Narrow and Broad Consequentialism – the Case of HoboJacket

December 8, 2012 at 15:00 (Philosophy)

People sometimes ask me if I’m a utilitarian. I balk; I don’t want to be pinned to a theory of how to measure utility or what we are supposed to be maximizing or why the goal of maximizing it functions as a reason for action. I fall back instead to saying that I try to take a “broadly consequentialist” view of things. What does that mean? Well, ok, what does it mean aside from signaling that, in person at least, I’m a confrontation-shy agreement-seeker who’ll bury any substantive position I stake out in qualifications and concessions?

Jonny Pugh’s recent post at Practical Ethics (the joint blog of Oxford’s ethics silos) provides a case and an argument that I think are very apt to fleshing out what I’m saying when I talk about broad consequentialism. HoboJacket – An Ethical Analysis sees Jonny rehearsing the details of the flap over the still-warm story of a widely condemned website, working through some of the arguments in the consequentialism-versus-deontology clash it occasioned, and offering his own reason for leaning consequentialist on this case. I don’t mean for this post to be either a thorough treatment of the HoboJacket issue or an expression of total disagreement with Jonny’s treatment of it, so I’ll only run through the details quickly on the way to the point I am making. Read the rest of this entry »


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Cross-Post: A Few Thoughts on Neuroscience and Consciousness in Marginal Cases (Stanford CLB Blog)

November 20, 2012 at 23:14 (Law, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Politics)

Over at the blog of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences, I’ve got a post looking at some normatively significant neuroscience in the news. Here’s the intro to that post.

A couple of items in the news over the past few weeks have left me in a peculiar (maybe uncomfortable, but probably healthy) position: partly agreeing with the view of a philosopher whose general approach I bristle at, and receiving with some skepticism the work of a scientist whose project I think is important and worthy of much respect.

Writing in the NY Times’ philosophy column a few weeks ago, William Egginton – whose prior essays in that forum were met, rightly I think, with excoriating or at least cautious responses – set about answering the question “Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?” in the negative.  His view, in brief, is that while neuroscience can supply information about pain-related activity in the brain of a fetus, this information is useless (or maybe he means near-useless, there’s some vacillation) when it comes to “the fundamental question of what counts as a full-fledged person deserving of the rights afforded by a society.”

See the rest of the post on the CLB’s blog.

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Discussion Questions: Free Will and Free Agency

September 29, 2012 at 18:00 (Philosophy, Psychology)

A few weeks ago, I came across a very nicely done article at Big Questions Online,offering a unique treatment of the classic “free will, determinism, and neuroscience” topic, penned by experimental philosophy star Eddy Nahmias. Though my views differ in some ways from the his, I really dug the presentation of a kind of compatibilism that focuses on reasons-responsiveness and is sort of reminiscent of Strawson’s theories. It made me realize that my own stance toward compatibilism has become both much more nuanced and much more friendly than my writing in previous years might be taken to indicate. Noting that shift, and inspired by the BQO article’s excellent, highly focused set of discussion questions, I decided to set down what my current views are. I can only guess how they will come to differ from what I think another three years down the road …

  • What do you think free will is?

To begin with, I think it is crucial that we differentiate two ideas, the conflation of which has been the source of endless confusion on this topic – I’ll call them free will and free agency. We can think of free will as a property which, intuitively (I am guessing) many people think human decisions and actions have: that they are neither products of strict causality nor random emanations of stoachsticity, but rather the products of a will that is not bound to, but rather breaks from, the causal laws of nature. Meanwhile, free agency can be thought of as the capacity of an agent to deliberately (and deliberatively) select courses of action and effectively realize her preferences. Whether your choice of dessert is or is not ultimately determined by your brain’s mechanistic execution of a complex decision procedure – whether this decision procedure shatters the causal chains of the universe – is a matter of free will. Whether the sexual desires of a pedophile are capable of being reined in by his respect for law and his wish to refrain from causing harm, or whether women in the 18th century were generally free to live out envisionings of the good life that didn’t involve subservience to men – those are matters of free agency. Read the rest of this entry »

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Roland’s Vancouver Restaurant Compendium

August 25, 2012 at 12:09 (Beer, Food)

This compendium is the product of nearly three years of assiduous dining out while living in Vancouver, BC. Yes, I have personally been to every single one I listed, and more besides; only the ones I recommend make the cut. Many restaurants aren’t on here because I never got around to trying them (good examples would be Twisted Fork Bistro, or Bitter). You might also notice a few very well-known Vancouver hot-spots are absent because I think they’re not all they are cracked up to be and better alternatives exist (which is not to say that, e.g., Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe is a bad place, just that it gets more hype than it deserves). The listing inevitably betrays some of my own position and biases: the geographical point of departure is UBC, the dietary assumptions are highly meat-centric (but almost no worthwhile Vancouver establishment lacks adequate vegetarian options), the alcohols of choice are overwhelmingly beer and whiskey, some culinary styles that I am generally not as excited about are underrepresented (sorry pizza, sorry Thai food), while others are overrepresented (I hope you like poutine), and I mostly left out places where you can only snack as opposed to have a meal (with the obvious exception of the section on coffee shops; anyhow, sorry, gelaterias and bubble tea houses). Urbanspoon links are included for location and other details, but don’t get too caught up reading the reviews. I encourage you to save, use, and share the list, and give me feedback! Read the rest of this entry »

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Fairness in Games, Metagames, and the “Real” World

February 4, 2012 at 17:16 (Game Design, Law, Philosophy, Politics)

Leave it to a stimulating conference to bring me back from thesis-induced blog-cation. Two weeks ago, the Peter Wall Institute hosted an exploratory workshop on fairness, and I was most fortunate to attend as a graduate student commentator for a panel on fairness and economic advantage. In the course of reading over the papers for the panel – an eclectic assortment of pieces ranging from insolvency law to the Eurozone crisis to some of the work I’ve helped carry out looking at attitudes towards distributive justice issues in cognitive enhancement – I perceived several recurring themes that I drew out and elaborated on in my commentary. One in particular, it seemed to me, emerged frequently throughout the rest of the conference as well: thinking of fairness in terms of games and rules, especially with an eye to zero-sum vs. positive-sum games, and often with similarities to the Prisoner’s Dilemma or other game-theoretic scenarios. In particular, some of the discussion later in the conference that happened to deal with fairness in sporting events set me thinking about how this approach to conceptualizing fairness might be quite concretely useful when redeployed in the realm of rather more “serious business.”

Let’s begin with an example – a clear, if not exactly commonly occurring, example of an unfair game. Imagine a marathon about to begin. The various competitors are poised and ready at the starting line … but one of them is not on foot. He’s sitting in a Formula One car. It should be clear enough that this is a pretty terrible marathon that none of the on-foot participants will be altogether keen on going through with. But though the example is whack-you-over-the-head obvious in its unfairness, things get a little more interesting when we do some proper philosophy and try to clarify just what about the nature of the situation is constitutive of its unfairness.

I think we can say at least two things on this topic that will turn out to have sufficient generality. Read the rest of this entry »

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Wielding the Wittgensteinian Broom Against the “True” Self

June 13, 2011 at 08:45 (Bioethics, Neuroethics, Philosophy)

Every now and again, a topic falls neatly into your lap. Not only is it well past time to flex my blogging muscles again, but I have been encountering the same set of knotty questions repeatedly; first at several presentations during the Brain Matters 2 conference in Montreal, then in the pages of the New York Times courtesy of the influential and reliably innovative Josh Knobe, and even in a rather popular blog post on Neuroethics at the Core, penned (without collaboration from yours truly, lest you suspect me of double-dipping!) by my advisor and PI. And, of course, I performed something of a touch-and-go on the same matter myself in my previous post here on autonomy and free will. So, then, today’s fare is the self – what, if anything, makes it “true,” and when or whether may we consider it “the same” as it was before?  Read the rest of this entry »

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An (Embellished) Anecdote – Free Will, Autonomy, Selfhood, and Hot Dogs

May 7, 2011 at 21:33 (Great Quotes, Neuroethics, Philosophy, Psychology)

Not long ago, I was walking across campus to the office, slightly behind schedule and thus going briskly so as not to be late. As I passed by the Student Union Building, the most pleasing aroma came to my nose, and I looked to notice that Japadog had set up shop just a few hundred paces out of my way. (Japadog is a hot dog cart that is something of a Vancouver legend, and it is life-changingly delicious.) I felt my feet veering me off to my left as I began to imagine securing some of this delectable fare for myself.

Almost immediately, the fact that I was going to be late if I went even a few yards astray came rushing back to me. Bummer though it was to give up my Japadog, I corrected my course and fastwalked onward. As the smell of kurobuta sausage and wasabi mayo faded into the distance, my philosophically reckless inner monologue exulted: “see, I wasn’t going to just let that happen! Way to exercise free will.

Of course, I caught myself, and posing as my own internal interlocutor, self-responded “hey now, exactly what about that decision makes it look like free will? Given the set of things you care about, the relative value you place on those things, and some basic rules of reasoning, it was literally impossible for you to have chosen in any way but the way you chose, even if it felt like you could have done otherwise. Or do I have to remind you about how what just now played out looked from a brain’s-eye view?

Unable to really argue with myself on that, I eventually came up with: “okay then, genius, but you still have to explain the feeling of satisfaction that comes from looking back on what happened. Are you just gonna say that in fact there was nothing to take credit for and it’s silly to be pleased?

Read the rest of this entry »

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[Cross-post] Neuroethics Journal Club: Judging Mens Rea

March 14, 2011 at 02:13 (Neuroethics) ()

This personal blog is not the only place on the internet you can find me typing into the void; I also contribute to Neuroethics at the Core, the academic blog for the research group I currently work with. Generally, when I hold forth on neuroethics-flavored topics, I’ll be cross-posting between this space and that one. Here’s the first few paragraphs of my post, followed by a link to the whole thing. If you’re inclined to leave a comment, I guess it’s really up to you which version you do so on! Incidentally, while you’re over at the Core blog, I encourage you to check out some of my previous posts there; although there’s only a handful, I’m quite proud of what I’ve contributed.

The National Core for Neuroethics had a lively journal club discussion recently on a paper by Bertram Malle and Sarah Nelson that dealt with “the tension between folk concepts and legal concepts of intentionality.” As I was presenting the paper and facilitating the discussion, I decided to blog about it to share some of the highlights with our readers and crystallize my own thoughts on the matter, stirred up as they were by the proceedings.

The basic gist of the paper is as follows. Malle and Nelson identify “the valid and precise use of the concepts of mental states in reasoning about the defendant’s actions and in assigning responsibility, blame, and punishment” as a central challenge in creating a system of criminal adjudication. (One interesting point to consider going forward is how these same issues might apply to the context of torts, where instead of the epistemic criterion being “beyond a reasonable doubt” one is instead prompted to consider “the balance of evidence.”) In legal contexts, the term used to refer to the mental states in question is mens rea, Latin for “guilty/sinful mind.”

The specific mental state that the paper is concerned with is intention, especially as it relates to intentional action. In the grand tradition of experimental philosophy (though it really wasn’t yet a tradition in 2003!), Malle and Nelson find the by-now familiar faults with how these concepts have been developed in legal theory and philosophy – with theories of intentional action checked primarily against the intuitions of a small, non-representative group of participants in the debate, leading to a confusing mismatch between how the law asks us to use concepts, and how we (generally) are inclined to actually use them.

Read the rest of the post on Neuroethics at the Core.

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Is the Case “Against” Euthanasia Really Just a Case for Better Policy?

February 24, 2011 at 00:20 (Bioethics, Great Quotes, Politics)

Lately, one of the topics I’ve had occasion to think about quite a bit is the culture-war-tinged set of issues swirling around physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. A couple of months ago, a dear family friend of mine succumbed to lymphoma, and while the specific question of assisted suicide didn’t come into the picture there, end-of-life care inevitably forces everyone to consider what might happen along those lines. In particular, that episode prompted me to revisit the powerful Nietzsche quote I keep on my Facebook profile: “One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I happened to sit in on a lecture by one Dr. Margaret Cottle, whose unexpectedly polemical presentation really jarred me into revisiting the euthanasia debate with some of the perspective I have gained from my own area of research. For the sake of background, here is an article that quotes Dr. Cottle quite a bit (though I must apologize that I couldn’t find an article from a less upsetting and nasty website). Interestingly, though, the talk that I heard her give didn’t really focus on what one might take to be the deep, in-principle reasons to oppose physician-assisted suicide. Instead, it was largely a broadside on how permissive euthanasia policies have played out where they have been implemented. In Dr. Cottle’s estimation, the impact of such policies has, in every case, been an unmitigated disaster.

Why did her talk give me such pause? Well, because it highlighted an important feature in the topography of this, and other similar, debates.

Read the rest of this entry »

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February 8, 2011 at 06:48 (Misc)

My paternal grandfather – as wise, thoughtful, and gentle a gentleman as one could wish to look up to – was fond of the proverb “verba volant, scripta manent.” When 16-year-old-me set out on what remains one of the most magical travel experiences of my life, those four words of wisdom prompted me to scribble down as much as I could, and the difference it made stuck with me; words really do have a habit of flying off, and what remains to lend a feeling of continuity to our disjointedly collated experiences is what we’ve written.

In renewed observance of that lesson, I begin this blog in the hopes that I will be able to collect and preserve those measures of my endless daily ruminations that don’t fit into a 140-character box. The ready availability of such boxes also means that – at least, if all goes to plan – I’ll avoid using this space as a means of regurgitating the occurrences and annoyances of my day-to-day existence, or as a platform for sharing interesting material without substantive comment. We’ll see if I can hold myself to a policy of “render unto Zuckerberg what is Zuckerberg’s.” That, I think, is going to be the only content constraint on this little blogging project.

Other than that, this is a blog about my interests. It seemed like a reasonable idea to start it up because I need to practice writing in a (relatively) long-form way about whatever I happen to be mulling over. I suppose it will also be handy to learn the ins and outs of blogging. Maybe some people will even read it – or leave comments! That was largely not the point of my undertaking this venture, but we shall see where it goes. (Hopefully it won’t end up like the other Scripta Manent in the Blogspot-o-verse, abandoned after three pages of posts.)

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the title of this post, that’s the name of a Jewish prayer generally recited when embarking on a new or unusual experience – a way of saying “here goes a  novel undertaking, so let’s mark it off as such and hope it goes well!”

I like to imagine that my grandfather might have said it over his first blog post, if he had ever had the opportunity to write such a thing.

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