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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The “Crisis” of the Networked Self: Manufactured, Patronizing, and Misguided

April 26, 2012 at 16:44 (Misc, Philosophy)

It strikes me as perfectly indicative of everything I want to say in this post that Sherry Turkle’s latest Cassandra impression in the New York Times is titled “The Flight From Conversation,” yet comes accompanied by an illustration that looks, to me, like a bunch of people having conversations.

I suppose it is something of a meta-comment to note that lately, an issue is topical when it shows up in the NYT and The Atlantic, lights up my Twitter radar, and then gets critiqued in Slate and again in The Atlantic. But really, the reason I am moved to comment has more to do with the fact that few things make me crankier than Turkle’s particular style of fretting critique, especially mobilized for the purpose of bemoaning the maladies afflicting our contemporary existence. Crankiness and caffeine, admixed in a solution of thesis-procrastination, apparently react to produce lots of text and a precipitate of crystallized snark.

To lead off with, here’s some ad hominem that actually has a legitimate role in the argument. I want to suggest that the fact that Sherry Turkle seems not to know how to have a genuine conversation via SMS or Facebook is her problem, not society’s. 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?

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Structural Injustice, Procedural Equality, and Diversity in Recruitment

April 1, 2011 at 11:10 (Philosophy, Politics)

A handful of news items and discussions lately have prompted me to think about the issues in the title of this post. I should clarify at the outset that the phrase “diversity in recruitment” here is meant to refer to, e.g., a university or workplace actively endeavouring to make admissions / hiring decisions in a way that increases the representation of visible minorities and other marginalized groups. I sometimes get the sense that, before the partisan debate is even joined, this is an issue that divides liberals, if only in the sense of quiet inner conflict.

Let’s start by considering this post, detailing a scholarship that a Texas non-profit is offering strictly to white men. Go ahead and have a read; skip the comments, as they’re distracting in this case. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done? Okay. Now, consider your initial gut reaction to the whole thing. It’s possible, I think, that people who are otherwise liberal will bristle at the disdain this scholarship has prompted – people who might say, “wait a sec, I’m not sure we have any grounds to oppose this” and/or “I’m not sure I understand how the people who oppose it aren’t hypocrites.” I would know: not so long ago, I was at least conflicted enough to quasi-count as one of them.

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