Indeed, it's only by having this belief that we could possibly be doing what we ought to do. So, again, with nothing to lose, we might as well believe in it.

Is this good reasoning? Can you think of any more examples?

Stupidest Pop-Religious Idea

Just for fun, a quick opinion poll: what do you think is the stupidest popular religious idea? (Suggestions for stupidest pop-atheistic idea are welcome too.)

I'd have to pick the silly notion that "atheists hate God". You hear it so often, but you really have to wonder if the people who say such things understand what 'atheism' means. As Austine Cline writes, "if this were true then they would not be atheists. Atheists are not people who believe in a god but are angry at it - those are just angry theists."

The incoherent claim is often put in more moderate form by suggesting that atheists "reject" God, in the way one might reject a gift, or a suitor. But of course we would think it odd for a young Romeo to feel "rejected" by a girl who never even knew he existed. Again, to make the active decision to "walk away from God" requires that one be aware of God's existence in the first place. From the theist's perspective: atheists don't spurn God; we're simply oblivious to him. We don't "reject" God any more than we reject Santa. I'd be quite happy to meet either of them, if only they existed. What we reject is the proposition that these mythical characters actually exist. That's all.


Sunday, January 01, 2006

In Evidence We Trust

Neil Postman's 'Informing ourselves to death' contains some odd sentiments that I'm struggling to make sense of. In particular, he describes an "experiment" he'd conduct by making up some scientific study and seeing if people would believe its conclusion. When they do, he paraphrases Orwell as saying that "the average person today is about as naive as was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what." But that would only be a bad thing if science was as ill-founded as religion. Given that empirical evidence is a good guide to truth, whereas religious dogma is not, it seems entirely appropriate that we should place more trust the former. This is what places us in a much stronger epistemic position than our "Middle Aged" ancestors.

Returning to Postman's "experiment": when his listener fails to be sufficiently skeptical, what exactly is their mistake? It seems to me their only mistake is believing Postman to be a credible source of information. Perhaps they should have responded with a skeptical "You're pulling my leg!" (which is, after all, the truth). But this can't be the fault that Postman is wanting to highlight. Surely he isn't wanting to say, "Oh, look at all these naive people that consider my testimony trustworthy. What fools! They should know better than to believe what I report." That would be a very odd complaint. Surely more fault lies with the liar than with his trusting audience.

Alternatively, perhaps Postman was meaning to criticise them for believing the scientist's conclusions, even on the assumption that Postman was telling the truth about the study having been carried out. But that would be even more odd. Postman would effectively be mocking people for believing what the evidence points to. "Empirical evidence suggests that surprising result X is true, and so these naive fools now believe X!" Such criticism of open-mindedness strikes me as downright bizarre. Postman continues:
But I think there is still another and more important conclusion to be drawn, related to Orwell's point but rather off at a right angle to it. I am referring to the fact that the world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact -- whether actual or imagined -- that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. We believe because there is no reason not to believe. No social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual reason...

n fact, George Orwell was more than a little unfair to the average person in the Middle Ages... There existed an ordered, comprehensible world-view, beginning with the idea that all knowledge and goodness come from God. What the priests had to say about the world was derived from the logic of their theology. There was nothing arbitrary about the things people were asked to believe, including the fact that the world itself was created at 9 AM on October 23 in the year 4004 B.C.

...we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why.

But of course people in the Middle Ages didn't know any of that either. They thought they did, but they were wildly mistaken in all sorts of ways. We know a great deal more about these matter than they did (in large part because of scientific progress: biology has given us real knowledge of the origins of species). And yet Postman laments our lack of dogma, our refusal to ignore the evidence if it goes against our preconceived notions of "common sense", and appears to join Orwell in considering us "naive" because of this! Incredible.

Improving our epistemic situation has come at the cost of comforting illusions, I suppose. Perhaps that's the essential point that Postman was trying to point to. But surely few of us would consider that a wholly bad thing, and it's awfully misleading of Postman to try to cover this up by steadfastly ignoring considerations of truth and evidence, and attempting to pass off dogmatic illusions as "knowledge"! Not impressed.

And for all those who complain that "science is the new religion", please clarify: are you really trying to suggest that our beliefs should not be responsive to empirical evidence?

2005: My Web of Beliefs

Time to summarize the past year's bloggery, in the hopes of illuminating (for my future self's benefit) how my ideas develop over time.


What little I wrote on this topic basically just continued on from themes that emerged the previous year: defending coherentism about justification, and externalism about knowledge. I also returned to the topic of radical skepticism, arguing that dream scenarios needn't threaten our knowledge. My post on truth and certainty explains why relativism is not the way to oppose dogmatism.

For something a little different, I defended pragmatism against evidentialism in Reasons for Belief. I've also developed more of an interest in meta-philosophical questions of justification, e.g. regarding intuitions and thought experiments, whether there is progress in philosophy, etc. I also like to identify particular patterns of argumentation (or fallacy), and how they might be employed by either side of a partisan debate, e.g. "hands-clean hypocrisy" arguments, 'love the sinner', appeals to ineffectuality, etc. It was also fun disagreeing with Timothy Williamson about counterfactuals and intuited counterexamples.  


No surprises here: I'm still an atheist. My previous post links to a couple of old favourites on the Argument from Hell and the problem of evil. My posts on the atrocious S5 modal argument and Anselm's ontological argument for theism were both fun, if a bit more technical. More accessible pieces include my challenge to (some) agnostics, and arguments for the superiority of an atheistic ethics over God-given value - a common theme for me this year. I also discussed the epistemic import of religious experiences, and complained about common demands for 'religious immunity' (from criticism).  


This was an major focus of my blog this last year. Early on I discussed the parallel relations between belief to truth and desire to value, and followed up the previous year's "moral emotions" post with a fun one on chocolate flavoured poo, which continues to attract some disturbing search engine hits!

A common theme was the need to avoid arbitrary ethical foundations (e.g. cultural relativism). An important distinction is clarified in 'two senses of intrinsic value'. I've become more concerned about incorporating normative force into ethical theories, which is problematic on my earlier views about the fact/value gap and the nature of morality (I'm now more sympathetic to complex forms of expressivism, subject to certain constraints). After reading Michael Smith I rejected my old Humeanism for a more expansive view of rationality, which helps us to answer the question 'Why Be Moral?'. This is also related to the fascinating issues of collective rationality, and how the prisoner's dilemma hampers deontological ethics.

Other key essays tackled the topics of moral diversity and skepticism, contrasting internalist moral realism with constructivist non-cognitivism, and how consistency leads to utilitarianism. (The idea of constructed truthmakers seems helpful to moral ontology.)

I discussed utilitarianism quite a lot, actually, defending it against the common objections of treating people as a means, and the 'separateness of persons' objection. I also co-opted the case of the organ-stealing doctor to actually support utilitarianism, which was fun. I advocate indirect utilitarianism, providing greater theoretical support for my old favourite of 'Desire Utilitarianism'. Taking a long-term view brings up difficult questions for consequentialism, and may recommend that society 'invests in rational capital'.

I've also done a lot of work on the topic of well-being. An important point is the 'good to'/'good for' distinction, which allows us to avoid the silly claim that 'people always act selfishly'. I also note that consideration of counterfactual and global preferences allow us to overcome problems with naive desire-satisfactionism. Questioning the relevance of past desires provides a helpful case study of the latter, whereas the former might provide an objective standard for determining whether individuals are better off with certain rights which contradict their cultural values. I think transphysicalism (like transhumanism) is a funky idea.  


Another major area of focus, partly summarized in my post on left-wing values. I've clarified my old ideas about substantive freedom and its political centrality. I currently think the best way to promote this goal is through supplementing the free market with an unconditional basic income.

Although sympathetic to political libertarianism (properly understood), I'm strongly averse to the philosophical position that sees absolute 'rights' as foundational, and capitalism as intrinsically just. I summarize many of the flaws of such a position here. A key conflict arises once we recognize that property rights necessarily restrict others' freedom - I respond by discussing a reasonable resolution (which remarkably derives welfare rights from the assumption of negative liberty as our fundamental value). I like to remind extremist libertarians of why taxation is not theft. See also my essay on 'Libertarian vs. Utilitarian Justice'.

I'm similarly unimpressed with the sort of egalitarianism which sees inequalities as intrinsically bad. My post on Equal Concern explicates my reasons for thinking that justice requires the sort of impartiality found in utilitarianism. (Application of these thoughts can be found in my recent post on educational priorities.) I find egalitarianism especially questionable when the concern is directed at the welfare of groups rather than individuals. I explicate the problems with this (and related thinking) in my post: Why Discrimination is Wrong. My positive vision is described in 'The Human Race'. A climate of fear raises some important concerns about perceptions of men in society. I'm also opposed to our sexist rape laws.

I suppose my newfound support for compulsory voting marks a significant change from my past distrust of democracy. 

Logic and Rationality: 

Parfit's discussion of rational irrationality sparked my fascination with the idea of 'indirect reasons' (which is related to the indirect utilitarianism mentioned above, and also discussed a bit in my essay: ought we to be rational?). There's something about what I once called 'abstract probabilities', or the kinds of evidence or reasons provided by generalizations, that I think could benefit from further attention. I hope to clarify my thinking on this sometime in the future.

I've had a lot of fun discussing philosophical logic and paradoxes, e.g. the surprise examination paradox. My most original thought here probably came up in my posts on value-based liar paradoxes, contextual impossibility, and the raven paradox. My essay on the idle argument built on (and greatly clarified) the previous year's arguments about King Henry's paradox. Other fun posts discussed the possibility of traversing the infinite, and multi-dimensional time.  

Reality and Modality: 

Two conceptions of objectivity contrasts two very different understandings of objectivity. Wholes as summed parts explains the kind of reductionism I like (in contrast to the obviously false kind). My post on formal systems and the absolute explains my old understanding of non-concrete reality (i.e. understanding maths, modality, and normativity, all as kinds of formal constructions). I now think that approach might be inadequate (as hinted at in the 'ethics' section above), but I still think those weird modes of reality are difficult if not impossible to pin down. My post on 'real possibilities' expresses my exasperation here. My latest modality post was on 'the impossibly conceivable counteractual', though I have some reading to do on Dave Chalmers' two-dimensionalism, which might help me make better sense of this. (There's a good chance I'll do my honours sub-thesis on a related topic, if I go to ANU.) My post on conceivability, possibility, and explanation is probably the best outline of my present thoughts on modality.  


The previous link also touches on issues in philosophy of mind, esp. the possibility of phenomenal 'zombies'. I develop this more in my post on conscious causation -- probably my main post on philosophy of mind for the past year. I also discussed some more peripheral issues, e.g. the mind's boundaries, and whether our thoughts are 'private' in any strong sense. Elsewhere, I highlight some obvious but often overlooked consequences of having a physical mind. I've also written about animal minds and intentionality, from a biological perspective.

My post on the camera of consciousness highlights some key thoughts on subjectivity and personal identity. My views on the latter topic have been heavily influenced from reading Derek Parfit's brilliant thought experiments involving vagueness and splitting. My post 'soulless materialism' discusses personhood and the importance of mentality (rather than the mere human physicality that so-called "pro-lifers" tend to concern themselves with). Choosing Determinism summarizes my thoughts on free will, unchanged from last year. But I do have a new transcendentally pragmatic argument for free will, to the effect that you couldn't possibly go wrong in choosing to believe in it: either you're correct, or you had no choice about believing it anyway! Intriguing logic.


I should also point out my 'wishful thinking alert', for the sake of posterity. It describes what philosophical theses I would like to be true (regardless of their actual truth values), which reflects how I want the world to be -- and so perhaps subconsciously influences how I think the world is

Right, that should be enough to keep anyone busy for a few weeks. Happy new year!