A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Links, December 2014

Earlier in the year I started doing links posts. Then there was a month when I didn't have enough new links. Then I had far, far too many, and didn't feel like sorting through them for a considerable while, during which time the list grew longer and longer. So, after a long absence, here is a bunch of links.

Vox: 7 things the most-highlighted passages tell us about American readers.

A true story of Turkish politics. It tells the strange tale of a coup, launched by democratically-elected politicians, against the military leaders.

Yet another reason to protest against the Chinese government: it gets you lavish, all-expenses paid holidays.

I wonder what became of this: an attempt to crowd-fund a drone for the defence of Ukraine.

Why is Barcelona FC so strong: Tiki-Taka or Lionel Messi?

We're nearing Christmas, so why not celebrate in the traditional way? That is, to have a man on hand to perform "one whistle, one jump and one fart." That man went down in history as Roland the Farter.

A rather more modern entertainment: rap mash-ups, to the Thomas the Tank Engine theme tune.

Theological Engineering Exam. "For all questions, assume a perfectly spherical Jesus of constant density D... 25 grams of wafers and 20 ml of cheap wine undergo transubstantiation and become the flesh and blood of our Lord. How many Joules of heat are released by the transformation?"

An artist's impression of what various Pokemon would look like if they were real. Some of them look fine (e.g. Eevee), some look different but alright (e.g. Pikachu), and Togepi looks disgusting.


Philosophers have argued for many years on the possibility of zombies which lack concious experience. The answer to this question has an important implication: whether zombies should be regarded as capital or as labour.

Speaking of philosophers: the views of major political philosophers, explained with reference to the question "Should Batman kill The Joker?"

The story of Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. By the age of 18 she was a widow four times over, and had been impregnated by Hernan Cortes. She is presumably an outlier, but still it causes one to wonder: if this was how bad it was for women in the royalty, how terrible must life have been for the average woman in those times.

While I'm in a feminist mood, I'll link to this fascinating review of the Hermione Granger series of books and this picture of the wrong way to stare at a girl:



I first saw the picture below on Twitter, but it went around Facebook too:


Also, yet another reason not to trust the state to handle this kind of thing: a man spends six months on bail for receiving, not making, a video in which a woman was believed to be having sex with a tiger. What happened after six months? The police finally realised that the tiger was talking, and that it was a man in a tiger suit.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Response to Kane on luck, indeterminism and free will

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities."
      - Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone


In this article I shall provide a summary of Robert Kane's paper Responsibility, Luck and Chance: Reflections on Free Will and determinism (Journal of Philosophy 96 (5), pp217-240; 1999). I shall then present two challenges to the view he elucidates.

Before I get into the serious meat of the paper, allow me to quote its opening words:
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that "to solve the problems of philosophers, you have to think even more crazily than they do". This task (which became even more difficult after Wittgenstein that it was before him)...
Oooh! Burn!

Summary

Kane is responding to the arguments of Daniel Dennett. Dennett is a compatibilist of sorts - he argues that we have moral responsibility, and this is frequently taken to entail possession of free will but to me it feels more like a denial that moral responsibiliity requires one to act freely. (Dennett's position is actually very similar to one I very briefly wondered about back when I was a naive fresher who hadn't read much philosophy - see the section titled Moral Identity here.) Furthermore, Dennett argues that libertarian free will is in fact rather unsatisfying: it seems to involve people doing things for no very good reason, as opposed to his conception in which people perform actions in accordance with their character and may be judged for an action in terms of how representative the action is of their character. If  under similar but non-identical circumstances the agent would have acted differently, then the action may be seen as an aberration for which the agent should not be held responsible. If large changes to the situation would have been required to change the action, then an action is representative of a wider trait of the agent and is therefore something for which the agent ought to be held responsible.

Kane's aim is to present a view of libertarianism which actually seems worthwhile. He argues that rather than having a character which determines our actions, we form our character through the actions we take. He labels the key decisions we make which determine we shall become "Self-forming actions", and argues contra Dennett that there are good reasons for making these choices, but they are not all immediately visible - indeed, many of them lie in the future.

A particular challenge that Kane aims to deal with is as follows: suppose a man has the choice of going on holiday to either Hawaii or Alaska. He deliberates over this decision, and finds several good reasons for going to Hawaii - it is more pleasant, cheaper, etc - and none for Alaska. At this point, what kind of freedom is it which allows the man to still choose Alaska? This is surely less a case of meaningful choice than of perverse randomness.

Kane's response it that we do not possess free will in that kind of case - it would indeed be perverse to choose Alaska. Instead, we possess free will pretty much entirely in our SFAs, but the preferences which dictate our many other choices stem from SFAs. The man's choosing to go to Hawaii would not be an SFA, and would not of itself be a meaningful choice; however, his preference for hot over cold might stem authentically from his past enjoyment of summers, and so the choice may still be indirectly meaningful.

He also responds to the problem of "moral luck". Suppose a woman is walking to an important interview, when she sees a person being mugged in an alley. She has pepper spray in her handbag, and so could save the person who is being mugged, but this would cause her to be late for her interview. If it is truly indeterminate as to whether or not she does the moral thing by stopping the mugging, then what is there to distinguish it from luck as to whether she saves the person? How, then, can she be either praiseworthy or blameworthy for her action?

Kane responds that, since the businesswoman has good reasons for multiple courses of action, and these courses of action conflict with each other, she is at an SFA. She may be viewed as simultaneously attempting both courses of action - stepping in to stop the mugging, and hurrying along to her interview - and succeeding at one, failing at the other. Suppose that, in the event, she keeps out of the mugging and just rushes along to her interview. Kane would say that she could not control whether or not she succeeded at stepping in, nor could she control whether or not she succeeded at moving along; nevertheless, she could control which one of the two it was that she succeeded at. Hence she is responsible for her decision to move on.

So much for what I intended to be a quick summary. I find his account very appealing, and would very much like to believe it. Unfortunately, I have two key issues with it.

Multiplicity of potential SFAs

Brian is addicted to smoking. He knows it is bad for him, and every single day he swears to himself that he will quit. Yet, every day without fail, he will give in and sooner or later he will pick up the first cigarette of the day.

It seems in this case that each and every one of Brian's attempts to quit smoking has the potential to be an SFA. If he were to succeed, it would be a classic example of an SFA. It also seems strange to claim that certain decisions can be SFAs only if they go in a particular direction. Yet this seems to commit us to the idea that Brian is making an SFA every single morning, in spite of the fact that each and every one of these SFAs is the exact same decision.

If it does not seem strange to classify a decision as an SFA only when it goes a particular way, consider Brian's brother Steve. Steve also smokes, and has been thinking about giving up. However, he decided once and for all that he is approaching retirement and has earned a vice or two to keep him going in his old age. This seems like a very good candidate for an SFA, and does not seem importantly different from the decision made every day by Brian.

Lack of responsibility for failure to act

Let us go back to the case of the businesswoman. She did the presumably immoral thing of moving on and abandoning the mugging victim. This is something for which we want to be able to hold her morally responsible. Unfortunately, according to Kane it seems that we cannot.

Remember, according to Kane the businesswoman was simultaneously trying both to help the person and to move on. She failed at the first and succeeded at the second. According to Kane, then, she was trying to move on and therefore is responsible for doing so; however, she was also trying to help the person, and it was not in her power to succeed at this. Suppose then that we ask her; "Why didn't you help the mugging victim?" She can then honestly respond: "It's not my fault! I was trying to, it's just that I failed at doing so!" I see no reason why this should not generalise across all actions where we wish to hold someone responsible for failing to do something. "I was trying to give money to the poor! I just failed, because I was prevented by buying this shiny new iPhone!" "I was trying to fulfil the terms of the contract! I just failed, because I was prevented by my desire to save money and effort!" "I was trying to resist my urge to do unspeakable things to this person! I just failed, because of my desire to forcibly have sex with them!"

Conclusion

While I would very much like to endorse Kane's account of free will, it has severe problems which seem to vastly exaggerate the importance of certain small decisions, and which prevent us from holding people responsible for failing to act in certain ways.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Externalities and Rights Infringements

This post is laying out the framework for a couple of future posts. If you have even a basic familiarity with economics, then outside of the final paragraph this should be nothing new to you, and even the final paragraph is pretty trivial.

It is often the case that one person's action affects the wellbeing of another person, despite no intent to do so on the part of the first person. Economists call this effect an externality, and divide them into positive externalities, which benefit the affected party, and negative externalities, which harm the affected party. Goods which produce positive externalities are called merit goods; goods which harm the affected party are called demerit goods. Examples of merit goods include vaccinations (due to the reduced risk of passing diseases onto other people), foods which produce pleasant aromas, and attractively painted houses. Examples of demerit goods include any industrial processes which produce pollution, late night music practices, and driving during rush-hour (which contributes to congestion).

A related concept is the rights infringement (or rights violation; there is a subtle difference, but that shouldn't be important here). This constitutes one person breaching a certain protected sphere around another person; example would include assaulting someone, stealing from them, and damaging their property.

The first point I want to make is a simple one: that negative externalities and rights infringements are different things. Painting your house purple with the effect of reducing the value of your neighbour's house is not usually a rights violation (though it would be if you had signed a contract not to do such a thing) but it is a clear case of a negative externality. Trespassing may often be a rights violation without actually producing an externality to the landowner.

My second point is also simple, even obvious: in general, it is morally wrong to inflict a negative externality upon someone even if you are not actually violating their rights. There are exceptions to this, and it's not deontologically wrong in the way that a rights violation might be, but if you make a habit of inflicting negative externalities then basically you're kind of a dick.

Is Not Voting a libertarian issue?

From H.L. Mencken’s proclamation that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” to Jason Brennan’s near-constant stream of papers lambasting democracy, there is a long tradition of libertarians being at best sceptical and often hostile to democracy. My aim in this article is not to comment on whether they are correct, but to discuss whether this ought to be part of the libertarian movement.
The basic argument against giving scepticism about democracy a prominent place in the libertarian movement runs roughly as follows:
(1)    Many people have a deep, almost religious attachment to democracy.
(2)    By attacking people’s most deeply-held beliefs, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise be interested in libertarian ideas.
(3)    By attacking democracy, libertarians risk alienating people who might otherwise by interested in libertarian ideas. (from 1 and 2)
(4)   Scepticism about democracy is not important to libertarianism.
(5)   If something is not important to libertarianism and it risks alienating people, it should be kept separate from libertarianism.
Therefore,
(6)   Scepticism about democracy should be kept separate from libertarianism. (from 3, 4, 5)

The evidence for (1) is all around us. See the constant exhortations that “If you don’t vote then you can’t complain!”, the haranguing received by Jon Stewart over a mere joke that he had not voted, the ongoing debate over whether voting should be compulsory, and a million and one other examples which would only cut into my word allowance for this article.
I’m not going to argue for (2) here, but I don’t think it should be especially controversial.
(4) seems, to my mind, the weakest of the premises. Libertarianism does not require scepticism about democracy – one could well be a libertarian and yet think that democracy is overall a good system. But perhaps this scepticism might be considered part of a “thick libertarianism”; in particular, it might be part of a “strategically thick” libertarianism. “Strategic thickness” refers to those practices and ideas which tend to undermine the implementation of libertarian institutions, even if they do not necessarily contradict the non-aggression principle (or whatever else one regards as the fundamental moral grounding of libertarianism).
I can think of two ways one might argue for this. The first is that, so long as people remain wedded to the ideal of democracy, they will remain sympathetic to a form of collectivism, which will generally lead to bigger governments. The second would be that there are specific ways in which democracies tend to fail, ways which are particularly harmful to liberty. One example might be immigration, where anti-foreign bias systematically leads to people being more likely to oppose anything involving foreigners. (Incidentally, philosopher Arash Abizadeh – not, so far as I am aware, a libertarian – has argued that there are no reasons why voting should be limited only to present citizens of a nation, and therefore that there is no way in which democracy could actually justify immigration restrictions).
There are two problems here. One is that, by focusing on areas where democracy has a tendency towards failure, we almost by definition focus on areas where people will tend to be irrational and will want to ignore our arguments. The second is that proposing to abolish democracy means replacing it with something else, and although we might have in mind simply to abolish government involvement in the issue being discussed, this is neither what people are likely to take us as saying nor what is actually likely to happen. Many people, including (perhaps especially!) libertarians, are heavily opposed to technocratic rule. Libertarian scepticism of technocracy is an honourable a tradition as scepticism about democracy, as famously expressed by Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
(5) also seems potentially vulnerable – one might perhaps suggest that we should be honest and forthright about every aspect of what we advocate, regardless of whether this is the most convenient thing for us. However, the strength of this objection will turn upon how strongly we use the word “forthright”. I certainly don’t think that libertarians who also happen to be sceptical about democracy should lie or even mislead in order to hide their scepticism, but there is a difference between concealing unpopular views and making them important planks in a platform. In an academic setting, where the entire goal of discourse is to arrive at truth on every individual issue, it is reasonable – even virtuous – to loudly advocate for unpopular views which one seriously believes, even if this is liable to reduce people’s trust in you regarding other issues. In politics, we must be more pragmatic.
“Scepticism about democracy ought to be kept separate from libertarianism”.
I do not mean to insist that this conclusion is either true or false, but I think that it is a question that libertarians ought to think about when lambasting the failures of democracy in a popular setting. The way we go about libertarian advocacy has consequences for people’s freedom, including our own, so we should be cautious when attacking people’s deeply held beliefs – even when those beliefs are strange and irrational. I don’t wish to suggest for a second that we should compromise on our basic principles in order to be more presentable, but there is often far less need to push people’s buttons than we might think.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Morality and Medical Malpractice

One of the traditional thought experiments leveraged against utilitarianism goes as follows:
A surgeon has five patients, each with a different organ which has stopped working. Each is in need of having a working organ transplanted into them, and will die if they do not receive this. At this point, a person with a fully working body happens to enter the surgery. The surgeon could kill this person quickly and painlessly, and give each of the patients a working organ from this person's body. Thus, they would give up one life but would save five lives; utilitarianism implies that the surgeon must surely do this. But this course of action would be monstrous. Hence, utilitarianism is false.
Most utilitarians are not too keen to bite the bullet by admitting that this would be the moral course of action, and tend to argue that there are advantages to a system where you can see a doctor without risk of being murdered. Non-utilitarians would respond by stipulating that absolutely no-one finds out about the murder, so that this system of cooperation is not disturbed. I don't know the utilitarian response to that, but basically it all gets very messy and unclear.

I have a better response to this thought experiment.

Killing the healthy person is stupid! What you need to do is kill one of the people who is already dying, and give their organs to the other people who are dying. Select this person at random, so there's no disincentive to go into the surgery - it's a choice between going in and facing a one-in-five chance of dying, and staying out and being sure to die. Five people survive, one person dies, and no-one can complain that their rights are being ignored. Just tell the patients: "You're all going to die if you don't take part in this raffle, because your organ will give out completely and you won't get a transplant. If you take part, then you may end up being killed right now but providing someone else loses, you will get one of their organs and you will live." Far cleaner, with no need to unilaterally violate the rights of an innocent.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Perhaps the people who made this film had something of an intention to make an adaptation of the book, but it felt far more like a poorly-scripted Dungeons and Dragons campaign. A full list of things I dislike about this film would be long, impractical, and would arguably require me to watch the whole film rather than just the first hour and the last few minutes. However, here are some lowlights:

  • As happened in the book, Lucy becomes desirous to use a spell which will give her the beauty of her sister Susan. As in the book, Aslan chides her for this. But whereas in the book the problem was with her jealousy, in the film this is somehow represented as a mere lack of self-confidence. But she still feels the need to apologise to Aslan over it.
  • The changes to the relationship between Coriakin and the Dufflepuds. In the book, the Dufflepuds turned themselves (and, as an unintended consequence, Coriakin) invisible because they believed themselves to be ugly. In the film he unilaterally turns them invisible - and sure, it's for their own protection, but would it have been so difficult to explain what he was doing? - and is presented as being unquestionably justified.
  • On a related note, Coriakin is, above all else, what leads me to compare the film to a D&D campaign. He is quite literally a Mr Exposition, launching with next to no explanation into a description of exactly must the main characters must do.
With my dislike of the film sated, I'll just note two things which amazed/shocked me. First, look at these pictures of Eustace Scrubb:

After you've finished being creeped out by how much a boy can look like a lizard, would you guess that the actor playing him was 16 at the time of filming?

Second, note the girl on the right. That's Lucy Pevensie, as portrayed by Georgie Henley. This is a picture of her looking incredibly cute upon first encountering Narnia:
This is a picture of her looking incredibly cute while talking to Mr Tumnus after her coronation:
And this is the picture which appears at the top of her page on TV Tropes;
CHILDHOOD. RUINED.

My philosophical views

Having an hour to spare and nothing better to do, I've decided to write down my current answers to the questions on the PhilPapers survey of philosophers' views. First, a couple of notes and caveats:

  • At first, I wasn't going to look at any (potentially new-to-me) arguments for the positions while doing this. However, upon reflection it seems strange to reject a chance to be motivated to learn.
  • One of the options on the original survey was "insufficiently familiar with the area." This really ought to be my default answer - I am, after all, a mere undergraduate student - but where would be the fun in that. Instead, for any given issue you should assume that I am probably not as familiar with the issue as I ought to be.
A Priori knowledge: yes or no?
Umm... lean no, maybe? I lean towards the view that logic, maths etc are constructed rather than discovered, and given that they are supposed to be the paradigm cases of a priori knowledge, I guess that places me in the No category.

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
Is this asking whether I believe that there are no abstract objects, or which of these positions I lean towards on a greater number of subjects? I'm not willing to completely rule out abstract objects (fictional objects in particular strike me as things which might exist but be abstract) but I don't believe in the existence of numbers, of propositions, or of many of the other abstract objects which have been postulated to exist. Put me down as leaning towards nominalism.

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?
I have actually put serious effort into trying to work out why anyone might think that aesthetic value is objective, and the closest I've seen to an argument is SEP's mention of the fact that "people tend to agree about which things are beautiful." Sigh. Accept subjective.

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
I don't believe in it, the only question is whether I go down as Lean No or Accept No. Quine was very convincing... go on, put me down as Accept No.

Epistemic justification: Internalism or Externalism?
I can never remember which is which. Assuming I correctly understand the issue, one of them is the view that knowledge-seeking has intrinsic value, the other is that we should seek knowledge because it is useful to us. Yudkowsky put this very nicely in the Sequences, saying that seeking knowledge out of curiosity has a certain purity to it, but the advantage of seeking knowledge because it is useful is that it creates an external criterion by which to measure our success. Accept whichever one it is which says we should seek knowledge because it is useful.

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-sceptical realism?
Accept non-sceptical realism. You can't achieve absolute certainty that you aren't being deceived by a demon, but (a) there is no reason to believe you are either and (b) in any case, suppose you were. You don't know anything about what the demon wants, so there's no particular reason to change the way you act.

Free-will: compatabilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
I'm fairly well convinced that if determinism is true, then (a) people cannot act differently than they do but (b) they are still morally responsible for their actions. I believe this makes me a compatibilist, although it strikes me as a bit weird that this is counted as believing in free will rather than denying that free will is necessary for moral responsibility.

God: theism or atheism?
Damn, no option for deism. Lean deism if that's acceptable, otherwise I place higher probability mass in atheism than in any of the "revealed religions".

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
Given that I deny a priori knowledge, it would be rather odd if I were to say rationalism. (At least, it appears that way; perhaps this is one of the many things on which I shall come to be corrected.) Accept empiricism.

Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?
No familiarity with the subject area.

Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?
Accept Humean.

Logic: classical or non-classical?
This is an interesting one. As said above, I lean towards the view that logics are constructed rather than discovered, and that different logics may be appropriate for different purposes. The philosophical justification for intuitionistic logic is something I find very appealing, so let's say Lean non-classical.

Mental content: internalism or externalism?
No familiarity with the subject area.

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
I lean towards constructivism. I believe this makes me a moral realist, although that's a bit weird since I started working out my metaethics by explicitly assuming there were no genuine moral facts floating around.

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
Is the question "Which is it more fruitful for us to assume as a default?" or "Which do I beliee is actually true?" Accept naturalism on the first, lean non-naturalism on the second.

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?
Next to no familiarity with the subject area.

Moral judgement: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
I looked at this at some point, but I can't remember much of what it was about.

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?
Is this related to the amoralist's challenge? I've been thinking about that for ages, and still don't have a satisfactory answer despite reformulating my metaethics at least partially in an attempt to produce an answer to this question.

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?
Accept one box. Although even if I were the type of person who would two-box, would I go around telling people that?

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
Virtue ethics, subject to deontological constraints, and with the choice of virtues justified on pluralist-consequentialist grounds. Yes, really.

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
When I studied this in first year, it seemed like a slam-dunk for sense-datum theory. However, given that (a) that was before I had read The Sequences, (b) I can't even remember what the first two of these were or if they were even mentioned, and (c) I have rejected almost every other view I picked up on that course (belief in the a priori, epistemological foundationalism, free-will libertarianism, near-universal scepticism... I must just about hold to a sensitivity condition regarding knowledge, so not quite everything), I'm inclined to take that past belief with rather a lot of salt.

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
I don't hold to a biological view, but I' not greatly satisfied by the leading psychological accounts (though if I had to choose one, I would go with Schechtman's). I don't even know what the further-fact view is, and looking at the relevant SEP and Wikipedia articles suggests that either I'm misunderstanding the question, or that there is something odd about it. I was reading section 3 of Reasons and Persons, but my Kindle has gone missing.

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
Accept libertarianism. Have you read my blog?

Proper names: Fregean, or Millian?
I prefer the Millian view, and I believe that Nathan Salmon's discussion of "guises" solves most of the problems for it; that said, I need to do more reading, so put me down as merely leaning Millian.

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?
Scientific realism. Because, you know. Duh.

Teletransporter (new material): survival or death?
Can I suggest the answer is somewhat subjective? Personally I would regard it as survival, but I'm very open towards difference of intuitions and I think that the disagreement is more to do with people having different values than to do with some (or all) people being wrong about an actual fact in the world.

Time: A-theory or B-theory?
B-theory is the one which holds all times to be equally real, and suggests that we move through time rather than time itself moving, right? Accept that one.

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?) 
switch or don't switch?
I would lean towards switching. I'm not entirely comfortable with it, but David Friedman's variation on Fat Man (in which both the Fat Man and yourself are required to does a fair job of convincing me that we should probably be willing not only to turn the trolley, but to push the fat man in its way.

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?
I read The Simple Truth and it sounded sensible. Then again, I haven't done a great deal of engagement with the views other than correspondence - certainly I could not explain what they are - so I'll have to just say I have insufficient engagement with the subject area.

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?
Again, especially insufficiently familiar, but leaning towards one of the not-metaphysically-possible positions.