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Num Nums

My paper 'Negative Utility Monsters' is now forthcoming in Utilitas.  It's a very short and simple paper (2500 words, expanding upon this old blog post), but kind of fun.  Here's the conclusion:Nozick’s utility monster should no longer be seen as a damning objection to utilitarianism. The intuitive force of the case is undermined by considering a variant with immensely negative wellbeing. Offering significant relief to such a “Negative Utility Monster” plausibly should outweigh smaller harms or benefits to others. Our diverging intuitions about the two kinds of utility monsters may be explained conservatively as involving standard prioritarian intuitions: holding that benefits matter more the worse-off their recipient is (and matter less, the better-off their recipient is). This verdict undermines the distinctiveness of the utility monster objection, and reduces its force to whatever level one attributes to prioritarian intuitions in general. More ambitiously, the divergence between the two cases may be taken to support attempts to entirely explain away the original utility-monster intuition, e.g. as illicitly neglecting the existence of an upper bound on the monster’s wellbeing. Such an explanation, if successful, suggests that our intuition about the original utility monster scenario was based on a mistake. Either way, the force of Nozick’s objection is significantly undermined by the Negative Utility Monster.NUM: just imagine that the cookies are people, [More]

From Mind-as-Computer to Robot-as-Human: Can metaphors change morality?

Over the past three years, I have returned to one question over and over again: how does technology reshape our moral beliefs and practices? In his classic study of medieval technology, Lynn White Jr argues that simple technological changes can have a profound effect on social moral systems. Consider the stirrup. Before this device was created, mounted warriors had to rely largely on their own strength (the “pressure of their knees” to use White’s phrase) to launch an attack while riding horseback. The warrior’s position on top of the horse was precarious and he was limited to firing a bow and arrow or hurling a javelin. The stirrup changed all that: The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of violence without precedent. The fighter’s hand no longer delivered the blow: it merely guided it. The stirrup thus replaced human energy with animal power, and immensely increased the warrior’s ability to damage his enemy. Immediately, without preparatory steps, it made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle. (White 1962, p 2)  This had major ripple effects. It turned mounted knights into the centrepiece of the medieval army. And since the survival and growth of medieval society was highly dependent on military prowess, these knights needed to be trained and maintained. This required a lot of resources. [More]

Corporations, Ethics & Voting Rights

After a concerted effort to undermine democracy, Donald Trump still lost the 2020 Presidential election. In response, the Republicans in states such as Georgia and Texas have taken efforts to impose new voting restrictions. Republicans and their supporters are a numerical minority, so they rely heavily on anti-democratic tactics to win certain elections.  But there [More]

Guest Post: 'Save the Five: Meeting Taurek’s Challenge'

[My thanks to Zach Barnett for writing the following guest post...]At its best, philosophy encourages us to challenge our deepest and most passionately held convictions. No paper does this more forcefully than John Taurek’s “Should the Numbers Count?” Taurek’s paper challenges us to justify the importance of numbers in ethics.Six people are in trouble. We can rescue five of them or just the remaining one. What should we do? This may not seem like a difficult question. Other things equal, you might think, we should save the five. This way, fewer people will die. Taurek rejects this reasoning. He denies that the greater number should be given priority. In effect, Taurek challenges us to convince him that the numbers should count. Can we meet his challenge?You might be pessimistic. Even if you yourself agree that the numbers do count, you might worry that... just as it’s hopeless to try to argue the Global Skeptic out of Global Skepticism... it’s equally hopeless to try to argue someone like Taurek, a Numbers Skeptic, out of Numbers Skepticism. But that’s what I’ll try to do.Let’s start by examining some different forms that Numbers Skepticism can take. Some Numbers Skeptics are driven by considerations of fairness. Often, they hold that we are required to randomize, to ensure that everyone is given an appropriate chance of rescue. For example, Taurek himself suggests flipping a coin to decide whom to save. Here are six human beings. I can empathize with each of [More]

What's at Stake in the Objective/Subjective Wrongness Debate?

A decade ago I wrote an introductory essay on 'Objective and Subjective Oughts', and the theoretical role of each.  Looking back at it now, I must say... it's an excellent introduction and anyone interested in learning more about the topic should immediately go and read it.In short: the objective ought identifies the best (most desirable) decision, or what an ideal observer would advise and hope that you choose. The subjective or rational ought identifies the wisest or most sensible decision (given your available evidence), departures from which would indicate a kind of internal failure on your part as an agent.  Both of these seem like legitimate theoretical roles.  (Beyond that, various more-subjective senses of ought -- derived from instructions that any agent could infallibly follow -- risk veering into triviality, and are best avoided.)Now, Peter Graham's Subjective versus Objective Moral Wrongness (p.5) claims that there's a single "notion of wrongness [either objective or subjective] about which Kantians and Utilitarians disagree when they give their respective accounts of moral wrongness."  This strikes me as a strange claim, as the debate between Kantians and Utilitarians seems entirely orthogonal to Graham's debate between objectivists and subjectivists.  More promisingly, Graham continues: "And that notion of wrongness is the notion of wrongness that is of ultimate concern to the morally conscientious person [More]

Voter Suppression & Gun Control

Before, during and after the 2020 election many Republicans followed Trump’s lead and lied about widespread voter/election fraud. Trump and his allies had their days in court, losing all but one case. As noted in other essays, Trump’s allies never claimed fraud in court: they were aware of the need for evidence and the penalties [More]

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