Monday, 8 December 2003

Jousting with strawmen

Keith Burgess-Jackson claims to have refuted consequentialism:

Consider an example: My neighbors are having a pleasant meal. I can easily disrupt it, but choose not to. I am therefore morally responsible for the pleasure of my neighbors. Generalize: I can spend my entire day preventing good deeds from being performed by others. If I choose not to do so, I am morally responsible for all the good that is done. It turns out that I’m morally responsible for a great deal of good, just by sitting in my study!

I agree that Prof. Burgess-Jackson has refuted a certain thesis: the thesis that whether one is “responsible” for an state of affairs is solely dependant on whether one’s action or inaction causally contributed to that state of affairs.

However, that thesis is not consequentialism.

Consequentialism is the thesis that the rightness or wrongness of a possible action, and which of all possible actions at a given time an agent should do, is solely a function of that possible action’s consequences. Consequentialism by itself does not have anything to say about whether an action is praiseworthy or blameworthy, or whether an agent is “responsible” for that action’s outcome.

Let’s look at another example:

Smith and Jones are standing near a swimming pool. Smith is an excellent swimmer, but Jones cannot swim at all. A small child falls into the pool. There is no way for the child to be saved unless Smith jumps in to save him. Smith does just this: jumps in and saves the child. Jones refrains from doing anything that would hinder Smith in her rescue attempt.

In conjunction with an axiology (theory of value) that entails that a drowned child is the worst outcome of all of Smith and Jones possible actions at the time, consequentialism entails that each of their actions, Smith’s rescuing the child, and Jones refraining from hindering Smith, were the right things to do. Consequentialism entails that nothing other than the possible outcomes of their action was relevant. It would not be relevant if the owner of the pool had forbidden Smith to swim in it. It would not be relevant if Jones had promised the owner of the pool to prevent Smith from swimming in it. It would not be relevant if Smith had made a deathbed promise to her mother to never go swimming.

Smith, of course, is a hero. And Jones is not. But consequentialism does not entail this. Nor does it contradict it. All it entails is that Smith and Jones both did the right thing. Consequentialism lays silent on the praiseworthiness of Smith's and Jones's actions.

My vote in 2004

Why bother going through the whole pretense of a campaign? I already know how I’m going to vote in 2004, more or less.

Loose lips sink ships

On Saturday, Eugene Volokh noted a poll conducted by Fox News/Opinion Dynamics that showed that 78% of respondents believe the media would have leaked news of President Bush’s Thanksgiving visit to Baghdad—a belief that is essentially identical among Republicans and Democrats, though perhaps even more strongly held by Independents.

As someone whose research interest is in public opinion, I have to wonder how this opinion came about, and it’d be a fascinating case study. It’s a shame Fox doesn’t contribute polling data to ICPSR like the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS and ABC do…

Endorse this!

Dan Drezner and Steven Taylor are among those to note the reports that my favorite fake Tennessean, Al Gore, is about to endorse Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination.

Is the primary process now effectively over? The part of me that’s been avoiding rereading Larry Bartels’ Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice hopes so (no insult to Prof. Bartels, who’s a smart guy—I just don’t have the time to reread it now), but as Lee Corso says, “not so fast my friend!” Why?

Well, for starters, nobody’s going to drop out until New Hampshire at least, and—more than likely—everyone will last through South Carolina. By March, the process may be effectively over, but there’s three months in which the unexpected can happen.

One potential response is that this will have a catalyzing effect on the “Anybody But Dean” faction. The ABD crowd is going to have to decide whether their mutual differences are sufficient to let them hand the nomination to Dean. Bear in mind that under the PR rules, candidates have to get 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district to get delegates; for example, if all the ABD guys are hovering at 10% in a district, but Dean gets 25%, Dean gets all of the delegates from that district. A promise that any one candidate’s delegates will support the ABD frontrunner at the convention is insufficient—because they won’t have enough delegates between them to make a difference. Plus, the more clearly Dean is the frontrunner, the more support he’s going to get in later primaries—such is the virtuous cycle that insiders call “the big mo.”

Especially with Sharpton likely to capture the support of a majority of the African-American primary voters, the ABD candidates are effectively screwed unless they get whittled down. Some of the candidates will figure this out on their own. The question is whether the credible ABD faction goes down from being five to two. (One alternative that might be effective is if the ABD faction executed a regional strategy: everyone but the best-positioned alternative to Dean stops campaigning in a particular state.)

The primary also still matters because it will largely decide who gets floor time at the convention. The more the ABD faction divides the vote, the more delegates are going to be gained by Dean and Sharpton under the 15% rule. Karl Rove must be salivating at the thought of Sharpton in primetime or seeing a procession of anti-war activists to the podium. Ironically, the better Dean does in the primaries, the less favorable the convention is going to be for his general election campaign—to be effective, he’s going to have to distance himself from the “anger” that brought him to the nomination, most fundamentally because most Americans are a lot angrier at Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein than they are at George Bush.

So, while Dean may be the presumptive nominee, the primary process is going to be an important factor nonetheless—both in how the convention is structured and, ultimately, how effective a bounce Dean can get from it in the general election.

You guessed it; this is my entry in the Beltway Traffic Jam. And, Matt Stinson thinks it’s payback for Gore’s being shafted by being in Clinton’s shadow.

More congrats

Congratulations to Virginia Postrel, whose book The Substance of Style was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s Notable Books of 2003.

One of these decades (actually, hopefully later this week, once I’ve accomplished something on the job application and “sending the stupid impeachment paper out for review again” fronts), I’ll actually get around to writing up my thoughts on TSOS.