Archive for the ‘Philosophy for the masses’ Category

A puzzle about intuition

December 29, 2011 4 comments

Suppose you have an intuition, ‘P’*. Should you believe P? Should you believe not-P? For some propositions (e.g. the moral kind) there may not be much to go on other than our intuitions. So for the moral intuitionists in particular, here’s a little puzzle for you.

Suppose intuitions have a probability of being true that is greater than 0.5. Therefore, if you have an intuition that P you should believe it rather than not-P. But if this is true, then the consensus of the masses’ intuition is not only more reliable than yours, but is actually very reliable (Condorcet’s theorem). If intuitions have a probability of greater than 0.5 of being true, you should therefore not trust your intuition, but ask the masses.

Suppose instead intuitions have a probability of being true that is less than 0.5. Therefore, if you intuit P, not-P is more likely. But not only should you should not trust your intuition, you can be pretty certain of the right answer by asking the masses and then believing the opposite!

Obviously I have posed the question in a very simplistic way, and there’s questions of statistical independence, the different reliability of different kinds of intuitions** etc. But it does seem that whatever the probability of your intuitions being true are, in a lot of cases it could still make sense to ask around and then either believe what the masses say, or the opposite (depending on your view of the prior probability of the particular intuition being correct).


*This is philosopher-notation for an arbitrary proposition. P could be anything – ‘Murder is always wrong’, ‘I am the same person I was yesterday’ etc.

**There even may be classes of intuitions that are necessarily reliable on the level of the masses, because they are intuitions about proper conventions… but let’s not go into that here


Bryan Caplan’s argument for pacifism, almost triumphant

September 10, 2011 1 comment

Fairly soon after I published my earlier post on the argument, I realised that instead of criticising Caplan’s argument, I was actually arguing for his position. So, here is a new informal argument for pacifism, based on his own and my failed critique:

  1. The short run costs of war are very high (innocent people are killed)
  2. The long run benefits and costs of a war are subject to extreme Knightian uncertainty
  3. Where the benefits or costs of a decision are subject to extreme Knightian uncertainty, they ought to be excluded from rational calculation (essentially the point I made in my last post)
  4. Therefore, we ought to exclude the potential long-term benefits and costs of war from rational calculation (my friend David’s comment on my last post explains this premise nicely)
  5. Therefore, as the category of reasons usually given for war (the achievement of a long-run benefit) have to be excluded from rational calculation, we ought not to go to war in those cases

You could argue in some cases that there are short-term reasons to go to war that are not subject to Knightian uncertainty and that therefore the pacifism one can conclude does not apply to all cases. Fair enough, I’m not going to argue against war in immediate self-defence (although I could, and Caplan makes a few points here about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising). But given that a lot of justifications for war involve the desire to fulfil long-term strategic or moral objectives (see interventionism, liberal) Caplan’s argument mitigates very strongly in the direction of not taking deliberate action that we can foresee will lead to our killing of innocent people.

Bryan Caplan’s argument for pacifism

July 20, 2011 8 comments

It’s been a while since an argument has made me think as much as Bryan Caplan’s many iterations of his argument for pacifism. The argument goes something like this

  1. The short-run costs of war are very high
  2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain
  3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs

First of all, the third premise is ambiguous as it stands. I assume that the ‘long-run benefits’ Bryan refers to in the third premise are not the actual but rather expected benefits. Indeed, otherwise his conclusion would not be action-guiding as the whole point is we are highly uncertain over what the long-run benefits actually would be and whether or not they would be substantial. The conclusion would instead read ‘it is highly uncertain whether or not we should go to war’.

Recast, the argument reads

A) The short run costs are very high

B) The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain

C) For a war to be morally justified, the expected long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs

Hmm, I’m still not happy with the third premise due to the ambiguity of ‘expected’. For example, if there is a coin toss where I get £10 if it’s heads and have to pay £10 if it’s tails the expected value is zero. The most basic concept of expected value is a function of the value of all the possible outcomes multiplied by probabilities of each of those outcomes occurring. In the case of war, this is not a useful idea of expected value, not just due to the problem of assigning probabilities but that the logical space of possible outcomes is indefinable*. Expected value is a very handy concept where you have games with defined rules, but it leaves us high and dry when trying to address most really difficult real-world problems.

Maybe I’ll think of some way to further refine C) to make it less problematic, but I’m sceptical because I believe this is a particular instance of a very general issue with consequentialist/cost-benefit type moral theorizing: namely, that in conditions of Knightian uncertainty it appears impossible for there to be a fact of the matter about what we ought to do. My argument for this is very simple

  1. In order for there to be a fact of the matter about what we ought to do, it has to in some way be discoverable (basically a restatement of the ought-implies-can principle)
  2. In cases where one of the significant consequences is subject to Knightian uncertainty, there is no way to discover any fact of the matter about what we ought to do

Of course, if you add in a Taleb-like premise 3)

  1. Every moral decision incorporates Knightian uncertainty as to what the (eventual) significant consequences of any decision will be

Then we are led to a most unhappy conclusion

  1. There is no fact of the matter as to how we should decide moral cases

Back at university, I used to call this the ‘moral paralysis of consequentialism’ – that if what you are genuinely trying to do when making a moral decision is to in some way facilitate the best future outcomes, there is no way of deciding what to do.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for about three years now and I haven’t made any significant progress since I wrote my first undergraduate essay on the subject. Sorry.

Final point, I would be very interested to hear what Bryan has to say about taking strong preventative action against climate-change. And, for that matter, Pascal’s wager. If there is some kind of consistent general decision principle underlying his third premise, discussion of those cases should illuminate greatly.

*Unless you take the possible outcomes to simply be all logically possible outcomes, but I think it’s safe to say this wouldn’t get us anywhere

Justifying the state

June 30, 2010 3 comments

If I murder someone, I can be imprisoned by the government. However, it is only the government that is allowed to imprison me – if you do it, that is called false imprisonment and is itself a criminal offence. Why is it that governments are allowed to lock people up for the good of society and individual citizens aren’t?

Given that using overwhelming force to get people to do what you want them to do (e.g. remain in an 8×10 room for the next 20-25 years) is generally speaking not acceptable for individuals or corporations to do, one might think there should be a reason why governments are allowed to. Let’s review a few candidates:

1) You expressly consented to the government having such a right.

In terms of giving an argument for the legitimacy of actual states, this is a non-starter. No such consent has been given, except maybe by those who acquire citizenship by choice.

2) You tacitly consented to the government having such a right.

It isn’t necessary for consent to expressly say ‘I consent’. Sex is an obvious example; non-consensual sex is illegal, but there are (mercifully) a number of uncodified ways of signifying consent. Even if we assume that such tacit consent would legitimize government coercion, there do not exist the kind of uncodified ways of tacitly signalling consent to government coercion as in the case of sex. Proposed acts of tacit consent to such coercion – voting, not voluntarily leaving the territory – do not have the necessary link between the proposed act and the understanding on the part of the actor of what it is they are consenting to by performing that act in order for the analogy with express consent to go through.

3) The principle of fair play

Another non-starter. The principle of fair play essentially this: if a community engages in a mutually beneficial enterprise that requires co-operation, then if you benefit from the enterprise you shouldn’t be allowed to free-ride on the cost of producing that benefit. It is a non-starter because it fails to explain why the enterprise of government generates a strong enough claim to allow coercion when other co-operative enterprises do not. It may account for a moral obligation to co-operate, but simply demonstrating the existence of a moral obligation is insufficient for legitimizing coercion as an instrument of ensuring the fulfilment of that obligation.

4) Natural Duty of Justice

The gist of this line of thought is that we have an obligation to support just institutions. If the state is just, then we should do what it says. But again, this only speaks to a moral obligation – that I ought to obey the rules of a just state does not speak to the right of that state to coerce me into following those rules.

5) Hypothetical Consent

Medical procedures, in the ideal world, are consented to. However, sometimes we are not able to consent to things that we would – I cannot consent to surgery after being involved in a motorbike accident where I am left unconscious, but the doctors are quite permitted to perform the surgery because I would grant the permission if given the opportunity. The hypothetical consent tradition in political philosophy says it’s fine that people don’t actually consent to government coercion, it’s enough that they would if asked. Why would they do so? Because it is way better that we have a government than not. However, hypothetical consent (when it comes to government) proves far too much. If it legitimizes all government coercion where having such a coercive authority is better than having none, then if anarchy is really really bad – as those in the hypothetical consent tradition are inclined to think it is, cf Thomas Hobbes – then just plain ol’ bad tyrannical government passes the hypothetical consent test. Furthermore, it might be better to allow coercion by both the government AND (say) me. If having government is better than anarchy, then probably so is having government and a few select individuals locking people up in their basements.

We can generalize the considerations I have briefly and flippantly adduced by saying that any theory of why it is OK for the government and no one else to engage in certain coercive practices should meet two constraints: it should cover at least the vast majority of people who can be subjected to such coercion, and most crucially it should explain why we reserve this right exclusively to the government. The second constraint has (to my knowledge) been ignored by all the literature on the subject, despite its being such an obvious and important feature of the modern conception of the state.

Now, I am not by any means a political anarchist. Indeed, I think these considerations point somewhat in the other direction, politically speaking. For example, suppose you are a hard-line libertarian who thinks it is the job of the government to enforce contracts entered into by consenting, mentally capable adults and nothing else. The government in such a contract is, in effect, an unnamed third party who the contracting parties agree to have settle a dispute and execute that settlement – by force, if necessary. But why, on this hard-line libertarian position, can’t consenting adults name some other third party? Why can’t the parties say in the event of a dispute or breach of contract that Mr T be brought in to settle it*? Even the most extreme of libertarians are incapable of accounting for why only government is allowed to use coercive force.

The lesson I take from this is that politics, like ethics more broadly speaking, involves us trading off against each other all sorts of things we find valuable. For example, there is a long and tedious debate amongst political philosophers as to what ‘freedom’ means. Does being free mean not having people interfere with what you want to do, or having the ability to do the things you want to do? The answer is: both matter, and both taken to the extreme lead to highly undesirable outcomes. If we want to feed everybody, then we may have to take stuff from one person and give it to another – stuff they might not give up otherwise (this is also known as ‘taxation’). That a homeless person might be ‘free’ to eat but unable is a simple demonstration that many things other than freedom from coercion are valuable. Deciding what a government or anyone should and should not be allowed to  do is essentially trading off the value of not being coerced against whatever it is that can be achieved by the coercion.

* I pity the fool who would agree to such an arrangement

Philosophy for the masses: the ‘sense’ of a proper name

May 5, 2010 Leave a comment

A series of posts for those with a general interest in philosophy, designed to lay out some of the more esoteric issues philosophers have been squabbling about over the years and why they are vexed by them.

One of the many gifts that the German mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege bequeathed to modern philosophy was the distinction between the ‘sense’ and the ‘reference’ of a proper name. Indeed, one of the papers that stands out as paradigmatic of the modern analytical tradition in philosophy is Bertrand Russell’s 1905 paper On Denoting, which took issue with Frege’s treatment of the topic and arguably helped usher in the professionalization of discipline seen in the 20th Century (to mixed results, imho).

In that classic 1892 paper Über Sinn und Bedeutung (On Sense and Reference), Frege distinguished between the referent of a proper name (the object it is the name of) and the ‘sense’, which roughly speaking is the thought one has when one is thinking about the object. For Frege and others following him, there was also a relationship between the sense and the referent – but I am going to leave the question of the determination of reference for another, separate post.

Frege was arguing against a theory of names put forward by John Stuart Mill, which was that the meaning of a name is simply the referent – which has the upshot that two different names for the same object mean the same thing. However, Frege observed, this would mean that all identity statements would be trivial; i.e. that if the names ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ name the same object, then ‘Clark Kent is Superman’ means the same as ‘Clark Kent is Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman is Superman’. But this is not true – identity statements can be informative. They shouldn’t, on a correct theory of the meaning of a proper name, come out as tautologies.

So, pulling us in one direction for distinguishing between sense and reference is that identity statements (even if they ‘really are’ tautologies when we think about the reference of the names) don’t seem to be that way on their face. This then leads one to the conclusion that there is some other way of understanding a name on its face, as it were.

One prominent reading of Frege was that he identified the sense of a name with a definite description – for example, ‘Aristotle’ means ‘The teacher of Alexander the Great’. However, as a theory of sense, one of they key drawbacks of this is that then to say ‘Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great’ is in fact to say ‘The teacher of Alexander the Great was the teacher of Alexander the Great’ which is also a tautology. Indeed, if you identify the sense of the name as anything which can be also be said to be of an object (like a description, or indeed any property), then attributing that to the object will come out as a tautology.

This is the central reason why I believe the question of the sense of a proper name – the thought one is having when one uses the name – is so intractable and will prove to be so for years to come. If we deny that the meaning of a proper name is anything but the object, then we have the problem of identity statements being tautologies. However, if instead we think of a name as meaning the object (or a non-specific object) but having certain identifying properties, then attributing those properties to the object becomes a tautology.

Now, it has always seemed to me that the answer to this puzzle is going to have to either lie on the ‘descriptivist’ side – because I can’t even think what it would be to have a thought about a specific object without thinking about that specific object having certain properties… I mean, try thinking about your car or house but without them having the property of being a car or being a house – or in completely changing the way philosophers have treated subject-predicate sentences, like ‘John is bald’ (sorry, John).

It is actually quite amazing/distressing how far you can get in philosophy just by saying  relatively benign things, like “If ‘John is bald’ is true, then there must be an object (John) that has a property (being bald)”. My inner Wittgenstein* suspects that everything starts going wrong when we over-interpret that simple and seemingly innocuous observation, which then goes on to do a whole lot of metaphysical damage. In what I intend to be the next post in this series – the problem of universals – I hope to show how this can happen somewhat spectacularly**.

*And believe me if you thought having inner angels and demons is tough, try having an inner Wittgenstein as well

**Or at least, as spectacularly as anything happens in modern analytic philosophy