Group 2: Ethics, Meta-Ethics and Moral Epistemology
Wednesday, 9th of December
Dylan Balfour, University of Edinburgh
‘The Long-Term Sensitivity Problem for Expected Value Consequentialism’
Abstract: By many plausible estimates, humanity could survive for millions, perhaps even billions, of years into the future. This paper will explore the problem this causes for the most popular form of consequentialism, which posits that what agents ought to do depends on the expected value of their available actions, where expected value is a function of the values and probabilities of their possible consequences. The problem arises when we consider what several recent authors have noted: that even a tiny probability that an action will have a beneficial impact on the long- term future of humanity will confer that action enormous expected value. This is an example of a “Pascal’s mugging”, to borrow Nick Bostrom’s terminology. Pascal’s muggings obtain when infinite—or extremely large—values are at stake. Actions which have a chance of bringing such value to fruition are almost always dominant in expected value terms, no matter how small the probability. This phenomenon has been leveraged by a recently established movement of so-called longtermists, who argue that we ought to prioritise actions and interventions with long-term prospects, even if these interventions have a tiny chance at succeeding.
However, the longtermist literature neglects discussion of what these huge expected values might entail more generally. This paper will show that Pascals’s muggings are a ubiquitous feature of almost all actions, not just the large-scale interventions highlighted by longtermists, and it will argue that this poses a significant problem for expected value consequentialism. The problem is this: pretty much any evidence in favour of a proposition ought to give us an above-zero credence in that proposition, even when the evidence is incredibly specious or unreliable. Thus, any evidence that an action could produce some systematic long-term effects should give us non-zero credence in that action having such effects. This is sufficient to generate a Pascal’s mugging for that action’s expected value. Because of this, if expected value consequentialism is true, when what we ought to do will often depend on scraps of evidence or far-flung causal projections of our actions’ possible long- term ramifications. Even more problematically, it entails that many patently wrong actions might be obligatory, provided some piece of evidence or dubious line of reasoning supports the possibility that they could have a positive effect on the far-future. I call this the long-term sensitivity problem for expected value consequentialism, and believe it constitutes a significant, novel reason to reject the theory.
The paper will proceed in three sections. The first will outline exactly what a Pascal’s mugging is and exposit the longtermists’ thesis that the long-term future of humanity dominates
expected value decision-making. In the second section, I will develop the case for the long- term sensitivity problem for expected value consequentialism, arguing that it leads to a host of deeply unintuitive results for the theory. Finally, I will briefly address two possible attempts to salvage expected value consequentialism. The first is to “discount” the value of future generations, erasing the moral valence of people in the far future. The second is to appeal to the “Principle of Indifference”. I find both of these attempts ineffective.
Sushruth Ravish, IIT Bombay (Mumbai)
‘Naturalized Social Moral Epistemology: A Cornell Realist Account’
Abstract: A prominent meta-ethical position that has emerged since the last decades of the twentieth century is often referred to as Cornell realism (CR). Prominently championed by Richard Boyd, Nicholas Sturgeon and David Brink, CR argues for a post-positivist, non- reductionist naturalistic account of moral properties and facts. Most evaluations of CR revolve around the parity thesis — the claim that methods of moral enquiry are analogous to scientific enquiry. Criticisms of the parity thesis are then taken to amount to a refutation of CR’s epistemology. We argue that critics of CR have so far interpreted the parity thesis narrowly, conceiving it almost as a transposition of the scientific method into the moral domain. Such an interpretation fails to account for the CR’s quest for a unified methodology that accommodates objectivity as well as the social nature of both moral and scientific inquiries. While the parity thesis is an underlying methodological principle, it alone does not explicate CR’s epistemology. Therefore the criticisms of the parity thesis even if well-founded fail to target CR’s epistemology.
This paper attempts to show that CR’s epistemology for arriving at justified moral beliefs is a variant of reflective equilibrium (RE). We identify two essential structural elements of RE, namely considered moral judgements and the coherence seeking process and show how CR offers a reinterpretation of both these elements of RE to achieve the twin goals of achieving ‘objectivity’ and incorporation of the ‘social’ within moral inquiries. In both these aspects, traditional understanding of RE seems to differ — with Rawls refusing to comment on the metaethical implications and conceiving of the method as a largely, individual introspective affair. CR’s objective reinterpretation can successfully respond to traditional objections like the isolation and input objections. More importantly, the social turn that CR gives to RE, we argue, makes it robust enough to ward off more recent criticisms pertaining to the fallibility of reason emerging from experimental work in moral psychology and cognitive science. While traditional interpretations of RE rely exclusively on the rationality of the individual, CR’s reinterpretation sees morality as a community-wide enterprise that can facilitate moral knowledge even in the face of biases that affect individual cognition. Moral progress (as in the case of abolition of slavery) too occurs by the social task of asking for and producing reasons and arguments for moral judgments. It is the strength of these judgments that often persuade others of the merit of the judgment. Thus, apart from amounting to a feasible epistemology for CR, the reinterpretation of RE provides a viable alternative for the advocates of RE committed to metaethical realism. Hence any account claiming to encompass moral progress must incorporate the sociality of moral inquiry. CR’s reinterpretation of RE brought forth here creates a much needed dialogue between metaethics and topics in social epistemology.
Matt Rosen, University of Oxford
‘On Feeling that the Rain Should Stop: Virtues, Values, and Norms in Scheler’
Max Scheler, born in Munich in 1874, made significant contributions across the philosophical landscape, including to phenomenology, the theory of value, and the philosophy of religion. For all that, interest in his work declined after his death in 1928. This was partly because the dissemination of his works was severely restricted under the Nazi regime, and partly because of the success of Husserl’s phenomenology in its transformation in the phenomenology of Heidegger. The past few decades, however, have seen a revival of interest in Scheler’s writings and in the subjects with which they are concerned. The focus of this attention has largely been on Scheler’s analysis of sympathy, and on his cognitive account of the emotions. One aspect of his work that has so far gone relatively unconsidered, despite considerable interest in the topic, is his account of the virtuous life.
In this paper, in order to begin remedying this, I endeavor to draw out from Scheler’s writings a sketch of an account of virtue. I pay particular attention to an essay written by Scheler in 1913, entitled “On the Rehabilitation of Virtue”. This essay sets out a view about what virtues are and how a concern for their centrality in human life might be rehabilitated. I first discuss the nature of virtue as Scheler sees it, and I make a few remarks about its relation to the notions of character, personhood, and value.
I then discuss an objection to Scheler’s view according to which it isn’t sufficient for grounding a deontological conception of morality. I argue that this objection is wrongheaded, since it neglects how virtues and values give rise to deontic norms. On Scheler’s view, virtues and their attendant emotions disclose values in the world, and these disclosed values can be transformed into norms. I am honest. My friend lies to me. I feel betrayed. This reveals to me that lying is disvaluable. I have the sense that my friend should not lie to me. I have the sense that one should not lie. Or it is raining, which makes me uncomfortable. This reveals to me that it ought to stop raining, or that I should have brought an umbrella. I think that I ought to pack an umbrella when I go out. I think one ought to travel with an umbrella. When we lose sight of this movement from virtues, values, and emotions to norms, we lose sight, as Scheler sees it, of what it means to live well.
I conclude by commenting on some objections that further developments of Scheler’s picture will need to answer, especially the worry that particularism cannot be reconciled with a theory of the virtues. In this way, I try to get clear about what Scheler’s picture can offer present-day projects in virtue ethics; in turn, this will help us to get a handle on Scheler’s work in a more comprehensive way.