Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Fun with morality

Tyler Cowen links a quiz that seeks to determine your position on three dimensions of morality. Here’s how I scored:

Your Moralising Quotient is: 0.27.
Your Interference Factor is: 0.00.
Your Universalising Factor is: 0.50.

Mildly amusing and not particularly surprising. You can play here. Jacqueline Mackie Massey Passey had similar scores to me, while Stephen Bainbridge’s scores reminded me why I often find his politics annoyingly meddlesome.

Monday, 17 January 2005

MLK day

There’s not much, if anything, I can add to Dr. King’s great I Have A Dream speech, so I’ll provide an excerpt, starting from my favorite section and going to the end:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring—from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring—from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring—from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring—from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring—from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that.

Let freedom ring—from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring—from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring—from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,

“Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Delivered roughly 100 years or so after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

Spontaneous order, distributed systems, God, etc.

Amazing how the blogosphere works. I started reading an interesting post on evolution at OTB and ended with a defense of comparative advantage by Paul Krugman that incorporates a prominent mention of natural selection. And I got there via a picture of Jane Galt (via Tyler Cowen), though it’s desperately unrevealing (it’s from behind, perverts).

The OTB post begins with a description of how “intelligent design” advocates are pushing that as an alternative to evolution. There’s no evidence for it—except for our lack of knowledge, or complete knowledge, on the universe’s origin—and it seems ridiculous to me when pushed as science. My own views are theistic, though there’s no evidence to support it other than our existence. It tells me nothing on how we got here. Evolution does.

Perhaps someone could explain why some people find evolution—and natural selection—so threatening? I don’t get it. Jesus taught us with parables; are opponents of evolution saying God couldn’t master allegory? Being a creator of the universe and all, I think He would have a handle on it, and His audience. Isn't it possible that God did know His audience and was explaining the origins of the universe in a way they could understand? It would have been more convenient if He had provided a seminar in physics and evolutionary biology, but I doubt His audience would have grasped it, lacking calculus and all. Evolution doesn’t preclude a creator, it only explains what we can observe. I’ll say it again: I don’t get it, there’s no threat here. I’ll leave it to Brock to argue with y’all over infinity.

As for Jane’s link to Krugman, it’s quite alarming, really. I’m so used to his hyperventilating over everything from Iraq to healthcare that I’m stunned when he seems reasonable. It’s a great article and worthy of a thorough read, which I’ll give it when exams are done.

Tuesday, 23 November 2004

I'm not sure which is more distressing...

that The Guardian sees the last election as a vote against the Enlightenment or that they think the Enlightenment’s a product of leftism.

And, on the other side of the pond, through Europe. We don’t have so many Christian fundamentalists any more. Compared with the American religious right, Rocco Buttiglione, the withdrawn Italian Catholic candidate for European commissioner, is a dangerous liberal. But we do have Islamic fundamentalists, in growing numbers. And, I would say, we have secular fundamentalists: people who believe that to live by the tenets of Islam, or other religions, is incompatible with what it is to be fully human, and want citizens to be educated and the state to legislate accordingly. While I have been in America, the possible consequences have been played out on the streets of prosperous, pacific, tolerant Holland, with the murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the counter-attack on an Islamic school. If America has its culture wars, its Kulturkampf, so do we. And ours could be bloodier.

So the expressions of European solidarity after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks ( “Nous sommes tous Américains” ) should acquire a new meaning and a new context after the November 2 2004 elections. Hands need to be joined across the sea in an old cause: the defence of the Enlightenment. We are all blue Americans now.

Their view of the left is entirely different than mine, though we do agree on the cause: defense of the Enlightenment, which includes a concept that America pioneered, religious liberty.

Political Theory Daily Review)

Introductory metaphysics text

Two former professors of mine from the University of Rochester, Ted Sider and Earl Conee, are collaborating on an introductory metaphysics text, Riddles of Existence.

The introduction and two chapters, “Personal Identity over Time” and “Why Not Nothing?” are online.

Brian Weatherson.)

Sunday, 7 November 2004

Online book on Gödel's theorems

Prof. Peter Smith of Cambridge University has posted sixteen chapters of his work-in-progress on Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and related mathematical/logical/philosophical goodness in PDF format, beautifully typeset using LaTeX.

I’ve read the first twelve chapters, which take you through Gödel’s first and second incompleteness theorems, Tarski’s theorem on the undefinability of truth, and (the most surprising result, IMO), Löb’s theorem.

You’ll need a background in symbolic logic to understand it. If you don’t know your ∀s from your ∃s, you’ll be lost.

Smith takes the opposite approach from Boolos and Jeffrey, taking you through Gödel’s theorems using only the apparatus of primative recursion, saving full-blown recursive function theory and other topics in computability theory for later.

It’s been a while (about seven years) since I’ve been through the material, but I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t pick up the first time around.

Brian Weatherson.)

Friday, 22 October 2004

The essence of analytic philosophy

Brian Leiter posts an interesting email exchange between himself and philosopher Jerry Fodor.

Leiter asks “So what in the world is ‘analytic’ philosophy these days?” Fodor replies that analytic philosophers share a thesis, “semantic pragmatism,” and a methodological presumption, “semantic ascent.” Fodor claims to reject both the thesis and the methodological presumtion, and so by his own lights, is not an analytic philosopher!

Fodor may be right about analytic philosophers sharing this thesis and methodological presumption, but he is wrong to look at analytic philosophy as being defined by this thesis or presumption.

Analytic philosophy is best understood historically. Analytic philosophers are the intellectual descendants of Frege, Russell, Moore, and Wittgenstein (FRMW). They are those who work on the same set of problems as FRMW, or work on problems that arose while working on the first set of problems, or problems that arose while working on the second set of problems, and so on. They are those (such as Quine and Carnap) who read and drew inspiration from FRMW, or those (such as Davidson and Lewis) who read and drew inspiration from Quine and Carnap, or those who read and drew inspiration from Davidson and Lewis, and so on.

By this understanding, Fodor is certainly an analytic philosopher.

Crooked Timber.)

Wednesday, 15 September 2004

Philosophical ability not genetic

Prof. Eric Muller gets an email from Alec Rawls, son of the late philosopher John Rawls. Here’s the email:

It really is astounding that you can continue to grasp at straws in order to make scurrilous attacks. Are you ever going to vet one of your own charges for accuracy before you post it? You are such an incompetent asshole. Crawl back in your hole. Or let Michelle keep chopping your limbs off like Monty Python's Black Knight. Either way, moron. I presume you are taking comfort from all the brain dead bigots in law schools across the nation who don't want to know the truth about internment. You are their champion! Enjoy it, because amongst honest people, you are exposed as a complete fraud, now and forever.

Not only is Alec Rawls an utter jackass, he’s also a misogynist:

Faced with an invader, the combination of woman’s instinct to submit, and the tendency for her political thinking to revolve around the personal, can be a disastrous pairing for a nation that allows women to vote. The problem is even worse in Europe because European society has become thoroughly feminized. The European man no longer thinks like a man.

I wonder if Alec has been blogging under the pseudonym “Kim du Toit”?

Sadly, this apple fell pretty far from the tree.

Friday, 13 August 2004


Comments on blogs are a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re excellent, as those at Crooked Timber almost always are, and sometimes they’re uniformly awful despite the quality of the blog, like those at Political Animal.

Sometimes you stumble on a real gem buried in blog comments, like this bit by Charlotte Pressler, professor of philosophy and English at South Florida Community College, at Matthew Yglesias’s blog:

I teach an introductory philosophy course in rural South Florida and so might be able to contribute some analysis (quickly, before Hurricane Charley gets here). Almost all my students are evangelical and/or charismatic Christians who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and almost all believe that truth is relative. I found this contradiction interesting, and looked into it further.

It appears to have two sources. First, my students apply the word “truth” to all of the statements they believe, and don’t distinguish between claims of fact and claims of value. They are not encouraged to make such a distinction by the local culture; the local authorities frequently describe obvious value claims as “facts,” adding that “you can’t argue with facts.” “Truth,” in my students’ dialect, thus winds up meaning something like “my basic orientation to the world, the way I see things, my perspective”—which would be correctly described as personal, individual, and “relative.”

I might add that an article in the journal Teaching Philosophy (apologies to the author, whose name I can’t remember) argued that the beginning philosophy students who claim that “truth is relative” are really trying to say something like this: “I don’t agree with Mom & Dad any more about a whole lot of things, and I love them, so I don’t want to say they’re wrong, but I don’t want to give up my own point of view either.”

The second reason my students believe that truth is relative, however, strikes me as much more pernicious. They have grown up in small, tribal, tightly-knit, highly conformist communities that (needless to say) did not encourage free discussion or debate. In college, they meet for the first time people who do not share their presuppositions, and they begin to get an inkling that the wider world contains many more. They have never been asked to defend their own belief systems before, and, in all honesty, some of their beliefs are quite indefensible. When students in this position say that truth is relative, they are trying to exempt their own belief system from the requirement of rationality. They want to be able to go on believing whatever their local community has decided to believe, even though both argument and evidence are against them. Again, they are encouraged in this by the local authorities, who teach them to devalue reason and (especially) “book learning.”

The fact is that my students will be ostracized by their local communities (it’s called “disfellowshipping”) if they disagree in any point with their community’s creed. It is a public, brutal shaming, and any human who could avoid it, would. If this sheds any light on the “relativism” of the American public (or, perhaps, the persistence of “creation science” and other follies), I would be glad.

(Reproduced with permission from the author.)

Prof. Pressler really should be blogging.

Saturday, 7 August 2004

Eppur si muove

Over at Flack Central Station, conservative economist Arnold Kling sees a nefarious plot in the new survey-based happiness research, pioneered by Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith.

Referring to the paper How Not to Buy Happiness by Cornell economist Robert Frank, Kling writes:

... [I]t is Robert Frank who wants to impose a rigid conformity on our mode of living. In his model society everyone would commute by mass transit to work. So much for people who like to work from home, or live in a rural environment, or walk to work.

I am afraid that “happiness research” amounts to nothing but a flimsy excuse for left-wing academics to claim that they should be given control over how the rest of us live.

Kling doesn't bother mentioning that Frank makes no public policy recommendations in his paper. The paper could just as well be taken as personal advice to individuals: a Lexus won’t make you any happier than a Honda; you’ll be happier if you buy a smaller house close to where you work, instead of a large house far away; no one ever wished on his death bed that he’d spent more time at the office.

The most interesting passage in Kling’s essay is the following bit:

In making his case, Frank places a heavy intellectual burden on "happiness research." As I have pointed out before, economists traditionally have not bothered to try and measure happiness. We take it for granted that people act in their best interests.

Frank, on the other hand, takes seriously the notion that happiness can be measured by surveys. He views the fact that surveys show little increase in happiness over the past few decades as evidence that higher incomes do not lead to more happiness.

Frank’s problem, according to Kling, is that he takes new evidence seriously. Kling, on the other hand, is a virtuous economist who never questions traditional assumptions.

Kling reminds me of the Catholic priests railing against the Copernican revolution in astronomy:

It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the Earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it can not be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Saviour? (From the Wikipedia article on Galileo.)

Like the Catholic priests in the 17th century, Kling's world-view is upset by new evidence, and he'll add epicycle upon epicycle to preserve his central assumption.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)

Monday, 28 June 2004

The semantics of "laundry"

I was puzzling today over the semantics of the term “laundry.”

When clothes are on your body, they are not laundry. But when you toss them into a pile, basket, or hamper, and they are waiting to be washed, they become laundry. They are laundry while they are being washed, dried, and folded.

But when you put them away, into a closet or drawer, they cease to be laundry.

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Philosophy blogs

Prof. David Chalmers of the University of Arizona has put together a list of philosophical weblogs.

Thursday, 3 June 2004

A fictitious political philosophy

Amanda Butler laments the misclassification of The Federalist Papers as “fiction” at her local Books-A-Million store.

[Insert your own joke about companies headquartered in Alabama here.]

Saturday, 15 May 2004

Blog Post of the Year

It’s a little early to nominate entries for Best Blog Post of 2004, I suppose, but I think it will be hard to beat Mark Kleiman’s list of five epistemic principles for thinking about politics:

  1. Being aware of your own tendency, and those of your allies, to demonize the opposition.
  2. Being more skeptical of news that tends to confirm your presuppositions, and more credulous of news that tends to challenge them, than is comfortable.
  3. Trying to imagine how the people whose actions you dislike can see those actions as justified.
  4. Discounting somewhat, in figuring out how far you're justified in going to make sure your side wins, your subjective certainty that you're right. Given that means and procedures are immediate and easy to see, while outcomes are hard to see, this means giving more weight to means and procedures, and less to outcomes, than a simple decision analysis based on your current beliefs would justify.
  5. And still, in spite of your carefully-cultivated doubts, fighting hard for what you believe in, because if the people capable of irony allow irony to demobilize them, the fanatics will win.

Theorists agree: the APSR sucks

Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber solicits contributions for the best political philosophy and (normative) political theory articles of the past decade.

I roughly estimate two dozen nominations so far. Exactly one of them appeared in The American Political Science Review. Open question: is there any subfield of political science that is well-represented by the travesty that is the contemporary APSR?

Saturday, 10 April 2004

Philosophy group blogs

There are three new philosophy grad student group blogs, one of which is from my graduate alma mater.

Looking at the list of bloggers at Rochester, I see two “tenured grad students” who were there when I was, seven years ago. I wonder what the record is for the longest amount of time spent in grad school.

(Link via Crooked Timber.)

Monday, 5 April 2004


Back in September, I put a note on my philosophy papers page to potential plagiarists and their professors:

Hey, philosophy professors. If you've come to this page because you've found that a student has plagiarized one of the papers below, drop me a note, philarete at mindspring dot com. I'm curious as to how widely these papers are being plagiarized.

Hey, philosophy students. Don’t plagiarize these papers. For that matter, don’t plagiarize at all. It’s better to fail honestly than to cheat and get an A. Besides, you’ll probably get caught.

Today I received my first email from a philosophy professor confirming that a student has been caught plagiarizing my work. A undergrad at a California university plagiarized two of my papers, one on Bernard Williams on personal identity, and a shorter piece on the Lockean theory of personal identity.

I’m pleased that the professor told me that the student would have received an A, had he or she not been caught.

Monday, 15 March 2004

The Hot Abercrombie Chick philosophizes

Amanda Doerty, arguing for the intrisic immorality of theft, asks:

If, in any situation, we find it justifiable for any person or group to take the property of any other person without the consent of the other (whether by force, or threats of jail, etc.), we cannot argue that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that act. On what, then, do we base our objections to theft?

She dismisses the utilitarian answer thus:

Pure utilitarianism is of course impossible—you can’t know what serves the ‘greater good’ unless you have some conception of what that greater good is, and it obviously won’t work out too well if every single person gets to decide what he or she thinks the greater good is. ‘Happiness’ is often proposed, or ‘life,’ or something similarly vague. The difficulty of deciding how one would measure such things is problematic enough for the utilitarian route, and there is always the question of why a certain criteria should be used. Not only that, but for those people who do not personally benefit from serving the greater good, there is no compelling reason to do it anyway.

In any case, you can’t really hold on to a utilitarian ideal if you believe that individuals have certain unalienable personal rights, since those rights will likely be often violated if every one always acts for the ‘greater good.’ For those of us who want to hold on to the idea of individual rights, that is probably enough reason to stay away from utilitarianism.

As a card-carrying utilitarian, I feel compelled to respond.

First, a purely definitional matter. Classical utilitarianism, a la Bentham, certainly does have a “conception of what the greater good is”: pleasure is the good, and pain is the bad. Nothing vague about that. Some contemporary utilitarians define utility in terms of preference satisfaction, which comes close to “every single person gets to decide.”

Hard to measure? Yes. But do we have any reason to think that figuring out the right thing to do will always be easy? As for “the question of why a certain criteria should be used,” I don’t see how natural rights theories fare much better in this regard. The Kantians claim to have an answer, but that's responding to the Kantians is beyond the scope of this blog post.

And the only ethical theory that can provide a compelling reason for everyone to follow it is ethical egoism. As nice as it would be to have the ethical coextensive with the rational, I can’t see any reason to think that it must be.

Amanda is correct, though, that pure utilitarianism is incompatible with “inalienable rights.” But even if people do have “inalienable rights,” it doesn’t follow that the utilitarian answer isn't the correct explanation of the wrongness of theft. It seems to me that the strongest candidates for inalienable rights are rights to control one’s own body: the right not to be killed, the right get a tattoo, the right to injest whatever sort of intoxicating substance one pleases. There’s a big leap from those to general property rights. So perhaps a rights-based explanation is the correct explanation for the wrongness of murder, but a utilitarian explanation is the right explanation for the wrongness of theft.

Monday, 1 March 2004

An (inadvertent) endorsement of Zaller's RAS model on normative grounds

Hei Lun takes apart a philosophical paper that argues that people should only listen to experts who share their ideological beliefs. (Let the grand de-linking begin!)

Saturday, 14 February 2004

Valentine's Day Poem

Here’s a short poem I wrote in grad school.

I gave my love an emerose
Upon a summer day,
While all around us in the grove
The gavagai did play.

“I’ve never seen a hue so green,”
My love did say to me.
“My dear,” I said, “it’s shmolored gred,
Just green until time t.”

Apologies to Nelson Goodman, Joseph Ullian, and W. V. Quine.

Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Is mathematics a science?

Apparently hackers are also part-time epistemologists. My general feeling on the issue is that any enterprise that generally uses the scientific method to discover capital-T Truth is a “science.” Mathematics does this, ergo it is a science.

Then again, others differ; Rose-Hulman describes itself as “one of the nation’s top undergraduate engineering, science, and mathematics colleges,” implicitly arguing that mathematics is not a science (and neither is engineering—which I suppose is a whole debate of its own).

Sunday, 8 February 2004

Debating libertarianism

Will Baude and Tim Sandefur are engaged in a bit of a running battle with the Curmudgeonly Clerk over whether or not individual libertarians’ having moral positions constitute a betrayal of their commitment to not legislate on the basis of morality.

I tend to agree with Tim that the Clerk is confused on a number of points, and leave the detailed critiques to Tim and Will. My main, and unoriginal, observation would be that “societal acceptance” is something that is relatively independent of legality. (My second observation would be that Reason was a far better arbiter of libertarian thought under Virginia Postrel’s editorship, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Update: Tim Sandefur responds. Actually, after I wrote the above sentence, I realized that the word “arbiter” doesn't quite characterize my thought; I meant something closer to “exemplar.” Indeed, contra Jonah Goldberg (and his bloviation that National Review polices the boundaries of conservatism*), I don’t necessarily think libertarian thought needs an arbiter.

Friday, 6 February 2004

Irrational preferences

In light of the German cannibalism case, Will Baude ponders the public policy implications of irrational preferences, such as the desire to be killed and eaten. Will writes:

Anyway, my own inclination is to say that it’s a bad idea to pretend that such people held preferences other than the ones they actually do have, a bad idea, therefore, to keep them from harming themselves if that’s what they want to do. Even if the preference is irrational, it’s still a preference.
This is probably a topic way to big to be treated effectively in one blog post. I’m sure philosophers have written entire books on the topic. But let me throw out a suggestion. One key to determining whether a preference is irrational, and hence whether there is a legitimate paternalistic interest in suppressing the fullfillment of that preference through public policy, is whether those who have that preference also have a second-order preference not to have that preference. (This is neither a necessary or sufficient condition. At best, it is one disjunct of a sufficient condition.) We can no longer ask the poor, err, victim in the German cannibalism case whether he would prefer not to have a death wish, but he well might have said yes. Similarly, it seems to me from talking to smokers, that many of them not desire to smoke, but they would prefer not to have that desire: hence their usually futile attempts to quit.

It seems to me there are three sorts of reasons that one might have a second-order preference not to have have a given preference.

  1. A person might prefer not to have a desire because she knows the desire will go unfulfilled, and this lack of fulfillment causes mental anguish. One might desire to have sex with some movie star, but knowing this lust is certain to be unrequited, one would prefer not to have this desire. I don’t see much scope for paternalistic public policy in solving the problems created by these sorts of desires. And I wouldn’t call these desires irrational.
  2. A person might prefer not to have a desire merely because of public policy itself, whether formally written into law or as part of informal societal mores. A gay man might prefer not to have the desire to have sex with other men, not because of anything inherently bad about gay sex, but because of the potential for being arrested (pre-Lawrence), or because of widespread bigotry against gays. In this case, public policy is the problem, and so there is no excuse for paternalism. Nor would I call these desires irrational.
  3. A person might prefer not to have a desire because the desired entity is intrisically bad, i.e. it conflicts with other more strongly held prefernces, out of physical necessity. The German cannibalism victim might have desired to have a comfortable retirement sailing about the Mediterranean, but he could not fulfill both this desire and his desire to be killed and eaten. Many smokers wish to have a long life, but their desire to smoke is in conflict with this. It is in this category that we find the truly irrational desires.

Only when the unwanted desires are of the third type is there a prima facie case to be made for paternalistic public policy. In the third case, the public policy might actually be helping the weak-willed person fulfill their second order desire, thus resulting in greater utility (if we define utility in terms of satisfied preferences, or use satisfied preferences as a proxy for utility).

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.

Monday, 17 November 2003

Radical Interpretation of Matthew Yglesias

Up until today, if I had been asked to name the blogger that I most agree with (not necessarily my favorite blogger), it would have been Matthew Yglesias. This shouldn’t be surprising: we both have a background in analytic philosophy, both fans of David Lewis, we’re both consequentialists, we’re both liberals, and we’re both proponents of free trade.

But today he’s said something so outrageously false that, like Donald Davidson’s hypothetical man who says “There is a hippopotamus in the refrigerator” (from "On Saying That"), I have to wonder whether I’ve misinterpreted him.

Blogging about this list of the top ten albums of all time from Rolling Stone magazine, Matthew writes:

I would suggest that if you come to the conclusion that The Beatles are responsible for four of the top ten albums of all time, then your methodology is probably a bit off (they’re not, after all, the best band by whole orders of magnitude).

At first glance, he would seem to be saying here that not only are the Beatles not the best band of all time, they’re not even in the top ten.

But since this is self-evidently false, I must excercise Davidson’s "principle of charity". Like Davidson’s man who says “Look at that hansome yawl” while pointing at a ketch ("On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"), I must conclude that Matthew uses the term “Beatles” to refer to some group other than John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Perhaps he’s confusing them with the Monkees.

I must, however, agree with Matthew that Rolling Stone’s methodology must be a bit off. Not for the reason that he cites, but because Abbey Road is not one the four Beatles albums they put in the top ten.

Update: Brian Weatherson, resident philosopher at Crooked Timber, weighs in with his top ten list. His methodogy is a bit off too, since he also leaves out Abbey Road.