Ad Populum blog launched

September 21, 2016

I have started a new blog applying philosophical thinking to topics riding the zeitgeist. The first post is up. Check it out: https://adpopulumblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/21/syrian-refugees-and-a-bowl-of-skittles/


Post on Aesthetics for Birds Blog

April 15, 2016

I contributed some thoughts about cultural appropriation to the excellent Aesthetics for Birds blog. To check it out, click here.


The Extraordinary Efficacy of Trivialization Arguments

March 30, 2016

It’s always very interesting which types of argument work on people and which don’t, and which types work on which kinds of people. By ‘work on people’, you could, of course, mean two different sorts of thing: change their (professed?) beliefs, and change their behavior. These pretty notoriously diverge. But I want to focus on a type of argument where they don’t, and which, at least in my experience, works on philosophers and non-philosophers, academics and non-academics. Note that I don’t necessarily mean the argument ought to work, though I suspect it should (and not just because things would be better if it did, the more it did). It’s at the very least inspired by things Peter Singer says, though it differs in interesting ways from, e.g., “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. I don’t see it in this particular form in too many pieces (things Unger says sometimes look like it?), but I’m definitely not as expert in the area as I’d like to be.

Anyhow, let’s call them trivialization arguments. They work like this. Suppose a person wants to do A. And suppose further that doing A entails, or at least makes it significantly likelier that the person will not give a largish amount of money to charity. This could be getting a new car, going on an expensive vacation, getting a new sound system, or whatever. But then you ask the person to imagine the ghost, say, of the person or people who would’ve lived had they instead donated the money to a charity that would’ve saved their life. They ask what was so important that their life didn’t quite make the cut, and it is, of course, embarrassing to mention the luxuries the person easily could have done without. It all seems trivial in the face of a life. And if there’s nothing one could say without feeling ashamed, then one ought to have given the money—but, of course, they can. Etc.

There are a couple things that are interesting for me here. You might think the argument is bad because we don’t have to be able to articulate good reasons for all of our choices. That would be impossible, and doesn’t show a lot. But not being able to articulate good reasons for a choice doesn’t make whatever the reasons were trivial. It’s not just the person’s inability to articulate good reasons that (if the argument is in fact good) ought to persuade them, but their recognition that whatever the reasons for preferring doing A to saving the life would be trivial.

Second, the argument is, of course, less persuasive when put in premise-conclusion form. Here’s a reconstruction.

(1) If the reasons for doing A (e.g., buying a new car, going on an expensive vacation, etc.) are trivial when B (giving the money to an effective charity) is a relevant alternative to A, then one ought not to do A.

(2) The reasons for doing A are trivial when B is a relevant alternative to A.

(3) So, one ought not to do A.

I think the main reason is that (2) needs to be felt, and not just intellectually: you need to imagine saying it to someone who suffers by your doing A, and all the better if you imagine them as having suffered already by your doing A. Probably some of this has to do with empathy, but I think there’s more to it than that. Having to actually justify yourself to someone who isn’t you makes you more self-conscious and more aware of whatever failings your justifications have, even when it’s just imagined.

Third, and on a related point, the argument gains strength by leveraging something like shame. As Plato noticed in the Gorgias, people that are willing to say pretty clearly immoral things can be pretty easily brought back by shame. What’s nice in particular about this use of shame is that it need not be public, or even particularly obvious that the person is ashamed (though I think that has to be a huge part of what’s going on).

Finally, it reveals an important truth: we, or at least most everyone I’ve talked about this (a biased sample if ever there was one, but much less biased than it might have been) do think people have a claim on our resources, when things get bad enough. Otherwise shame just wouldn’t be so immediate.

Well, are these good arguments? Like I said, I suspect yes, but I’m not totally sure. There’s a pretty easy Sorites one could run, if you just iterate the argument. Since most people, even most effective altruists, don’t believe people are obligated to impoverish themselves—or should be ashamed if they don’t!—you might have legitimate qualms with the argument. But I’m not sure if that really refutes it. Because, just as the duties to give to charity stack, so, too, do the sacrifices. It might not be a big deal to do without a new car. But to do without any luxuries, or even some expensive quasi-necessities wouldn’t be trivial (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t still give them up, at least if we were morally great). So if we iterate, we have, at least for many of us, sacrificing a life of any luxuries, or perhaps even a life of relative poverty on the one side, and some small-but-not-too-small number of lives. It doesn’t strike me that avoiding poverty here is trivial, even if ultimately not the right choice.

There’s a larger question here for philosophers, and it’s as old as the Gorgias, too. Should we give the argument in terms of the ghost, or in terms of premises (1)-(3)? I’d bet the disciplinary norms, with some interesting outliers, are that we ought to give the (1)-(3)-type arguments in journals, and it’s permissible to give it to laypeople, but also permissible to give the ghost version. I understand the second conjunct: it’d be great if as many people as possible donated more than they do now, and as I said, the (1)-(3)-type argument is less effective for that. But I’m not sure I understand why (1)-(3)-type arguments are (strongly?) preferred in journals, seminars, talks, etc.. Here are a few guesses.

First, philosophers only care about arguments, not mere “rhetoric”. But it’s not clear to me that the ghost version just adds rhetoric. It’s a thought experiment not too unlike Gettier cases, etc.. It does differ from many canonical ones in working by eliciting specific emotions, but lots of thought experiments in ethics do that, too. My sense is that shame is an emotion that philosophers just don’t like to appeal to. But shame seems to have an evidential value here, since when one finds themselves ashamed of their reasons for doing A rather than B, that seems like a decent reason to think that those reasons are trivial.

Second, shame is hard to argue with. It’s very personal, whereas philosophy is about public reason. Against that, though, it seems like intuitions are (in the relevant sense) personal and hard to argue with, too. Just as with intuitions, we try to appeal to the most commonly felt ones, just as we try to limit our initial premises to things most people, or the people whom we’d like to convince accept.

Third, you might worry that shame (etc.) arguments cut both ways, and there’s a danger that they’ll just reflect unfortunate cultural things. So, we better just stick to the staid stuff if we can, because that stuff is less likely to make compelling things we won’t want. But, first, it seems to me that intuitions bring the same danger. And second, it seems like we should trust our ability to see that sort of thing on reflection, again at least as much with intuitions or starting points.

So, I’m not totally sure what the reason would be. For that matter, I’m not sure my sense of disciplinary norms is correct here. But if it is, I’m not sure those norms would be defensible. More generally, I wonder how much the most persuasive argument-types tend not to appear in academic philosophy very much (though, of course, I might be wrong that trivialization arguments are even all that persuasive). I’m very curious to what extent that might be the case, and if so, what the reasons are and if they’re any good.


Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution’: a Dilemma for Ethicism

June 3, 2015

Following a recent brief conversation with Sam Liao at the Race & Aesthetics conference, I realized we took very different views of the relationship between certain kinds of moral properties and their aesthetic upshot. We were discussing a couple of paintings in the Leeds Art Museum where the conference was taking place, one of which was Edward Armitage’s Retribution. As it happens, Sam has discussed the painting elsewhere in a recent blog post:

Learning about the museum’s collection from a postcolonial perspective actually heightened my aesthetic experience of them, albeit in unexpected ways. For example, a painting that I’ve long casually dismissed as an amateurish allegory actually became more interesting to me when I learned it was part of the British propaganda to justify their horrific actions in India. The painting featured a white angelic figure slaying the Bengal tiger. It is not the subtlest of all symbols, which makes it rather amateurish as an allegory, but perfectly appropriate as propaganda. What was previously an aesthetic flaw somehow ceased to be one, even though the painting is certainly more morally flawed for it.

Edward Armitage - 'Retribution' (1858)

Edward Armitage – Retribution (1858) {image in the public domain}

The “white angelic figure” (“demonic” seems more apt) is Britannia. Retribution was painted to celebrate the (brutal) crushing by the British of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8, in which Indian sepoys working for the East India Company engaged in a mutiny, leading to a number of others and, eventually, the dissolution of the East India Company. Crucially, for the remainder of the discussion, the fact that Retribution celebrates this Imperial bloodbath renders the painting morally flawed (in case that was not obvious).

In conversation, Sam suggested that this kind of example provides a simple way to argue for aesthetic immoralism. Aesthetic immoralism, as it is sometimes used and as I shall use it here, is a broad family of views according to which (among other commitments) ethical flaws in artworks sometimes count as aesthetic merits in a work, and ethical merits sometimes as aesthetic flaws. Aesthetic immoralism stands in opposition to a family of views sometimes called aesthetic moralism. Among the moralist views, the best defended is Berys Gaut’s ethicism. According to ethicism, roughly, ethical flaws always count as pro tanto aesthetic flaws, and ethical merits always as pro tanto aesthetic merits. So, for example, according to the immoralist, cruelty—qua cruelty—in an artwork can, but need not, be an aesthetic merit in a work. According to the ethicist, however, cruelty—qua cruelty—in a work always counts as an aesthetic flaw, in addition to being a moral one.

The argument for aesthetic immoralism that Sam had in mind, I guess, goes like this: some ethically bad works (such as Retribution) are interesting as art in virtue of being ethically flawed. And since being interesting as art is a pro tanto merit in a work, and the fact that these works are more interesting as art is grounded in their being ethically flawed, some ethical flaws count as aesthetic merits in artworks.

I agree with Sam that Retribution, along with many other works, is more interesting as art for being ethically flawed. However, I think this fact supports a different conclusion to the one he draws; namely, being interesting as art need not count as an aesthetic merit in a work. And, I think, this kind of example shows more generally that aesthetic properties thought to be always positively (or negatively) valenced, such as being interesting, thought-provoking on the positive side, and being dull or hackneyed on the negative—i.e. properties that are thought to always count as pro tanto merits, or as pro tanto flaws—can in fact switch their valences. Why? To put the argument as succinctly as possible (since this is a blog post, not a monograph): if being interesting as art does not contribute the same aesthetic valence across artworks, surely nothing does. So while I concede that Retribution is more interesting as art for being ethically flawed, I deny that this counts as an aesthetic merit in the work. I deny this for the same reason that I deny that being interesting as art counts as an aesthetic merit when it arises from the aesthetic flaws in a work or performance. Take the terrible auditions for various TV talent competitions, for instance. These are often so aesthetically terrible that they thereby become interesting as art—as artistic spectacle—a fact the producers of these shows ruthlessly exploit. But it seems bizarre (if not incoherent) to think of such a performance as aesthetically better for being interesting in this way. For, if we thought it was, then following the same reasoning I attributed to Sam, we would have to say that its being interesting as art is grounded in its being aesthetically flawed, and thus that some aesthetic flaws are aesthetic merits. I take it that stated literally this is an untenable position.

But my ultimate interest is not in Sam’s position (or, rather, the one I have attributed to him). Instead, it is with the ethicist’s. So, even if you side with Sam, never fear—the preceding discussion still throws up an interesting consequence. Namely, if our positions (mine and Sam’s) concerning Retribution and works like it are exhaustive (whether of logical space or just its plausible positions), then this by itself provides an argument against ethicism (and thereby one for aesthetic immoralism). Let me explain.

If one of us must be right, then there are two possibilities. The first possibility is that Sam is right. If so, then the argument against ethicism is straightforward; it is simply “his” argument for aesthetic immoralism as spelled out above.

The second possibility is that I am right. If so, then we can mobilize a burden-of-proof argument against the ethicist. For, in order to make her argument, the ethicist relies on the fact that ethical properties in artworks will never flip their aesthetic valences. So, to use the earlier example, being cruel will always count as a pro tanto aesthetic blemish in a work, (and similarly, being beneficent will always count as a pro tanto aesthetic merit). But if a notion as seemingly robustly univalent as interesting—or even interesting as art—can flip its valence as my argument claims, then the ethicist must answer a question: namely, what is so special about ethical properties in artworks that they never flip their valences? The challenge here is simple: if all properties of artworks can flip their aesthetic valences, why not the moral ones?

So, in summary: perhaps Sam is right, in which case we have a straightforward argument for aesthetic immoralism, and thus against ethicism. Alternatively, I am right, in which case we have (at least the beginnings of) a burden-of-proof argument against ethicism. Either way, we have a prima facie case to reject ethicism.


Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility

February 16, 2015

I just read an interesting and thought-provoking argument from Dana Kay Nelkin [1] to the effect that psychopaths – understood here as agents which are morally blind in a particular way – could not be cruel, no matter what they do to people. I’m worried that this argument is too cautious in its application of that term, but in order to express my worry I’ll need to first talk about responsibility generally.

I’ve always thought that there are three kinds of responsibility discussed in Gary Watson’s seminal “Two Faces of Responsibility” [2]: the attributive kind, the aretaic kind, and accountability. Watson yokes the first two together, and I wish he had fleshed out the relation between them.

Attributability is a matter not of attributing properties like blame- and praiseworthiness to agents, which is the usage some of the literature following Watson seems to have settled on – after all, Watson intends to argue two kinds of blame need to be distinguished – but of attributing actions to agents. My going to the grocery store reflects my aims in a way that my accidentally dropping a vase does not. Accounts of attributive responsibility differ along what is required for an action to be attributable to me: must it reflect my deep self, my practical identity, or merely be something I do for a reason? So understood attributive responsibility is not a moral notion, except in the broadest of senses, for to assign this kind of responsibility is not yet to level censure or give praise. It’s also important to note that the appropriateness of ascriptions of this kind of responsibility do not obviously require anything more than bare agency: an ability to set (some) aims and act for (some) things seen as reasons.

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When Duties Harm

April 9, 2014

Can duties harm us? Can being obligated to do something of itself make a person worse off, at least sometimes?

Duties and obligations – or the conditions which trigger preexisting duties and obligations – are often greeted with resignation by those who have them just as if they were bad news, at any rate. Even if Yann quite likes his job teaching philosophy and understands that he may be assigned administrative duties as a condition of employment, he might also be quite disappointed when he remembers all the graduate student applications he must read tomorrow, just when he was hoping to spend a day on research. He just found out that things are a little bit worse for him than he thought. Shante might hate the very idea of a monster truck rally but go to one for the sake of a friend who wants her to have a “cultural experience.” What motivates her is a sense of duty to the friend, not any desire to see cars smashed; she would have preferred never to have been invited, because then she wouldn’t have to go.

Of course a good friendship is usually not a burden, and having obligations and filling them can indeed be part of what is good about a friendship. Such duties do not even seem pro tanto bad for those who have them. Joseph Raz puts it best:

Some activities and relationships which cannot be specified except by reference to duties are intrinsically good. Friendship is such a case in which the two properties coincide. Friendships ought to be cultivated for their own sake. They are intrinsically valuable. At the same time the relations between friends, the relationship which constitutes friendship, cannot be specified except by reference to the duties of friendship. When this is the case the justifying good is internally related to the duty. The duty is (an element of) the good itself.  [1]

Let’s suppose it’s the duties themselves which can be said to affect our well-being in the cases above. If that’s so, then what makes their effect positive or negative? When do duties enhance our well-being, and when do they detract from it? Here’s one answer:

Obvious Account (OA): New duties benefit us to the extent that they increase our expected future well-being and harm us to the extent that they decrease it.

In this post, I want to suggest that OA cannot account for a way in which a duty can itself be a harm.

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Defectiveness of Concepts

January 28, 2014

There’s a kind of pragmatism, call it Carnapian pragmatism, that concerns the adoption of languages. More specifically, Carnapian pragmatism, as I am using the term, combines two theses: (1) there are no a priori rationally indispensable languages, and (2) the adoption of a language ought to depend on the weight of the various benefits that speaking that language confers on one and one’s community. (1), rules out, for example, the a priori indispensability of a language involving material substances that persist through time and underly change. That is, of course, compatible with that language’s being as a matter of fact the obviously best language in which to (e.g.) conduct inquiry. (2) gives us a criterion scheme for choosing among eligible languages.

Now consider the following claim, a rough first approximation: there are some truths that one ought never to come to believe, because they involve defective concepts. Everyone, I think, will grant that there are some truths we ought not to come to believe for some significant sense of ‘ought’, perhaps because they would be too damaging or morally corrosive. But suppose the ‘ought’ is the ‘ought’ of inquiry: given the goal is furthering inquiry, one ought to φ (in general I don’t think this will be what is called the epistemic ‘ought’). The claim, then, is this:

(*) There are some unambiguous truths (where an unambiguous truth is simply true, and thus not also false) and subjects S such that (A) S is warranted in believing p, and (B) has considered whether p, but (C) ought not to believe p because p contains (or is expressed with) a defective concept.

Another way of putting things: are there concepts defective from the point of view of inquiry not just because they have no instances (or, more generally, cannot be used to express positive truths)?

I consider (*) to be stronger than Carnapian pragmatism. According to Carnapian pragmatism, there are languages we ought not to speak in view of what best furthers inquiry. Important progress in science can be made by hitting on these languages. But this thesis is just a thesis about language, and not about rational belief. Carnapian pragmatism does not forbid you from believing content composed of or expressed by bad concepts. As a view, it has a large amount of prima facie plausibility, whereas the claim of the previous paragraph looks pretty controversial from the first.

There are some concepts it would be better if we did not have, if only because they add clutter without doing much corresponding work for us. Hirsch’s incar and outcar might be good examples. Other concepts are more pernicious, because they encourage thoughts it would be prudentially better for us not to have. Slurs might be one example here. But if our only goal is inquiry, are there really concepts with which we can express truths, but where those truths simply ought not to be believed? It is just not plausible that, where we find ourselves thinking about incars, and we realize some true thing about them, that we ought not to believe that true thing. It’s just that it’s unfortunate that we ever set out thinking in terms of incars, since that’ll mostly be a waste of our intellectual resources.

A variation on Prior’s tonk might be the kind of thing we’re after. It’s characterized (incompletely, for present purposes) by its introduction rule (from A, infer A tonk B) and its elimination rule (from A tonk B, infer A). But these rules don’t give us any truth conditions for tonk, so let’s stipulate some: A tonk B is true iff A is true or B is true. Suppose we have a sentence like ‘Grass is green tonk Gibbard invented penicillin’ (call it G). is true, since the corresponding disjunction is true. But we ought not to believe G, since then we would be “licensed” to infer that Gibbard invented penicillin, a manifest absurdity. So perhaps this is a counterexample. I don’t think it is, though. Though it is true that G analytically entails that Gibbard invented penicillin, we are often not permitted to believe even what’s logically entailed by what we believe, as in preface cases, or where we have contradictory beliefs (not just anything goes in that kind of case). Similarly, though the concept is characterized by certain sorts of inference rules, it is impermissible to infer according to those rules, because we know that a huge variety of tonk-inferences do not preserve truth, and do not even pretend to.

To forestall an objection: we still have the concept tonk even if in most cases we don’t infer according to its characteristic rules, if only because we can argue about it and have good reason to say things like ‘tonk is a dumb concept’ with complete justification (compare Williamson on McGee and modus ponens). That is, I think I have at least one tonkish belief (G), though I haven’t yet inferred that Gibbard invented penicillin. So, we might be permitted (required, if the truth and our warrant are obvious enough) to believe truths expressed with this version of tonk, though we would also have to be sure not to make risky inferences.

Here’s a worry about that response to the tonk variation. Tonk will still differ from incar, because in worlds where incars are extremely important, truths about them become very important. That is, there are some possible beings for whom it would be useful to think with incar. But with tonk, no matter which possible world and which possible beings, or beats it in view of inquiry. Or and tonk make the same contribution to truth conditions, but with or, you need not worry about making the inferences that come with possession of the concept; with tonk you need to be on your guard. So or will always be at least as good as tonk. While I agree, I don’t see how this gets us (*). It would be better to reason with or than with tonk, no doubt about that. But ought we really to disregard the tonkish truth, just because or does better? That just doesn’t follow. The worry, then, is just an instance of Carnapian pragmatism, and does not establish (*).

(*) is an exciting claim, while Carnapian pragmatism seems old hat to me. It would be a way of combining conservatism with revisionism: “granted, the people here are saying true things, but what they’re doing is nevertheless defective”. So, it would be very interesting to find the truths it claims are out there, though I haven’t yet found any. For my own part, I’m inclined to think something like this: from the point of view of inquiry, anyone is permitted to believe any unambiguous truth for which they have undefeated warrant. If, for example, theological discourse is defective from the point of view of inquiry, it is defective because its positive claims are all of them false, since they would involve a concept with no instances. I don’t know if I have more of an argument for that claim than the ridiculousness of conceding to someone that some claim is true, and they have great reason to believe that claim, but even so they oughtn’t to believe it. We all just need to be careful about what we do with even the truths we believe. That might sometimes be difficult, practically speaking, but it seems always at least possible.

(Thanks to Umer, Boris, Zoe, Paul and Nick for the interesting discussion much of which I’ve translated here.)