Monday, January 20, 2020

Yang/Warren: that's the ticket!

There's a lot to be said for Yang as a presidential candidate: he's funny and likeable (able to use humour to deflate Trump's chest-thumping appeal to voters' lizard-brains), an "outsider" candidate (which in recent history appears to be a necessary feature for Democratic candidates to actually win the presidential election), and betting markets currently give him the highest conditional probability (amongst those with a greater than 1% chance of nomination) of beating Trump if nominated (77%).  Yang's automation-focused economic narrative seems broadly plausible, and may have a real chance of combating the immigrant-demonizing narrative peddled by Trump & co, and winning over swing voters in key states.  As a NY Times editorial board member wrote of their interview: “He really seemed to have an almost emotional sense of what people have been going through and what the problems are. His portrait of the fundamental economic problems were more moving than Bernie’s, and Bernie has been selling this for 30 years.”

Friday, January 10, 2020

Parfit's Cat

My favourite story from Simon Beard's Parfit Bio:
"Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do." This was the opening sentence of Derek Parfit's philosophical masterpiece, Reasons and Persons. He believed that it was the best way to begin his book because it showed something important about people. Often we are not as special as we think we are. For instance, when people simply do what they want to do they appear to be utilizing no ability that only people have. On the other hand, when we respond to reasons, we are doing something uniquely human, because only people can act in this way. Cats are notorious for doing what they want to do, and the sense of proximity between a cat and its owner pleasingly heightens our sense of their similarity. Hence, there could be no better way for this book to begin. 
However, there was a problem. Derek did not, in fact, own a cat. Nor did he wish to become a cat owner, as he would rather spend his time taking photographs and doing philosophy. On the other hand, the sentence would clearly be better if it was true. To resolve this problem Derek drew up a legal agreement with his sister, who did own a cat, to the effect that he would take legal possession of the cat while she would continue living with it.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019 (and '18) in review

(Past annual reviews: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004.)

I didn't get around to this last year due to being in the midst of an international move (not an easy process with a toddler, to put it mildly, but worth it nonetheless).  So I guess this post can serve to summarize my past two years of blogging...

Epistemology, Metaethics, and Mind

* Philosophical Expertise, Deference, and Intransigence argues that we should only be moved by peer disagreement (and related phenomena) when we take the other person's views to be evidence of what we ourselves would conclude upon ideal reflection.  So there's no epistemic pressure to defer to even your acknowledged "philosophical superiors" if their starting points are too different from your own.

* Why a related (intransigence-based) argument against cognitivism goes wrong.

On Parfit on Knowing What Matters - responding to Parfit's response to my paper. (Includes a summary of my original paper's central claims.)

Ambiguously Normative Testimony - why Bedke's objection to non-naturalism over-generalizes.

Normativity for Value Realists -- if you don't believe in (genuine) "Nazi value" you shouldn't believe in (genuine) "Nazi reasons" either.  (May have converted Norcross to normative realism!)

* Sub-experiences and Minimal Duration -- what's the best way to make sense of experiences that have a minimum duration?

Applied Ethics

* How to Make a Difference -- exposing the fallacy in claims that "individual action" is necessarily inefficacious in the face of global problems.

Three kinds of offsetting -- exploring what kinds of harms can (or cannot) be morally "offset", and why.

Worthless Harm-Prevention and Non-Existence -- how some great harms might nonetheless not be worthwhile to prevent.

Is Price-Gouging Good? - maybe!

Police Shootings: Mortal Threats vs Tragic Mistakes - how to tell if there are too many of the latter.

The Value of Academic Research -- there's more to it than Michael Huemer realizes.

Political Theory

Charity Vouchers: Decentralizing Public Spending with follow-up posts:
Philanthropy Vouchers and Public Debate: Political vs Civic Advocacy
What Compassionate Conservatism Could Be

Ideological Ascent and Asymmetry - can you always diagnose whether someone's political behaviour is "unreasonable" in a completely value-neutral way (abstracting away from the details of what's under dispute)?

Ethical Theory

Constitutive Instrumentality: a response to Lazar - how to make sense of fungible values.

* Is the 'separateness of persons' better understood as constraining our actions or our attitudes?  I argue for the latter.

* Negative Utility Monsters - a twist on the original case may serve to undermine its intuitive force.

Does Welfare have Diminishing Marginal Value? - an alternative (utilitarian-compatible) way to capture prioritarian intuitions: assign DMV not to welfare, but to the basic goods (e.g. happiness) that contribute to one's welfare.

Consequentialism, Moral Worth, and the Fitting/Fortunate Distinction - why consequentialists should not conflate "right reasons" with "consequentialist-recommended motivations".

Good Motives, Act-Features, and What Matters - how to understand talk of "right-making features".

When Killing is Worse than Letting Die -- when the victim is more salient, (all else equal) the harmful act reveals a worse quality of will.  In other cases, there may be no moral difference between killing vs letting die. (Related: Options without Constraints at PEA Soup.)

Actualism, Evaluation and Prerogatives - addresses an objection from Pete Graham.

The Aim(s) of Practical Deliberation - is there a fact of the matter about "how high" we morally ought to aim?  I defend a pluralist answer.

Stacking Time-Relative Interests and Acquired Tastes and Necessary Interests -- exploring McMahan's account, and developing it in response to objections.

Off the blog...

Four of my previously-accepted papers appeared in print this year:
* 'Willpower Satisficing' (Noûs)
* 'Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons?' (APQ)
* 'Fittingness Objections to Consequentialism' (OUP)
* 'Overriding Virtue' (OUP)

I also wrote a new paper, 'Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good' (summarized here), that I'm pretty excited about.  (It aims to put to rest the debate between maximizers, satisficers, and scalar consequentialists, by showing how the views are best understood as not actually being in conflict with one other.)

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Comparing US vs UK Academia

Having been back in the US for a full year now, it's interesting to compare how differently academia works here compared to in the UK (where I worked for the preceding 4.5 years).  I much prefer the US system, personally, but will try to offer an even-handed overview here.  Others are of course welcome to contribute their own observations in the comments (or email me if they'd prefer their comment to be posted anonymously).  I especially welcome any corrections if my observations aren't representative in some respects.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

What Compassionate Conservatism Could Be

The old conservative ideology held that low taxes on the rich were essential for economic growth, the benefits would "trickle down" to help everyone, and private charity could step in to help should any of the "deserving poor" somehow be left by the wayside.  But trickle-down economics is now widely discredited, and the extraordinary levels of inequality found in the US are becoming harder to defend. One option for economic conservatives is to just change the subject: ramp up racial animus and other cultural tensions to distract from one's continued attempts to rework the economy in ways that serve only the wealthiest individuals.  That seems pretty evil to me, but it sadly seems to be the way that many are going these days.  Sad realities aside, though, I'm interested in whether there's logical space for a more intellectually and morally ambitious form of conservatism that could provide a worthwhile counterpoint to (e.g.) Elizabeth Warren's ambitious liberalism.

I think there could be, though it would look very different from what conservatives defend today.  I think there could be a worthwhile form of (genuinely) compassionate conservatism that began by appreciating liberal critiques of radical wealth inequality, and the need for redistributive taxation, but that responds by offering an alternative -- "small government" -- solution of what to do with the raised funds. Rather than tasking untrustworthy politicians with solving society's problems, and creating high-stakes political conflicts over the form taken by the big-government "solution", compassionate conservatives could decentralize public spending by disbursing philanthropic vouchers back to voters, who then each direct their own share of the public purse to whatever non-profit organization(s) they deemed best.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

How to Make a Difference

Steven Hales complains that we (folk and academic ethicists alike) focus too much on individual action:
We like to believe that when it comes to the great global issues of our time—climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction—that we each can make a difference. A small one maybe, but a real and significant difference, nonetheless. [...] That’s a mistake. It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution. [... W]hen it comes to global-scale issues, what individuals do is somewhere between 100 percent pointless and 99.9999999 percent pointless.

There's something right about this, but the central claim is crucially wrong.  After all, if you're able to alleviate just 0.0000001% of global harms, that's actually quite a lot of good you've done!  You may have saved someone's life, or slightly increased the chance of humanity's continued survival, or slightly increased the average quality of life for future generations (and either of the latter two may in fact involve astronomical amounts of good).  Once we grasp the magnitudes involved, it becomes clear that having a proportionate impact is far from pointless.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Police Shootings: Mortal Threats vs Tragic Mistakes

Police sometimes face mortal threats.  They also face innocent people whom they mistakenly judge to pose a mortal threat.  If too slow to react to the former, the police risk being killed.  If too quick to react to the latter, they risk killing innocent civilians.  What is the right way to balance these risks?  Three options present themselves:

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Value of Academic Research

Michael Huemer argues that "the benefits of the vast majority of academic research are tiny at best, possibly negative, and much less than the costs."  While I don't dispute his claims (in section 3) that universities are prestige-chasing institutions, I think his framing of the issue leads him to overlook the main sources of value that can nonetheless emerge from these highly imperfect institutions.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Is Price-Gouging Good?

My Contemporary Moral Issues class had a lot of fun discussing Zwolinski's defence of price gouging recently.  I thought it might be worth sharing Zwolinski's arguments since most people seem to find them very surprising / counter-intuitive.

The basic idea is that in conditions of temporary scarcity (e.g. after a disaster strikes), higher prices can actually improve people's access to needed goods, via several mechanisms:

(i) Higher prices can increase supply by creating stronger incentives for new suppliers to emerge (e.g. freelancers buying up cheap ice in an unaffected area, driving it to the disaster zone, and selling it for six times what they paid for it).

(ii) Higher prices reduce demand, incentivizing people to economize where possible, leaving more of the supply available for others. (Example: raised accommodation prices might encourage families to share a single hotel room when they would otherwise sprawl out over several.)

(iii) Relatedly: higher prices can improve allocative efficiency, as those with urgent need of a good will generally be willing to pay more for it, whereas those who might merely like it (at the normal price) are more likely to wait or abstain when prices are inflated far beyond normal levels.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Worthless Harm-Prevention and Non-Existence

We typically assume that it's really important to prevent great harms.  And indeed, usually it is.  But there are at least a couple of exceptions.

Most obviously, some harms might be outweighed by greater associated benefits.  Benatar thinks it's terrible to allow someone to come into existence given all the subsequent harms their life will contain (no matter how overall happy their life will be).  That's obviously nuts.  These harms are more than compensated for by the overall happiness of the life.  So it's only uncompensated harms, or "net harms", that we should seek to prevent.

More interestingly, even net harms may nevertheless not warrant preventing (in a certain way).  For suppose the harm is comparative in nature: the harmful event does not put the victim in an intrinsically bad state, but rather harms them in virtue of depriving them of some much better alternative.  There are then two very different ways in which a comparative harm could be prevented.  You could ensure that they get the better alternative.  (That's the good way!)  Or, you could prevent the "better alternative" from ever arising as a possibility to be deprived of in the first place.  There is generally no reason whatsoever to prevent a harm (however grave) in this way.