Oct 30, 2011

Should grad student stipends be tax exempt?

There's a petition on the Whitehouse website to make grad student stipends tax exempt. Stipend amounts that go to educational expenses (tuition, books, etc.) are already exempt, so this change would affect the remainder of stipend income. The motivation for the petition is apparently to encourage more people to attend graduate school.

I find this very hard to understand. What evidence is there of a supply shortage of graduate students? Even average grad programs get 10, 20 or 30 times more applicants than they can admit. Since federal taxes on grad stipends are in the area of 10% per year, removing those taxes would only increase grad student income by a small amount. That means that the applicant pool would at best be increased very slightly, and there would probably be little to no impact on the quality of the applicant pool overall.

While there is no supply shortage of graduate students, there is obviously a supply shortage of academic jobs for graduate students relative to the demand for those jobs. Making grad school more attractive-- which is what the petition would accomplish if successful (which I doubt, as explained above)-- would only make the problem worse, or at least not make it better.

Why should a graduate student making $30,000 a year should be exempt from income tax when a high school teacher, bank clerk, or secretary making the same salary receives no such exemption?

The petition has some vague rhetoric about needing to increase interest in grad school to remain competitive in the sciences, but it's difficult to see where the problem is. Top American research universities-- places like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, University of Michigan, Cal Tech, etc.-- are among the best in the world, and American students considering an advanced degree in a science or engineering discipline rarely choose foreign universities over these elite domestic ones.

What about students who are deciding between pursuing a science or engineering degree and entering the workforce in one of those fields after obtaining their Bachelor's? Again, what evidence is there that too many students are taking jobs rather than getting advanced degrees in science or engineering? And what evidence is there that science is being held back by some Physics majors getting jobs in finance or consulting rather than pursuing graduate degrees?

The only reason I can think of to worry about the supply of grad students is in attracting non-American students to American graduate programs. But that issue seems to revolve much more around immigration issues (like how difficult it is to obtain the right kind of visa) than around salary. Anyone even thinking about a technical advanced degree will already be considering American universities. If the visa issues are resolved, I don't see the added benefit of making grad stipends tax exempt.

You can read the text of the petition yourself, and see what you think. From where I stand, it's a non-solution in search of a problem.

Oct 29, 2011

The Morality of Deception in Academia

It's common knowledge that letters of recommendation for academic positions are generally inflated. This gives rise to some concern about how the letters are to be interpreted, as one must "discount" the praise for a candidate in some way in order to arrive at a more accurate assessment of his or her abilities. There is less concern, however, about the morality of this practice in general.

Compare another case. Suppose that before sending out a transcript in support of a candidate's application, the registrar's office inflated each grade on the transcript by a small amount- changing each A- to an A, for instance. It's quite obvious that this is deceptive and mendacious, whether one school or every school is inflating transcripts. This means that the "everyone is doing it, so it's not a problem" defense of inflated letters is nonsense. If inflating transcripts is wrong, so is inflating letters.

Another reason one might give for inflating credentials is that once one school does it, the rest have to do so in order to compete. Again, this has no plausibility in the case of inflating transcripts, so it shouldn't have any plausibility in the case of inflating letters. Having a need to compete doesn't license any kind of competitive behavior whatsoever. Surely academics, especially those who rail against competitive economic markets, should be suspicious of this kind of rationalization! There is a constant chorus from academics in favor of transparency in government and corporations; by the same token they should be advocating greater transparency in academia.

One might object that grade inflation, carried out by professors rather than offices of the registrar, is also deceptive according to my argument so far. Indeed, it's hard to see how it is not. Why would it make a moral difference whether the agent of deception is a professor rather than an administrator?

An honest letter or transcript has a potential cost-- making the candidate seem relatively less attractive-- but also an important benefit, in that letters that aren't gushing and transcripts that aren't inflated tend to create a situation of greater trust. It may be more beneficial for one's letter writers to be forthright but trusted than to have gushing letter writers who are not trusted by their peers.

While philosophers enjoy theorizing about the ethics of various professions (lawyers, doctors, soldiers, etc.), there is much less discussion of the ethics of being an academic or an academic philosopher, though the ethical issues pertaining to the latter are just as important.

Oct 9, 2011

"Mixed Actions and Double Effect"

In March I wrote a short post here tracing the history of double effect back through Augustine, Proclus, and Aristotle.

In particular, I mentioned that Aristotle's discussion of mixed actions contains some seminal aspects of double effect. Not being an Aristotle scholar, I didn't pursue this suggestion further, but I see now that Michael Pakaluk has published an article called "Mixed Actions and Double Effect" that presents a thorough look at the question.

The article appears in a volume entitled Moral Psychology and Human Action in Aristotle (OUP, 2011), edited by Pakaluk and Giles Pearson.

This is one of the only pieces I am aware of that makes a serious attempt to understand the origins of double effect prior to Aquinas.



Sep 14, 2011

One Year Wiser?

I started this blog a year ago today, and have been very lucky to have some terrific readers and commenters: thank you! 


I should also thank my wife Kirby, who encouraged me to stop talking about blogging and start actually blogging

Feel free to lift your mouse or keyboard for a virtual toast.

Cheers,
Matt

Aug 5, 2011

Gendered Role Models in Academia

This article from the Chronicle has taken some flack, much of which targets the author's claim that he had a hard time seeing female professors in his department as role models while he was a graduate student. Here's a choice quote from the article:
"It's not that I don't respect anyone. It's just that very few of those I do respect are English professors.
Partially, it's a gender problem. I can't use women as role models because they are not like me. We think differently. What motivated me to go to graduate school was different from what seems to have motivated many tenured female academics I've talked to. Much of what I've heard from older women about why they became professors revolves around issues of professional acceptance, equity, the desire to allow other women's voices to be heard, and wanting a place in which to say what's on their minds. Also, many of the older female professors I've known were quite angry about those issues. 
While I can certainly understand their drives, they are not mine. So, tipping my hat to women in English departments, I can discard them as role models."
He then goes on to discuss his difficulties connecting with the motivations of the male faculty as well. While the phrasing here is overblown-- should he really "discard" the female faculty from the realm of potential role models just because he doesn't share the motivations he attributes to them?-- the basic sentiment seems reasonable. After all, one of the arguments in favor of having a gender-balanced professoriate is that it helps students of any gender find role models among their professors. If it's not problematic for female undergrads or grad students to want a female professor as a role model, why is it problematic for a male student to want a male professor for a role model? Notably, the author of the Chronicle piece doesn't say that he only wants male professors as role models; that is a position I would take issue with. The issue seems to be with the motivations of his professors, rather than primarily with their gender, and he doesn't make any sweeping or essentializing generalizations about female English professors at large, just some local observations about those he was in contact with.

None of this is meant as a defense of the article, just a rebuttal of one kind of criticism that has been made of it. It's absurd to have a double standard whereby caring about the gender of one's role models is only appropriate for some people but not others!

Aug 3, 2011

The Future of Philosophy Publishing?

Sympoze is a new open source journal with crowd-sourced peer-review.   

Scholastica is an even newer system, not yet up and running but you can sign up for the beta version. It promises a more efficient peer review system for existing journals, along with incentives for reviewers who submit high quality reviews on time. Details are still sketchy, but it looks promising.

Anyone know of other innovations in philosophy publishing in the work? What are the challenges facing these new models? Obviously there's a lot of inertia in the system, since it's risky (especially for younger scholars) to publish in newer, unproven venues.

Jul 30, 2011

Human Rights: A Response from Anat Biletzki

At the On the Human blog, Anat Biletzki has graciously responded to the criticisms of her Stone column on human rights that I laid out in my previous post, criticisms that I've also discussed at Language Goes on Holiday.

She suggests that some of my objections target positions that she did not defend in the article, and perhaps this is due to my reading her incorrectly or uncharitably. Briefly, I noted that she seemed to think any religious conception of human rights must be voluntaristic-- she wrote that "if [God] commands a violation of human rights, then so be it"-- and also divorce the motivations to respect human rights from proper concern for humanity -- "it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person," as she puts it. I pointed out that the literature on religious ethics is by no means completely voluntaristic, and that having some religious foundation to human rights need not entail any particular claims about how one ought to be motivated to respect rights. Since she claims not to have addressed these issues, or at least not to have taken a position on them, I won't press these points any further.

What she does address, and here she helpfully goes beyond what she wrote in her column, is my worry that the "dogmatic" or "axiomatic" appeal to humanity, which she sees as the only possible foundation for human rights, entails an impoverishment of our human rights discourse. She responds:
"Most significant for me, however, and contrary to Matt’s perception, is my insistence on the richness of the secular conversation on human rights. That it is a questioning, positing, or even critique of foundations for human rights does not impoverish or empty it of deep meaning. The use of “dogmatic” is, indeed, foundational, to the tune of Wittgenstein’s “my spade is turned.” And, again contrary to Matt’s perception of “mere humanity,” it is precisely the humanistic bedrock that inspires the kind of awe usually reserved for the divine. ... [O]ne might then confess to the awe inspired by humanity’s normative potential."
I agree wholeheartedly that there should be a "richness" to the secular-- or, for that matter, religious-- human rights debate, I suppose I'm still uncertain as to how a thin view of human rights can support the depth and richness that we think that debate should have. There is perhaps not much left to say at this general level; we must rather look at views that fit Biletzki's model and see if they deliver on the promise of a rich, fruitful discussion of human rights.

Her column merits reading in its entirety, and I've enjoyed the chance to discuss it with her and others. There's also been a good discussion of Paul Boghossian's Stone column on moral relativism at NewAPPS

Jul 22, 2011

Human Rights: Secular or Religious?

Anat Biletzki's recent Stone column purports to argue for a secular rather than religious foundation for human rights. While she raises some interesting issues, I don't think she succeeds in undermining theistic foundations for human rights.

For Biletzki, if human rights, i.e. "the rights humans are due simply by virtue of being human," have a theistic foundation, then:
(1) "it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person" in respecting the rights of others, since human rights stem from human beings' being created in the image of God;
(2) Human rights are completely subject to divine will or command ("if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it.")

(1) is simply a non sequitur. It conflates a claim about what grounds rights with what should motivate us to respect rights. Just as utilitarians can say that agents need not always aim at maximizing utility, so the religious human rights theorist can say that agents need not have any religious content to their thoughts and motivations pertaining to respecting human rights.

(2) shows a complete disregard of the landscape of theistic ethics, assuming that any such ethics must be completely voluntaristic. It's also plainly inconsistent with (1). If, for the religious rights theorist, we have rights in virtue of being created in God's image, it would seem to follow that our rights are not revisable by divine will. It's not as if the property of being created in God's image can simply be revoked by God! 

A more general worry is that Biletzki portrays religious human rights as alienated from our humanity, since they are in some sense dependent on God, whereas she thinks secular human rights are more intimately connected with our humanity. But that's actually very unclear. If human rights are rights we are owed "simply by virtue of being human," then it's unclear how the features of humanity that Biletzki emphasizes (our "reason," "emotion," and "compassion") are any closer to human nature as such than being created in God's image. Those properties, after all, aren't distinctively human, whereas the religious theorist might argue that being created in God's image is a distinctively human property. If we want rights to be closely connected to our nature, we may thus be better off on a religious conception of rights-- or, at least, not necessarily worse off.

Finally, while Biletzki frames her essay as an exploration of what grounds or explains human rights, she ends up saying that there isn't really a foundation at all-- rather, an "axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic" reflection on "humanity and its fragility and its resilience" gets human rights off the ground. Not only does this sound tautologous-- we have human rights, which by definition we have by being human, in virtue of being human!-- the case now looks even worse for the secular human rights theorist. Whereas the religious theorist has a rich theory to offer about the grounding of human rights, it looks like the secular theorist on Biletzki's view must resort to dogmatism. And if our human rights theory is so impoverished, it's a deep mystery how we are to go on with our "discussion, disagreement, and questioning" about human rights. If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don't have a theory of human rights at all.

Update: For another take on Biletzki's column, check out Duncan's post at Language Goes on Holiday.
There is also a discussion over at On the Human.

Anat Biletzki has now responded to me and other commenters at On the Human, and I have some follow up remarks in a new post.

Jul 19, 2011

Journal Economics and the Value of Academic Liberties

I’ve heard people say both that academic journals are too expensive and that journals may be too quick to sacrifice the freedoms of authors in the face of threatened or actual lawsuits. It should be obvious that these positions tend to undermine each other. In the long run, it’s generally cheaper for journal publishers (like other kinds of businesses, as well as non-profits for that matter) to settle out of court rather than face a lengthy and expensive lawsuit. In other words, journals are cheaper when publishers settle rather than fight each potential lawsuit tooth and nail. If you value the academic liberties of authors, you should be willing to pay a price for it. 

Now, how much risk should publishers be taking on, and is that risk being priced fairly, or do some publishers have sufficient market power to overcharge for the assumption of that risk? These seem like the important questions to me, whereas railing against the cost of journals while advocating for a policy that keeps the cost high seems unproductive.

Update: I've started discussing this issue at the terrific NewAPPS blog.

Jul 18, 2011

The feminist case against tenure

It may be difficult to improve, in a reasonable span of time, the representation of women (and other underrepresented groups) in the philosophy professoriate unless there is either (i) a careful reconsideration of tenure or (ii) a strong affirmative action policy for hiring or (iii) both. (Other smaller steps may be helpful in the long run, such as the Gendered Conference Campaign and various efforts at combating implicit biases affecting hiring decisions-- but it seems unlikely that these efforts, even if massively successful, will be sufficient in the absence of the larger steps I mentioned.)

Many people see affirmative action as a way of promoting professorial diversity, but affirmative action is controversial and has some fairly serious downsides. Revising tenure, on the other hand, may be possible without any real sacrifice of academic liberties and may be one of the most effective ways of promoting diversity-- and yet very few (if any) commentators concerned with diversity make this point. 

Here's why tenure is important. The current tenure system is very conservative in the sense that it limits turnover, which tends to make it harder for underrepresented groups to increase their representation in the short and medium-term. On the other hand, tenure is beneficial to those who have it, so once representation of a group increases, tenure has the effect of making those gains more permanent in the long-term. From the perspective of enhancing diversity in the academy, tenure therefore has both advantages and disadvantages. Anyone who wants greater professorial diversity but has no interest in considering even minor revisions to tenure is holding an unstable position-- tenure, carefully crafted, is a boon to a diverse academy, but it would be a tremendous miracle if the current tenure system is delivering the greatest benefits at the lowest cost relative to other options. 

An honest consideration of tenure is thus a feminist issue, as well as an issue for anyone who wants to promote a more diverse professoriate with respect to all underrepresented groups.

Jun 10, 2011

Restricting Funds for Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Unintended Consequences?

A study in the June 10 issue of Cell suggests that restricting public funding for embryonic stem cell research (a popular position in the US among those who are pro-life) may actually hinder adult stem cell research, which is often touted by opponents of embryonic stem cell research as a morally superior alternative.

The reason for this is quite simple: to test the safety of therapies derived from adult stem cells, one generally must compare the adult stem cells to embryonic stem cells to see if they are more likely to mutate and thereby cause health risks to the recipients of the therapy. Thus, the study's authors suggest, bans on public funding for embryonic stem cell research may seriously hinder the therapeutic prospects of adult stem cell research.

This is an interesting argument, and one that opponents of embryonic stem cell research would do well to take seriously. There are some reasons that the argument may not be that forceful, however.

First, since adult stem cell research is quite new-- human pluripotent stem cells were derived without embryo destruction for the first time in 2007-- the need to test induced pluripotent stem cells against embryonic stem cells for therapeutic safety may decline in the future. It may initially be needed as a benchmark, but as techniques for deriving induced pluripotent stem cells continue to improve, there may be less of a demand for comparisons with embryonic stem cells.

Second, not all embryonic stem cell research involves destroying embryos. This means that opponents of embryo-destructive research can still support the use of some comparisons of adult stem cells with embryonic stem cells.

For these reasons, I suspect that the argument is weaker than the authors suggest. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research would do well to consider how policies might be crafted that would target embryo-destructive research without negatively impacting research that does not destroy embryos. It's also worth keeping in mind, as I've stressed previously, that adult stem cell research is not without its own ethical quandaries.

For all my posts on stem cell research ethics, follow this link.

May 26, 2011

Disgust, Magical Thinking, and Morality

If I had a sterilized dead cockroach, would you be willing to look at it? Pick it up? Touch it to your lips? [1] Drink a glass of juice after dipping the cockroach in it? [2]

Psychologists have found that we tend to be less than enthusiastic about these actions. The reaction of disgust we have to an object, like a cockroach, tends to spread to other objects that it comes in contact with. Disgust, in the parlance of psychologists, acts like a contagion. In some cases, subjects can avoid the disgust reaction by taking some positive step, like washing their hands. In other cases, subjects remain disgusted by the object. [3] This second kind of contagion, in which the disgust reaction spreads and cannot be eliminated, is often referred to as "magical thinking." We know the cockroach can't contaminate the juice since it's been sterilized, but still the juice revolts us.

In many cases, this kind of "magical thinking" is irrational and harmful. But we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss this phenomenon. While disgust can be massively destructive, serving as an impetus to morally abhorrent ideologies and actions (racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.), might it also serve a constructive purpose in moral life?

The cockroach example seems silly, but consider some other cases closer to the heart of morality. Suppose you are researching Nazi Germany and find some photos in an archive of a lamp. As you inspect the photos, you might have a passing curiosity, wondering who owned the lamp and why it was photographed. On closer inspection, you come to the realization that the lamp is in fact made with human skin.

What is the morally appropriate reaction to coming across such shocking evidence of moral depravity? The answer is no doubt complex. One might appropriately feel rage at those responsible for these crimes against humanity, sadness at the depth of evil that has been perpetrated, compassion and solidarity for the victims robbed of their lives and dignity, and a passionate commitment to do one's part to prevent future atrocities. However, there's another reaction that seems appropriate, perhaps even demanded: a visceral, stomach-turning repulsion that presses one to look away from the photos, put them down, and move away from the archive. Not only does this seem perfectly rational, it may be a moral failure not to have some such reaction.

A claim of that sort might seem out of place in ethical theory. Are there really moral principles governing when we ought and ought not feel disgusted? In the context of an ethics of virtue and character, however, the claim is well motivated. The disgust reaction is a powerful psychological force leading us to avoid certain actions and objects. In short, it is a powerful tool for developing a morally sensitive character. It is also more than that: it is a failure of one's moral sensibilities not to be repulsed by certain kinds of heinous crimes. Someone who does not have those emotional and physiological responses is out of touch with moral reality, just as someone who is hallucinating is out of touch with the reality of the external world. Whether in a virtue ethics or a sentimentalist ethics, disgust can have a key role to play.

Not only does the disgust reaction have an important place in the moral life-- albeit a precarious one, given the destructive role that disgust can play-- but it also has an important counterpart in our moral discourse. The everyday vocabulary of moral discourse, unlike the carefully selected bits of that discourse that tend to be focused on in moral philosophy, is incredibly rich with terms of both appraisal and condemnation. Certain kinds of actions are not just bad, wrong, or unjust, but vicious, depraved, wicked, or disgusting. Philosophers have paid more attention to such thick moral concepts in recent years, but "disgusting" as a term of moral condemnation is a particular kind of thick term. Not only does it mix the descriptive and evaluative, but it does so by reference to the reaction of disgust itself. An action labelled disgusting is one that, according to the speaker, one should find disgusting. (The much weaker reading, on which a speaker's saying "X is disgusting" only entails that the speaker is disgusted by X, doesn't do justice to the case of moral disgust we considered earlier.) This normative claim about how one should react to certain kinds of actions is an additional normative element to thick terms like "disgusting," since to call an act "disgusting" is also to find a more general fault in it (it's bad, or vicious, or unjust, for example).

Unpacking and justifying claims about what one should find morally disgusting is a difficult task, just as it is hard to specify when one should be angered, or saddened, or regretful. Disgust, no less than these emotions, can be felt appropriately or inappropriately, and has a crucial role to play in our moral lives, even if we can imagine beings for whom some of these responses do not play such a role. We should ask the same question that Hume put to Hutcheson:
"If morality were determined by reason, that is the same to all rational beings; but nothing but experience can assure us that the sentiments are the same. What experience have we with regard to superior beings? How can we ascribe to them any sentiments at all? They have implanted in us for the conduct of life like our bodily sensations, which they possess not themselves." [4]


[1] Rozin, Haidt, McCauley. "Individual Differences in Disgust Sensitivity: Comparisons and Evaluations of Paper-and-Pencil versus Behavioral Measures." Journal of Research in Personality 33, pp. 330-351(1999).
[2] Rozin, P. "Technological Stigma: Some Perspectives from the Study of Contagion." In J. Flynn, P. Slovic and H. Kunreuther (Eds.), Risk, Media and Stigma – Understanding Public Challenges to Modern Science and Technology, (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2001). pp. 31-40.
[3] Nemeroff, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). The contagion concept in adult thinking in the United States: Transmission of germs and interpersonal influence. Ethos: The Journal of Psychological Anthropology, 22, 158-186.
 [4] Letter dated March 16, 1740. Life and Correspondence of David Hume, ed. John Hill Burton, Volume I (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1846), p. 120.

Mar 28, 2011

Dumbfounded by "Moral Dumbfounding"

Jonathan Haidt discusses "moral dumbfounding," the "stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a [moral] judgment without supporting reasons"[1]. His study purporting to show the existence of moral dumbfounding seems to suffer from a fairly obvious, though infrequently remarked, experimental error. Since the study is influential and often cited by psychologists and philosophers, it bears pointing out.

Haidt gives subjects vignettes of two cases of "harmless" taboo behavior, such as consensual adult incest and cannibalism. I want focus here on the incest case. The vignette contains no "harmful consequences" because the subjects are told that the participants in the incest have protected sex (so there is stipulated to be no risk of STI transmission or pregnancy) and suffer no harm at all [2]. The subjects in the experiments are asked whether the case of incest is wrong or not. They tend to say yes, and when they say that it's wrong because the participants are hurt or harmed, they are reminded that it's part of the vignette that there is no harm. The subjects then tend to get flustered, saying things like "I know it's wrong, but I don't know why!" Haidt calls this "moral dumbfounding."

The error in the experimental design is that what is probably the most important moral objection to consensual adult incest-- that it's deeply harmful to appropriate family relationships, irrespective of how participants in such behavior judge that it affects their relationships-- is being ruled out by experimental fiat. Being told by the experimenter that there is no harm does not make it true, but it does make it much less likely (given obvious social dynamics among experimenters and subjects) that the subjects will cite this sort of harm as a relevant moral objection. Moreover, this is a very important error, as it means that the study is of no value for discriminating between subjects who have reasons for their judgments but are not articulating them due to the dynamic just mentioned, and those who do not have reasons for their judgments at all. By failing to discriminate between these two groups, the study fails to provide evidence for moral dumbfounding. A similar objection could be made to the cannibalism vignette.

A better design would be to give subjects a simple prompt, like "Do you think that any kind of incest- among consenting adults, for example- is ever morally acceptable?" Then, experimenters would probe subjects' responses, not by rejecting their given reasons as inappropriate, but simply by asking for further justification for each reason given. Subjects will thus eventually reach a fundamental level of moral explanation at which moral dumbfounding will become apparent, if it exists. This design avoids the confound in Haidt's study and would provide clear evidence of moral dumbfounding, an interesting phenomenon that merits a place in the psychology of moral judgment.


[1] All Haidt quotes are from "Moral Dumbfounding: Where Intuition Finds No Reason," coauthored with Bjorklund and Murphy. Haidt makes use of this study in arguing for a social intuitionist account of moral judgment in "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment," Psychological Review, 108 (814-834).

[2] The vignette does not explicitly say there is no harm, but when subjects refer to possible harm they are told that there is none.

Mar 16, 2011

The early history of double effect and intention

When philosophers discuss the principle of double effect, they typically trace its history back to Aquinas's discussion of homicide in self-defense. There, Aquinas claims that the killing of one's assailant is outside one's intention (praeter intentionem).

While Aquinas's discussions are no doubt extremely influential in the development of subsequent ethical thought on double effect, seeds of the principle can be found much earlier in the history of philosophy. I'll mention a few examples.

First, consider Augustine's free will theodicy. The existence of evil is compatible with God's goodness, according to Augustine, because God's tolerance of evil is necessary for the free agency of human beings. God tolerates evil but does not will it. Essentially, Augustine is using double effect reasoning to account for the permissibility of God's creation.

Second, consider Proclus's account of evil. "Evils are not the outcome of goal-directed processes, but happen per accidens, as incidental by-products which fall outside the intention of the agents." [1] Again, we find a distinction between what someone has as a goal, purpose, or intention, and what is brought about by the agent but is in a certain sense beyond the agent's intention. This distinction in Proclus is part of an account of agency, rather than part of an ethical principle (as it is implicitly in Augustine, and explicitly in Aquinas). 

It's useful to trace Proclus's view even earlier back, to Aristotle's remarks on "mixed actions" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1). A captain would never voluntarily throw cargo overboard "without qualification," though he may voluntarily do so to save the passengers on his ship.[2] Throwing the cargo overboard in itself is not choiceworthy-- would not be part of the content of the agent's intentions-- but throwing it overboard to save the passengers might be intended. 

I don't think it's anachronistic to see Aristotle's remarks on mixed actions as a kind of prototype for later thought, in Augustine, Proclus, Aquinas, and Anscombe, on intentional action. Indeed, it would seem that the germ of Anscombe's insight that actions are intentional under descriptions can be found already in the Nicomachean Ethics. (Anscombe is constantly referring to Aristotle in Intention, especially when discussing the practical syllogism, and she also mentions his discussion of 'choice' rather than her preferred 'intention' in a footnote in sect. 40.)

These are just a few of presumably a great number of interesting episodes in the history of action and ethics.

[1]  (De mal. § 50.3–9, 29–31, transl. by Opsomer-Steel 2003, as quoted in the SEP "Proclus" entry by C. Helmig and C. Steel)
[2] Quotes here are from the second edition of Irwin's translation.

Mar 13, 2011

Outcomes, Knowledge, and Morality

Two important puzzles in epistemology and ethics share a fairly simple metaphysical solution.

Consider these two questions:

(1) How can it be that knowledge is more valuable than true belief? After all, both have the same outcome: the agent who has knowledge of p or truly believes p is equally successful in his dealing with the world.

(2) How can it be that properly motivated action (and action with the right kinds of intentions) is more valuable than action that is not well motivated, or that is only accidentally the right action? After all, these all have the same outcome: the agent brings about an outcome (like giving money to someone in need) that is morally appropriate.

These can look like deep questions that require a lot of epistemology and ethics, respectively, to answer. But that appearance is mistaken. These apparent problems share a common solution, one that does not require complex epistemological or ethical analysis, but rather a fairly simple appeal to metaphysics. The error one is making in taking them to be deep problems lies in a mistaken metaphysics of outcomes. It is, properly speaking, false to suppose that the outcome of true belief and knowledge is the same, and likewise false to suppose that the outcome of properly motivated and non-properly motivated action is the same. We can be led to these mistaken suppositions only if we suppose that an outcome can be characterized without reference to its history. If, on the other hand, outcomes are individuated in a historical fashion, we get a quite different result. Acting successfully because one has a mere true belief, and doing so because one has knowledge, are not identical states of affairs. Bringing about the morally appropriate end result because one has the appropriate motivations, and doing so because of a fluke, are not identical either.

Once we see that these outcomes are different, assigning different values to each is no longer puzzling. It still stands in need of justification, however. In the moral case, the justification is quite simple: it is better to have good motivations than not, so a result that is brought about by good motivations is more valuable than one that is not brought about by good motivations. Once the motivations are seen as part of the outcome, rather than merely part of the outcome's cause, and provided that we admit that having the right motivations is intrinsically valuable, we have a quite plausible justification for valuing properly motivated action more than non-properly motivated action. We also take some of the mystery away from thinking that intentions can make a moral difference, as (for example) in the principle of double effect. (See this post for a more detailed discussion of double effect and consequences.)

A parallel answer can be given in the epistemic case. Knowledge has greater intrinsic value than true belief, so it is more valuable to act according to one's knowledge than according to one's (merely) true beliefs.

The moral: a little bit of metaphysics can go a long way in helping with some puzzles in epistemology and ethics.

Mar 2, 2011

Traumatic Harm and the Freedom of Speech

What are the limits to the freedom of speech? A classic answer is Mill's harm principle: one has the freedom of speech to the extent that one is not harming another. Depending on how we think about harm in this context, the principle may be too restrictive. If merely offending someone suffices to harm them, than merely offensive speech will not be permitted, regardless of whether the offense is reasonable. This seems obviously too broad.

There's a way of understanding the harm principle that would take the paradigmatic case of harm to be specifically traumatic harm. Speech that merely offends, even if the offense is reasonable and indeed severe, would be protected, whereas speech that characteristically tends to result in traumatic harm would not be protected. Traumatic harm is a sufficient condition for rendering speech outside the protection of political liberties.

This version of Mill's idea-- call it the traumatic harm principle-- can be put to good use in jurisprudence. Consider Snyder v. Phelps, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided this week in an 8-1 ruling that picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church near the funeral service of a U.S. marine was protected by the First Amendment. (Read the New York Times article if you want to know what the signs said, I won't repeat the content here.)

I find it telling that both the opinion of the majority, and Justice Alito's dissenting opinion, reference the severe psychological toll the protests would have taken on the father of the deceased: "it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims," writes Alito, while the majority emphasizes that the protests must have deepened the father's "incalculable grief." Though the justices do not appeal to the notion of trauma specifically, these remarks show an awareness of the traumatic effects of the picketer's actions. If we follow the traumatic harm principle I've proposed, we would have sufficient reason to deny this 'speech' constitutional protection.

Beyond this case in particular, there are other fruitful applications of our revised harm principle. Consider speech that we would classify as harassment, sexual or otherwise. This is a clear example of speech that is characteristically traumatic to its target. It is also typically offensive, but that doesn't suffice to explain why it should not be protected. The traumatic harm principle would license an exclusion of sexual harassment and other forms of traumatic speech as beyond the reach of political liberties.

While it would admittedly mark some degree of departure from contemporary First Amendment interpretation to rule that the picketers' speech is not protected in virtue of being traumatically harmful, it would be a move in the direction of a morally sound free speech jurisprudence. There are, of course, difficulties with my suggestion. What exactly constitutes traumatic speech? Must the speech be actually traumatic, or only the kind of speech that tends to be traumatic? These are important questions, though they are very much the same questions that present any account of the limits of free speech.

Feb 28, 2011

Embryonic stem cells without embryo destruction

The ethical debate concerning stem cell research tends to assume that harvesting human embryonic stem cells (HESCs) requires destroying embryos. But this assumption is mistaken. As early as 2006, scientists showed that a single-cell biopsy technique could be used to produce embryonic stem cells without destroying the embryo itself. The technique was developed by Advanced Cell Technology, which has just been awarded a patent for its process.

The availability of non-destructive techniques for developing HESCs introduces some complexity into the ethical debate on stem cell research. For those who view the embryo as having some kind of moral status --whether personhood or something weaker--, this development opens up the possibility that embryonic stem cell research could be just as morally permissible as adult stem cell research. (Though the latter also presents ethical issues, as I've discussed previously.) However, non-destructive techniques may still present concerns for proponents of embryonic moral status. When the single-cell biopsy technique is performed, the embryo is at the 8-cell stage of development. Even though the embryo survives the biopsy, one might ask whether the embryo is harmed in some way by the procedure. If one sees the procedure as harmful, there will then be the further question of whether the harm is serious enough to constitute a compelling objection to using the procedure. This question, in turn, is complicated by the fact that embryonic stem cells may be therapeutically equivalent to adult stem cells.

A final question to consider is the extent to which the non-embryo destructive technique ACT has developed will be widely used by stem cell researchers now that it is covered under a patent.

Feb 19, 2011

Re-writing 20th Century Ethics

The ethics chapter in the Columbia Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophies is one of the worst pieces on the history of philosophy I've ever read.

It is undoubtedly difficult to capture a century of ethical thought in a short chapter, but Jan Narveson has done an awful job. There is no mention of virtue ethics, only a brief mention of ethical naturalism. Only one female philosopher, Philippa Foot, is mentioned by name. One would have thought her teacher, Elizabeth Anscombe, would also merit inclusion.

The section on feminist ethical theory was written without reference to a single feminist author-- though Narveson sarcastically remarks that they're "almost always" women-- and is utterly disparaging. The complaint? That feminist ethics fails to abstract away from particular social roles and relationships, which is precisely a goal that many feminist philosophers reject! Besides that, it ignores the feminist critique that the "impartial" perspective has often historically been the male perspective.

Narveson assigns an important strand of 20th (and 21st!) century ethics zero philosophical value on wholly question-beggging grounds, though he fails to cite a single work on feminist ethics. Quite remarkable, really.

Feb 15, 2011

Are omnipotence and necessary existence compatible?

Now posted at Faith in Philosophy: Are omnipotence and necessary existence compatible? If not, there are interesting and (at least to me) novel arguments against theism. While the arguments are ultimately not successful, I think they highlight some interesting questions for theistic metaphysics.

Feb 14, 2011

A new blog devoted to philosophy of religion

Interested in the philosophy of religion? I've started a new blog, Faith in Philosophy, designed to present the state of the art in academic philosophy of religion. You can read my introduction to the blog for more information about what's coming. And, if you're interested in discussing any recent books or articles, send me an email at faithinphilosophy@gmail.com.

How slippery is the slope?

The slippery slope fallacy is rather slippery. We often make claims about a slippery slope, and also accuse others of making the fallacy of the slippery slope. Which is it, a legitimate argument, or a fallacy?

It depends. We should distinguish several kinds of slippery slope arguments, neither of which is necessarily fallacious.

Let's suppose we're discussing eating dessert before dinner. You are in favor, and I am opposed. There are three kinds of slippery slope arguments I might make.


Tendency arguments: X tends toward Y
(1) Eating dessert before dinner tends to lead to eating lots of sweets.
(2) One shouldn't eat lots of sweets.
(3) Therefore, one shouldn't eat dessert before dinner, since one shouldn't do what tends to lead to something else that one shouldn't do.
This is a pretty reasonable prudential argument. (1) may be disputed, but the most controversial bit is drawing the conclusion (3) from the premises (1) and (2).


Necessity arguments: X always results in Y
(1) Eating dessert before dinner always leads to eating lots of sweets.
(2) One shouldn't eat lots of sweets.
(3) Therefore, one shouldn't eat dessert before dinner, since one shouldn't do what always leads to something else that one shouldn't do.
This argument reverses the weaknesses of the first: (1) is implausible (though potentially true as an empirical matter), whereas the inference from the premises to the conclusion is more sound.


Parity arguments: X is on par with Y

(1) Eating dessert before dinner is on par with eating too many sweets. (That is, if it's acceptable to eat dessert before dinner, then it's also acceptable to eat lots sweets.) 
(2) It's not acceptable to eat lots of sweets.
(3) Therefore, it's not acceptable to eat dessert before dinner, since it's not acceptable to eat lots of sweet and that is on par with eating dessert before dinner.
As with the second argument, the action is all in the first premise. The claim that two action types are on par from the perspective of morality or prudence is a substantive claim, and will likely to be controversial.

These are three varieties of the slippery slope argument. Each variety has some sound instances, and some unsound instances: neither one is always fallacious.

Having diagnosed the structures of these arguments and their distinctive weaknesses, we can see that accusing an interlocutor of making a slippery slope argument is a rather delicate matter. The first thing to do is get clear about which form of the argument the opponent is making. It's very common to mistake Parity arguments for Tendency or Necessity arguments. In those cases, the person making the allegation of a slippery slope is himself committing the strawman fallacy, since those versions of the argument are often weaker. The second thing to do is to pinpoint the disputed premise. For example, one sometimes hears the following argument against abortion:

(1) Abortion is just like infanticide. (Or: If abortion is acceptable, then so is infanticide.)
(2) Infanticide is wrong.
(3) Therefore, abortion is wrong.

This is an example of a Parity argument. While some philosophers dispute (2), the allegation of a slippery slope here is about the first premise. Once we identify that premise as controversial, the real work starts. (1) is a substantive moral claim. To rebut it, one points to features that distinguish abortion from infanticide. Once we start down that road, we are able to have a much more productive discussion than if we had simply rejected the argument as committing a slippery slope fallacy. Whether it does so is a substantive question.

So, the slippery slope fallacy is a slippery beast, and is perhaps best not thought of as a fallacy at all.

Ethics 'round the web

This weekend featured some interesting discussions of ethics, in the New York Times and elsewhere.

First, there's a nice article about high school ethics bowls. For philosophers who advocate for pre-college philosophy curricula, it's good to hear that some high schools are getting students involved in debating ethical issues.

This piece provides a good overview of the bioethics debate concerning a recent study on the effectiveness of fetal surgery for spina bifida. In this case, as with many others, there's a tradeoff between developing an effective study for a novel surgical technique and providing the best possible care for the patients.

Tauriq Moosa engages Don Marquis's argument against human embryonic stem cell research. It's a good read for anyone interested in stem cell research ethics.

Finally, Public Discourse has published three interesting essays on the ethics of false assertions, inspired by some recent events involving Planned Parenthood. Christopher Tollefsen argues against false assertions in this case, Christopher Kaczor takes the opposite view, and Tollefsen responds.

Feel free to comment if you've recently read some other good ethics or philosophy pieces.

Feb 9, 2011

Haidt on bias in the academy

After mentioning Haidt's controversial talk yesterday, and reading some very negative responses on some other blogs, I sat down and read the transcript. Haidt's a good psychologist-- his work on social intuitionist models of moral judgment is interesting and important-- and it's worth reading what he has to say about the discipline.

Haidt's central claim is that since the 1960s social psychology has treated certain  values--values Haidt labels liberal-- as sacred. A sacred value, according to Phil Tetlock, is one that "a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance." When the community perceives a threat to a sacred value, it protects the value by rationalizing away apparent threats. For Haidt, social psychology's sacred values involve what he considers liberal commitments to certain position regarding race and gender. When these values were seen to be threatened-- by Larry Summers and Patrick Moynihan-- social psychology responded by treating them as out of bounds rather than by considering the hypotheses offered by the violators for their scientific merit. Haidt sees those episodes as evidence that the values in question are sacred.

He goes on to cite two further pieces of evidence. The first is the statistical rarity of conservatives within social psychology. He mentions several informal sampling techniques he's used, and estimates that conservatives are outnumbered two or three hundred to one. The final piece of evidence is anecdotal testimony from "closeted" conservatives in the field.

While Haidt think this evidence shows that social psychology treats certain liberal values as sacred, he also thinks it shows something stronger: that the community, united by those values, "actively discourages conservatives from entering." This isn't just discrimination, Haidt argues, but bad science. Just as the influx of female academics to social psychology fostered new and fruitful research, so too would an increase in political diversity yield scientific fruit.

Haidt closes with three suggestions for improving the political climate in psychology:
(1) "be careful about locker room talk"
(2) "expose yourself to other perspectives"
(3) "advocate for moral diversity"

What should we make of Haidt's argument? I think it's fair to say that the evidence for a comparative lack of conservatives in social psychology is pretty convincing. No one seriously doubts that Republicans are vastly outweighed by Democrats in academia and psychology in particular. (A recent study by Harvard's Neil Gross and George Mason's Solon Simmons found that only about 9% of American professors identify as conservative, and only 14% identify as Republican. In psychology, 77.8% identify as Democrats, 15.6% as Independent, and 6.7% as Republicans.) The real debate is over why the numbers are like that, and whether it's indicative of a problem.

The decision to pursue an academic career is obviously complex, so any number of factors will be in play in explaining the data. Surely, though, we need to consider the hypothesis that  "locker room talk" with any kind of political bias is potentially one cause among others. Is there hostility toward or open suspicion of certain political viewpoints in psychology departments, or philosophy departments for that matter? And, if so, does that climate make it less likely for students with conservative leanings to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees in those fields? These are important empirical questions that merit careful consideration. Philosophers of all political stripes should care about not alienating students with reasonable political viewpoints, not just because it's the decent thing to do, but because it makes for a more successful discipline.

Feb 8, 2011

Gender, Politics, and the Academy

I want to highlight three interesting stories about gender, politics, and the academy.

First, as reported elsewhere, the percentage of Ph.D.'s in philosophy earned by women in 2009 was about 30%, on the low end for Ph.D. subjects in general. This is an important statistic to keep track of over time

Second, there's an important new study on the causes of male-female disparities in science. While the data in the paper are from the sciences, much of the discussion about what's to be done is applicable to philosophy as well.
Here's a blurb:

"Despite frequent assertions that women’s current underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is caused by sex discrimination by grant agencies, journal reviewers, and search committees, the evidence shows women fare as well as men in hiring, funding, and publishing (given comparable resources). That women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal publications because of their sex. It is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some
originating before or during adolescence—and secondarily to sex differences at the extreme right tail of mathematics performance on tests used as gateways to graduate school admission. As noted, women in math-intensive fields are interviewed and hired slightly in excess of their representation among PhDs applying for tenure-track positions.
The primary factors in women’s underrepresentation are preferences and choices—both freely made and constrained..."

Since the cause of the gender disparity is apparently not sex discrimination at the level of hiring and publishing, the authors argue that preferential hiring for female academics is not an appropriate response to the gender gap. Instead, they suggest:
(i) Increasing outreach to young girls to encourage interest in math-heavy careers.
(ii) Reforming the traditional route to tenure-track academic positions to make it more accommodating for academics choosing to have families.
(iii) Providing additional resources and support to academics with families (child care, stopping the tenure clock to allow for time off to care for young children, etc.) My own institution, the University of California, has taken steps in this direction, and is cited in the article.

Anyone concerned about gender issues in the academy should read this article.

Third, and finally, the New York Times has an article about Jonathan Haidt's presentation at the conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Haidt raised the issue of the disparate representation of conservatives in the academy, particularly in such fields as social and political psychology. While this is an old issue, the article is worth a read.

Divine Command Ethics and Abhorrent Commands

A familiar worry for divine command theories of ethics is the following:
(1) Necessarily, if God commands an agent to perform an action, the action is obligatory.
(2) Possibly, God commands something abhorrent, e.g. that Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
(3) Possibly, it's obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, i.e. for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

(1) is a rough statement of a simple divine command theory. (2) is a plausible premise on certain interpretations of omnipotence, and depending on how the individual theist renders certain Biblical passages, (2) might be strengthened to (2'): God has commanded something abhorrent, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This would license a stronger conclusion of (3'): It's in fact obligatory to follow the abhorrent command, such as for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

That's the worry in a nutshell. Once we put the worry in this form, we see that there are three ways for the divine command theorist (which, I should note, I am not) to respond.

One option is to reject (1). Only commands from a loving God will be suitable candidates for making actions obligatory. Thus suggests Robert Adams.

A second option is to reject (2). Whatever we know about God, we might think, we know he wouldn't command human sacrifice. So says Kant, in The Conflict of the Faculties. The reason we know that God wouldn't command such things, presumably, has something to do with God's nature: it would be inconsistent with his goodness to do so. (I should note that there's a healthy debate among Biblical scholars and Jewish and Christian philosophers about whether God did in fact command some of the things that he would seem to have commanded in the Bible. See here, for example.)

A third response, of course, is bullet-biting: accept the implication that if God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, then it's permissible for Abraham to do so. This strikes most of us, I think, as somewhere between implausible and downright horrific. I think this is by far the least popular response among divine command theorists. Perhaps something can be said for this response, however, though I do not think it is enough to make this option favorable to those inclined to a divine command theory.

The quick response that I've described- and that certainly resonates with me- derives some of its force, I believe, from a poorly described counterfactual. What do we know about a world in which God (while still benevolent) commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? I confess I have little idea what such a world look like. It seems to me quite possible that it would be very different from the actual world, in ways that it is difficult to anticipate. It might be, for example, that the facts of human psychology, and indeed human nature itself, are radically different. (If you think human nature is entirely essential properties, then we'd have to put the point a bit differently.) Or perhaps that world has a different metaphysics of death, or a different phenomenology of suffering. At the least, I would think that we would find such a world quite unfamiliar. Our quick reaction against the bullet-biting response may be unduly influenced by thinking that a world in which God commands  Abraham to sacrifice Isaac only differs from the actual world in the content of its divine commands. When we admit the possibility that that world is dramatically different from ours, the judgment becomes more delicate, and the bullet-biting response to the abhorrent command objection more plausible. In the end, I do not think this response is sufficient. Some evils are such that in any possible world-- no matter how much we vary the facts of human psychology and other parameters--a just and loving God could not command them.

Feb 4, 2011

Update on embryonic vs. adult stem cells

Scientists comparing the safety and pluripotency of adult and embryonic stem cells now have a sophisticated  new tool at their disposal, according to an article published today in Cell. They've developed an assay that permits a comparatively fast and accurate determination of how the stem cells will behave over time. As I reported in my last post, the debate over the efficacy and safety of adult and embryonic stem cells continues, and this is an important new tool in stem cell scientists' tool kit. As always, ethicists should follow these developments closely.

For an overview of the article, see here.

Feb 2, 2011

Improved Technique for Producing Adult Stem Cells

As I wrote about on this blog here, and at greater length for the Public Discourse, stem cell scientists continue to develop faster and safer techniques for developing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from adult tissue. Last fall, a team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute pioneered a method that used mRNA to produce iPS cells from skin cells, an important improvement over techniques that used viruses and created an elevated risk of cancer for patients receiving stem cell treatment.

In January, a paper published in the journal Cell Research demonstrates an improvement over the mRNA technique. [1] Rather than mRNA being used to produce iPS cells from skin cells, a fragment of DNA is used to produce iPS cells from blood cells. Since blood cells culture faster, the cells can be converted more quickly once they are harvested. Besides being more efficient, the technique may lower the cancer risk to patients receiving stem cell therapy, since the DNA needed for the transformation does not become a permanent part of the cells' genome.

There is an ongoing debate among stem cell scientists about whether iPS cells are just as good as embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Are they, for example, as safe and as pluripotent? An article published online in Nature today provides a nice overview of the state of the question. Both kinds of stem cells, it seems, have their limitations, and it is not yet clear whether either one is superior for therapeutic use.

These are important issue for ethicists and policymakers to keep tabs on. Unsettled ethical and legal issues with adult stem cell research will become more pressing as the science advances.

[1] "Efficient human iPS cell derivation by a non-integrating plasmid from blood cells with unique epigenetic and gene expression signatures." Cell Research.

Jan 30, 2011

Philosophy and How to Live a Meaningful Life

This discussion at Leiter Reports seems to me to miss the point entirely. The question under discussion is whether contemporary philosophy addresses the question of how to live a meaningful life. There was general agreement that it does, with works like Nagel's Mortal Questions, Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, Thomas Hurka's The Best Things in Life, and Frankfurt's The Importance of What We Care About being cited as evidence for that claim. While those works do concern how to live a meaningful life, there are two points worth bearing in mind.

First, many of the books on this question are written by philosophers who are fairly late in their careers. Wolf's, Frankfurt's, and Hurka's were published in their late 50's. Nagel goes against the trend, as Mortal Questions appeared in 1979 when he was 42. One explanation for this is that interest in this topic has picked up in the past few decades, and older philosophers are generally more likely to publish books than younger philosophers. Another possibility is that this may not be a 'safe' topic, relative to others; it would then be more likely to be written about by philosophers with already established careers. I suspect that there's some truth in both of these suggestions.

Second, there's a deeper point here. While these books certainly deal with the issue of what a meaningful life consists in, it is less clear that they are aimed at answering how such a life, once identified as good or meaningful, can be lived. It may be that there is not much to say about the latter, or at least not much philosophers can say; maybe it is a question for psychologists. It is quite misleading, however, to suggest that only doing the first thing is sufficient. Some philosophers, including some of those with Wittgensteinian sympathies, have written about philosophy as therapy, so this is certainly not a matter that has been ignored by the discipline. Whether or not contemporary philosophy adequately addresses this question-- how to live a meaningful life, once we identify what such a life consists in-- is to my mind an open question, and one well worth pursuing.

Jan 24, 2011

The fallacy of the deciding vote

There is an obvious fallacy that is repeated by people who should really know better, including political philosophers:  the fallacy of the deciding vote.

For example, Thomas Christiano writes in Rule of the Many (25-26): "In the democratic case I am free to choose between two outcomes when my vote is the deciding one. The trouble with this argument is that this condition is virtually never satisfied. In large democratic societies, the winning option almost never wins by less than a thousand votes or so. In those cases, my vote does not decide the issue. Since I rarely, if ever, cast the deciding vote I will virtually never be free to choose the outcome."

Do you see the fallacy? The fallacious reasoning looks like this:
(1) There is an election in which the margin of victory is, say, one vote.
(2) There is one particular vote (e.g. "my" vote) that decided the election.

But (2) doesn't follow from (1) at all! (1) only implies that for any vote given to the winning side, subtracting that vote would change the outcome. But there is no one vote such that it is true of it and only it that removing it would change the outcome. (The only exceptions are votes of 1-1 or 1-0.)

No matter how large or small the election, with the two exceptions just noted, no one casts the deciding vote. You see the fallacy of the deciding vote from academic works on political philosophy to Hollywood films like Swing Vote, in which Kevin Costner's character "decides" the election. It's a popular fallacy, but not less the fallacious for being so.

As for why people are tempted by the fallacy, I think media coverage of elections in recent years plays a part. Turn on CNN during an election and you find exit polling data-- e.g., with 95% of districts reporting, Obama is favored 52% to 48%-- suggesting that the earlier votes somehow matter less than the later votes, with the later votes "deciding" the election. I imagine it'd be less tempting to perpetrate this fallacy in an age where elections were simply reported in the newspaper.

Democracy: Intrinsically or instrumentally valuable?

When we distinguish political activity narrowly construed from political activity in a broad sense, we can give an interesting argument that democracy lacks intrinsic value. Or so I will argue in this post.


First, a quick recap of my last post. I gave an argument against the view that a policy's being democratically selected by a majority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy. The argument left open an instrumental view of democracy's value, however: on this view, democracy is valuable insofar as it instantiates goods such as justice, equality, or liberty, promotes the common good, etc., and any other system that did so just as well would be just as valuable and give citizens just as much reason to follow the policies enacted by the system. It also left open a view on which a supermajoritarian democracy has intrinsic value.


Now I want to suggest that we should doubt any view, majoritarian or supermajoritarian, according to which democracy has intrinsic value. We begin by distinguishing what I will call narrow political activity from political activity in a broad sense. I'm involved in narrow political activity when I do things like vote, run for office, and exercise the official capacities of an elected position. Broad political activity, on the other hand, includes the whole panoply of ways in which citizens exert influence in the civic realm: writing op-ed pieces, spouting off on talk radio shows or in town hall meetings, arguing with neighbors, helping one's children learn virtues of justice and prudence, being a good (or bad) example for others in one's community, and so on. All these things, and many more besides, are in a sense political activity, but they go far beyond narrow political activity. 


I can now introduce a dilemma. Either the intrinsic value of democracy includes only narrow political activity, or it also includes broad political activity. (The normative significance of a majority or supermajority selecting a policy has to come from somewhere. Does it come from the fact that citizens voted for it? Or do other ways in which they influence the choice of policy matter?) The first option draws a sharp normative boundary between narrow and broad political activity: the former is valuable in a way the latter is not. I cannot begin to imagine an argument that could justify this, especially when one considers that it's very often the case that broad political activity is more influential than narrow political activity. Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat have far more political influence through their New York Times columns than by voting in presidential elections. A similar point probably holds for most of us as well. We have more influence by just talking with friends and neighbors than we do by marking a ballot. So much, then, for the first option.


The second option is also problematic. Suppose that both narrow and broad political activity are intrinsically valuable. This in itself does not seem problematic to me, but it does seem to loosen the connection between the value of political activity and the value of democracy. Broad political activity is of course possible in any political system, provided it allows a sufficient degree of First Amendment type freedoms. Maybe democracies are better at protecting such freedoms, but that's irrelevant since we're asking about the intrinsic value of democracy. If broad political activity is intrinsically valuable and (in principle) possible in any political system, its value does not in any way ground the intrinsic value of democracy. The sole ground for democracy's intrinsic value must then be narrow political activity. As I argued above, however, that position is indefensible given that it draws an inexplicable contrast between broad political activity as intrinsically valueless and narrow political activity as intrinsically valued. 


Both options, then, have been found wanting. Whether the democracy is question is majoritarian or supermajoritarian, the claim that such a system has intrinsic value must be rejected. We thus have an even stronger argument than given in the last post. If democracy has value, it must have it instrumentally.

Jan 20, 2011

A problem for majoritarian democracy

Does the mere fact that a democratic majority chooses a policy provide citizens of the democracy with a reason for endorsing or following the policy, or must that justification come from the fact that the policy embodies certain goods like justice or equality? I will argue that there is a strong reason to reject the first option, a reason that has surprisingly little to do with political philosophy at all.

Let's give the view under attack a name.
Majoritarianism: The mere fact that a policy is democratically selected by a majority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy.
When I say the policy is democratically selected, I mean to imply that the ordinary democratic requirements of universal and equal suffrage are met, that the election was not rigged, and so on.

To show the problem with majoritarianism, I need first to introduce a result that Philip Pettit discusses in his 2006 Analysis article, "When to defer to majority testimony—and when not": majorities can endorse a set of inconsistent propositions, even when none of the individuals in the majority holds an inconsistent set of propositions. This is easy to see from an example Pettit gives (p. 83):
“Take three people, A, B and C, and consider how the majority judgements might go on three simple propositions, p, q, and p&q. A and B may support p, with C against; B and C may support q, with A against; and so, if they are individually rational, A and C will reject p&q, with only B in favour. A majority will support p, a majority q, and a majority not-p&q. A majority will support a semantically inconsistent set of propositions. And this will be so, despite the fact that each of the members of the group has a perfectly consistent set of beliefs.”

When we translate Pettit's example into the political sphere, we conclude from majoritarianism that each citizen has a reason to endorse or follow policies p, q, and not-p&q, when those policies are democratically selected by a majority. This is contradictory. The same result does not affect supermajoritarian views, such as this one:
Supermajoritarianism: The mere fact that a policy is democratically selected by a sufficiently large supermajority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy.

One complication with the case is that legislatures don't usually enact contradictory policies. (This may be true at one time but obviously false historically. Prohibition, for instance, was enacted and then repealed.) But this really doesn't matter. Majoritarianism cannot plausibly limit itself to what is actually democratically selected (which could be thwarted by some catastrophe that prevents a vote from taking place), but rather what a majority of the legislators actually favors. As we learn from Pettit, this can be contradictory.

A further complication: Pettit suggests that the problem affects only beliefs that are connected to others. Political beliefs are presumably paradigmatic examples of embedded beliefs, however, so this is not a point that undermines my argument.

Finally, one might object that the contradictory cases are rare or non-existent in practice. This is irrelevant, however, since the question concerns what normative significance they would have were they to occur.

The moral is that majoritarianism, as I've defined it, fails. An instrumental version of majoritarianism would escape the argument, since presumably contradictory positions cannot instantiate any substantive goods like justice. Supermajoritarianism is probably wrong as well, but that's a separate question.