Saturday, July 14, 2018

Nationalism And Sanctity

Prediction: The prism of the political is not going to decompress anytime soon. The remainder of the 21st Century will be as polarized as the 2015-2018 years have been, if not more so.

Reasons: It's getting harder to spot a single social media user who even faintly doubts that The Personal Is Political.

True, I still make it a point to observe social media users from a healthy distance. If the user is adept at networking, or is just traffic-friendly enough to be visible, the user will without exception believe TPIP.

TPIP tends to be an unstated conviction, and I can easily fathom it being an unwitting one as well. No one has to go around proclaiming "The Personal Is Political" for the astute lurker to gather that this is what the speaker has internalized.

Some speakers are in touch with their TPIP beliefs, but won't state them outright, because icky connotations. I suppose identitarian is the label that's been reserved for them. Overall though, ordinary TPIP-ers are nowhere close to recognizing how their rhetoric lends itself to such an orientation.

So while all identitarians are TPIP-ers they reflexively believe The Personal Is Political not all TPIP-ers are identitarians. Self-unaware TPIP-ers recoil at identitarianism, even though they'll use phrases like "Political Identity" 100%  uncritically. A huge part of their selves will be poured into their societal projects, molding their political wish-lists. If you're on social media like a meth-head on pipes, I'm probably talking about you.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Yellow Button And Anti-Natalist Agendas

We've heard about the Red Button and the Green Button. All well and good. Now suppose there's this newly installed Yellow Button: Pressing it means you instantaneously remove all human beings from the earthly equation. Poof they go.

If you'd prefer for things to be a bit more restrained and even-handed, amend the hypothetical so that pressing the Yellow Button means you incapacitate each human's reproductive function. This way, all unsuspecting individuals still get to live out the rest of their lives despite their newfound inability to procreate.

I'll just stick with the harsher version, for brevity's sake.

Either way, the result is the same in a generation or four: A planet devoid of humanity, with all else remaining the same.

The kicker: You don't have days/weeks/months to decide whether or not to press the Yellow Button. You must decide right now, as the button is here for a limited time only. With ample time to make the call, loose ends might not end up being so loose, and the lesson being imparted loses some of its punch.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Eternity And Mediocrity

Nick Bostrom's Infinite Ethics is a worthwhile read, but if you don't have the time, I'll just point you to this bit from the abstract:

  • Modern cosmology teaches that the world might well contain an infinite number of happy and sad people and other candidate value-bearing locations. Aggregative ethics implies that such a world contains an infinite amount of positive value and an infinite amount of negative value. You can affect only a finite amount of good or bad. In standard cardinal arithmetic, an infinite quantity is unchanged by the addition or subtraction of any finite quantity. So it appears you cannot change the value of the world.

Maybe you gawk at the quoted passage and conclude that contemporary cosmologists are out to lunch. Or maybe you figure Bostrom misrepresents or misconstrues what the majority of them actually believe. I don't know, and it doesn't really matter anyway, because you don't have to believe that sentient life sticking around forever is a foregone conclusion. You just have to acknowledge that the finitude of sentience isn't exactly a foregone conclusion either. The best available evidence for infinitude isn't conclusive, but it's not dismissible either.

And even if you are unfazed by the expertise of cosmologists, to the point of remaining 100% confident that sentient life is destined to go extinct for good sometime in the future, I would say the Arithmetic Paralysis quandary outlined in the paper is fascinating enough in its own right to warrant theoretical pivots. Not everything needs to implicate Applied Ethics to be worthy of our mentation.

If you have a bona fide appetite for philosophy, toying with ideas that educe incredulous stares elsewhere should be a picnic.    

"Nothing stifles intellectual curiosity like the craving for familiarity."

Me. Just now.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

12 Rules For Life But Actually Insightful

The original title was going to be "Twelve Rules For Analytical Life" and I'm sure it would've garnered some eye-rolls from those who gush over the Intellectual Dark Pleb. Alas, that title was chucked in the bin because I've been trying to make good on my yearly New Year's Resolution to present things less snobbishly.

Except, by drawing attention to the scrapped derisive title in the first paragraph of the post, I'm falling short of the ideal anyway. At least I tried, a bit.

Here are the Actually Insightful twelve-rules-for-life:

Rule #1: Get a handle on epistemology.

Rule #2: Get a handle on decision theory and game theory

Rule #3: Familial loyalism draws from every other meritless loyalism. Refuse to play.

Rule #4: Wrap your mind around skepticism about moral responsibility.

Rule #5: Come to see that central problems in Population Ethics remain unsolved.

Rule #6: Think slow, unless you're just here to have fun.

Rule #7: Understand that beliefs aren't dispositional or representative of one's essence. Strangers with whacky beliefs need not have personal demons.

Rule #8: Feel free to be as selfish as possible in the company of ethical egoists. They'd paradoxically want you to.

Rule #9: Make up for some of that selfishness by being altruistic towards the worst off. Take your time sorting out who is and isn't at/near/above the worst-off mark.

Rule #10: The 20th Century was the bloodiest for reasons that have little to do with the usual reasons you've been fed. Combat the false narratives whenever you see them.

Rule #11: The fallacy of relative privation is only partly fallacious.

Rule #12: Don't utter "logic" without qualifiers. There are numerous forms of it, and they bump heads.

From the top:

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Discursive Update Because Why Not

The end of 2017 is fast approaching and I've only managed to offer up one (deadly long) post all year. A downer. On ambitious days, the goal was to have an uneven five presentable by year's end, but as is often the case, whatever time I spent trying to improve dusty drafts only saw them deteriorate by becoming overwritten and inconsumable. Not unintelligible, by the way. Just inconsumable, and only so for the external reader who isn't magically cohabiting my headspace. How dare they, those non-me people.

In truth, I'm being half-serious here, having reached the point where one persistently intrusive element of my psyche feels justified in scorning readers for not living in my head so as to absorb my content better. Thankfully, all the other parts of my psyche are still sane enough to know better. For now.

Anyway, I don't see any of those unfinished posts getting completed in the coming days/weeks, so rather than have myself attempt a hasty job on a random isolated topic, I'll try to pull off a hasty job on a general rundown of topics which I continue to obsess over daily.

Call it a "Doxastic Clip Show" post.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Shallowness Of Intersectionality

Originally published on 2017-08-08. Last substantive revision on 2018-03-21. 

Ethnicity & Sexuality


An unexamined but glaring double-standard looms over anyone who traverses racial and sexual politics from uniformly non-traditional angles. On such angles, it is fair play for members of certain groups to apply experiential leverage as an epistemic tool for answering questions of factual import. Some maltreated groups are afforded more experiential leverage than others, though this is controversial and inessential for the main tenets to be introduced. The primary, uncontroversial tenets hold that the fewer Historically Wronged groups one belongs to, the less internally-crafted cred one secures for oneself, and the more Historically Wronged groups one belongs to, the more internally-crafted cred one achieves. The upshot is that, for one particular group, no such clout is plausibly on the table.

This is not to suggest that the traditionally minded are unthreatened by double-standards of this kind. They are easily susceptible to them. No one is immunized from the "leverage" oversight, no matter their foundational precepts. It just so happens that the blinders I'll be focusing on here are less likely to take hold once traditionalistic dogma enters the fray. How can this be? The reasons I give are stretchable and mazelike, intended for the temperamentally mature reader who fires no shots at the messenger and who assesses what the post is getting at incrementally.

It is commonly believed that, amid depoliticized human affairs, associational selectivity enjoys a cordial amoral status under generic progressivism. The setup goes something like: There are rights and there are responsibilities. Civic norms operate on the give-and-take between the two. The more progressive a society gets, the more roominess it affords to arbitrary favouritisms within apolitical domains. Trying to outrun the inescapability of bias, once all impersonal responsibilities are fulfilled, is a fool's errand. Seek to stultify this progress and be met with reminders that what goes on consensually behind closed doors is no one's business dammit. Alright then.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Refining Welfarism & Moral Fallibilism

Refining Welfarism & Moral Fallibilism

A Renewed Look At Interests And Judgments

Semi poetic opener:

"Ask not what we can do for goodness, ask what goodness can do for us"

But more contentiously:

"Ask not what victimizers can do for rightness, ask what rightness can do for victims"

Now soak in the reversal:

"Ask not what goodness can do for us, ask what we can do for goodness"

And the corollary:

     "Ask not what rightness can do for victims, ask what victimizers can do for rightness"

The first set of quotes is foundationally suitable. That is to say; when reason-giving and explication bottoms out, as all things do, the initial set of quotes can be declared superior to the inverted set. The ideal analyzer has permission to declare them as superior even if the only way to get there is by fiat. No doubt, fiat is analytically icky, but it is rarely taken to be an invalidator of virtues like intellectual honesty. Do we arrive at intellectual honesty through something other than fiat? If so, what exactly? How might we prove to someone that they ought to value intellectual honesty over its competition?

You might think that a truth-seeker proclaiming the superiority of intellectual honesty –– and with it the inferiority of intellectual dishonesty –– is disanalogous to my proclaiming the initial set of quotes as superior to the inverted set. But what makes these proclamations disanalogous? Empiricism? Come now. It can't be that. The call to science is itself a non-empirical endeavour. Denial of this manifests in the circularity of a truth-seeker applying evidence to dissuade someone against their apathy or hostility towards evidence.

When it comes to intellectual honesty, the only real competitor is intellectual dishonesty. Value the former, disvalue the latter. Simple as. The fiat, however icky, is left standing. The verdict stands tall despite its offputtingly unempirical [evaluative] origin. So it is with the above quotes, notably the first set. The only competition in town, after all, is the second set of quotes. The reversals. And they seem rather backwards, for goodness and rightness aren't persons or relational entities that can be harmed/benefitted in the first place. They are communicational tools, they are doxastic tools, and tools of all stripes should not be aggrandised as Something More.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Unrelenting Political Catastrophism

Cyber-induced political faddishness seems to have reached an all-time high, especially if you measure things by factionalized self-unawareness. I confess to having absorbed more of this sugary topicality compared to what my ideal disciplined self would have tolerated in a fraction of the timespan. And certainly far more than my silence on the boring and predictable American Presidential Election cycle might've led regular readers to believe.

I hate-watch this stuff, and I probably always will, from the same familiarly detached distance the average reader of this blog probably does. The insipidness that jumps out at me? Everything from "Terrorism is a serious threat to our way of life" (roughly 2001-2006) morphing into "Counterterrorism is a front for gov't expansion & liberty encroachment, read Orwell" (roughly 2006-2014) then imperceptibly back to "Terrorism is a serious threat to our way of life, but doubly-seriously this time!" (2014-2016).

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Political Pragmatism: Taking Policy Results Seriously

Originally posted on 2016-06-30. Last substantive revision on 2018-03-17. 

The American Constitution was ratified in 1789. Nearly 11,000 constitutional amendments have been proposed in the interim. Of those, a paltry 27 saw actual amendment ratifications successfully pass. Round up combined attempts to an even 11K and you get a success rate of 0.00245454545%. Perhaps you think that's a figure to be proud of, but then there's peskiness like this to contend with. But even if you defiantly ignore the populist will, just getting to the "Amendment Proposed" stage requires a two-thirds majority vote from the House and Senate. Contrast with Germany, which has 50 Constitutional amendments under its belt, and this is if you only start counting from 2003 onwards. That's 50 successful amendments in less than 13 years for Germany, while the last successful ratification in the U.S. took place 24 years ago as of my writing this. At one point, Scalia calculated that it can feasibly take 2% of the entire U.S. population to block an amendment that's spiritedly backed by a supermajority. America; Home Of The Same.

The point? There are people who subscribe to forward-looking ethical theories yet oddly insist on having political sacred cows. I can only infer that they've not adequately politicized their consequentialism. The reasons for this will differ. In the worst case, they will have failed to do so quite deliberately. Political identity wins out because the sacredness-conserver is not a consequentialist to begin with. Then again, many members of this group are assuredly oblivious to having implicitly snubbed a systematized theory of ethics in favour of political identity. More on them later.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Selflessness/Selfishness Attuned To Fortune/Misfortune

  • Ethical Altruism is notoriously self-disregarding; striving to fulfill others' (strangers') interests even if it's done at the expense of oneself. An act is morally admissible if its consequences carry more benefits (over harms) to everyone except the agent.

  • Ethical Egoism is notoriously self-obsessive; striving to fulfill one's own interests even when doing so comes at the expense of everyone else. An act is morally admissible if its consequences carry more benefits (over harms) only to the agent.

  • Utilitarianism is self-inclusive and other-regarding. Everyone's interests have equal weightiness in proportion to their respective situation. Agents impacting a certain state of affairs don't rule themselves out and freely accommodate their own interests into the final harms/benefits distribution.

But you know all this. Or at least you should.

Ethicists seeking to settle on the most sensible of the three overwhelmingly end up with some sort of utilitarian calculus. Nothing surprising about that, considering the competition. Moral masochism vs. moral sadism vs. moral impartialism. Not exactly the hardest choice in the world. Impartiality all the way.

Neophytes hear this and conjure a utility-minded agent who must approach each and every case as A New Beginning with antecedent factors treated as though they're divorced from normative considerations. Lately I've been running into this misconception, and have maybe even contributed to it through last year's enthused endorsements of moral particularism... so here I'll explain why antecedent-undermining decisional-procedures have the potential to be counterproductive to concrete utilitarian ends. This holds no matter the specific flavor and sub-flavor of utilitarianism being adhered to. If a decision-procedure is heavily contemporaneous and minimally anterior, it goes on to be lopsided in its assessment of the breadth of each individual life. In doing so, it feasibly overlooks individualistic wholeness; a cardinal component of impartial-concern. Realizing this, the prudential utilitarian can frequently proceed with altruistic or egoistic precepts and still minimize disutility (or maximize utility, if you're into that sort of thing) without falling into the moral quicksand of self-disregard or self-absorption. Call this lenience situational altruism and situational egoism, contra refractory altruism and refractory egoism.

Hang on, how can altruism or egoism, as characterized above, ever be conducive to negative (or positive) utilitarian tenets? Moreover, wouldn't admitting as much spell doom for the intellectual blueprints behind the Effective Altruism movement? Quite the contrary, once you envision the agent as partaking in a situational but panoramic game of tug-of-war.

Suppose you're stuck in an elevator at your workplace. There are four people stuck in the same elevator with you. All four of them are from a different department. The emergency callout button isn't working. Cursed installers. The weekend just started, and no one's in the building as the firm encourages employees to leave early on Fridays. Something about Corporate Culture pop-research indicating that it boosts morale. At any rate, each of you forgot to recharge your respective gadgetry throughout the day, so everyone's phone is battery-depleted and useless at this point. You yelled. You screamed. You pounded on the elevator's door, its floor and its ceiling. You tried ripping apart the ceiling to make your way to the roof. All of it for naught. Seems like you're all spending the next 48 to 72 in this dusky elevator. Worryingly huddled up together. You do your best to start thinking less melodramatically; 72 hours does sound like a stretch. 48 to 60 seems about right. To be sure, there's not a snowball's chance in hell of this resulting in a tragedy, just severe annoyance, stress and an irredeemable waste of a perfectly good weekend.

It's been an hour. The five of you are already hungry. Noon's lunch break seems like a lifetime ago for all of you. You discuss this amongst yourselves. As luck would have it, you're carrying five slices of pizza, having bought a full pizza for takeout during lunch. You only had three slices then, planning to have the rest over the weekend. Now it appears you'll be having the rest of it tonight, considering your lack of non-pizza options. Lucky you. But how many slices should you have? The only person with any food in the elevator is yourself. Your co-captives travel light, which begs the question; who had the biggest lunch? Was it you with the three slices? Was it George from Corporate? How about Jim from Corporate? Or maybe it was April from Corporate? Now that you think of it, it was probably Bill from Corporate. He's the fattest, so he must've had the biggest meal.

Next thing you know, questions of this manner find their way into the conversation. Turns out all four of them had meals indistinguishable in size and calories from your three slices. Every indicator points to the five of you being equally hungry at present. Each of you pulled a long day at the office and it's well past 1900 hrs now. George, Jim, April and Bill have money on them and are happy + eager to compensate you for the four equally-sized slices.

Is this everything readers need to know in order to conclude that it would be unethical of you to refuse to sell four (of your five) slices to the individuals stuck in this elevator with you? In a nutshell, no. There's plenty more for readers to ask.

What you do know is that George, Jim, April and Bill work in corporate. All of them make good bank. They enjoy what they do, and the sky's the limit. You, on the other hand, have been stuck in the mailroom for over a decade now. You work hard. You're punctual. You have an upbeat attitude. Great customer service skills. And yet, no promotion in sight. You were there when George, Jim, April and Bill started in the mailroom, and you were there when they left for bigger and better things in the same company. Was it simple meritocracy? Maybe, for April and Jim at least. George and Bill, meanwhile, got ahead thanks to Nepotism 101.

Unlike them, you have no friends in any of the right places, and resultantly never develop a habit for sliding your image into the good graces of the right people, even though you see the CEO on a daily basis. He always greets you with niceness, but you know that's no reason to slimily contrive extended conversations and shoehorn self-bolstering add-ons into said talks. Chatter only, no manoeuvring. No occupational boosts, but you wake up every day and like who you see in the mirror. Is that reward enough though, as folk parables would have it? Not exactly. You're tired of the mailroom. You're tired of the chump change. Your purchase power is at an all time low. You need a raise. You deserve a raise. George, Jim, April and Bill keep getting raises. Like clockwork. New shiny cars and clothes every year, shortly after each new promotion. It's obvious.

It's past time for some unabashed bluntness; you're bitter. You have a right to be, and not just a "in the privacy of my own mind, I'm calling foul" type of a right, but a full-blown Cognitive Right. The sort of right you applaud vanguards and iconoclasts with. You are bitter as fuck, and it's justified. Set aside amateur psychology's puerile attempts to delineate benign vs. non-benign envy. You're not envious in the first place, you're silently outraged and have been skirting around admitting it to yourself. It's been a decade long slow-burn, culminating in tonight's predicament. Fears of falling into the Ressentiment defense-mechanism bias is probably why you shied away from recognizing it for so long. Now it dawns on you; just as people understand that "It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you" it's also not Ressentiment if you've really been screwed over with fuck-all in the way of justification.

No longer will you allow western ethos to senselessly bitter-shame you out of your justly held appall. Starting now, you're letting yourself feel that bitterness. Embrace that contempt. You seem to have done everything right, but have nothing to show for it except occupational ossification. Impartial observers might even say you've worked harder and smarter than all four of your co-captives, and would've made for a better corporate candidate.

Worse yet, George, Jim, April and Bill all seem to have fulfilling personal lives, while your social circle has gradually shrunk into next-to-nothingness. It's virtually non-existent these days. You are, by all accounts, a more interesting person than the four of them. You're knee-deep into the most captivating subcultures. You discuss big ideas and propose feasible solutions to some of the most grievous problems facing the world. They enthusiastically discuss their workout routines, good vs. bad restaurants, clubs, bars, the local scene in general, Top 40 Radio, Reality TV, various soaps and sitcoms with post-pavolvian laugh-tracks. They genuinely enjoy this, and it reinforces their extroverted Social Butterfly inanities.

And so, on reflection of all these non-stuck-in-elevator inequities where your cohorts tower over you, shall I repose the original question? Should you sell them the four slices? If you do, you're left with the one slice; one measly slice which you'll eat at some point tonight because you're all worked up and sleep is just not in the cards for you. There's no way you're not eating at least one of your five slices tonight. It's quite the hunger now. The type of hunger that makes time pass slowly, the last thing you need. Same goes for your fellow captives though, and they tell you as much. They want the four slices and are all but waving $20 bills at you. You keep telling them you'll have to think about it. You truly don't want to be left sliceless after tonight and spend all of Saturday and Sunday hungry... very hungry... starving perhaps. Why should you? More importantly, why should they be entitled to your good fortune? For once, the Cosmic Misfortune ratios steered less toward you and more toward them. For once, you have an opportunity to capitalize on blind forces.

Oh, but what of utilitarian decisional-procedures? It's not a trick question. What of them? Understand that there is no anti-utilitarian gotcha to this setup. The pro-utility, anti-disutility answer is here to be found, and it circles back to a recounting of cosmic slights to see how they stack up during the course of everyone's lifetime. Once you privilege the farsighted backlog over the nearsighted backlog, you as the hopeful maximizer of axiological goodness and minimizer axiological badness are within reason to act in accordance to all that history. Bring yourself up as much as possible, because you'll still wind up further the red than the four of them stand to.

Annoyingly, some view this as a conflation on my part as pertains to utilitarian vs. egalitarian metrics, so let me be clear; I'm unsympathetic to any form of egalitarian (comparative) analysis of value/disvalue. The face value inference pointing in egalitarian directions only registers if you're ignorant of, or if you underestimate the effect of, Diminishing Marginal Utility. Adjusted to a farsighted grasp of general life satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction, in lieu of Specific Product Consumption, DMU has it that not only would you do well to retain the five slices, doing so would benefit the overall state of affairs you're connected to on account of you playing axiological catch-up. No one will starve to death because you capitalized on this one opportunity. No one is going to be stuck in that elevator for weeks or months. Everyone will be out by Monday, and of the five of you, you are the last one who needs additional hardship in the grand scheme of things. You're more deserving of a break, and hunger does not a break make. So diminished marginal utility, under this configuration and subcontext, offers inegalitarian reasons that are egalitarian-seeming to the uninitiated, because it surfacely seems like you're engaging in comparative metrics and reaching conclusions atop that overview. But it's more to do with a game of corporate musical chairs. They got all the corporate marbles and levelled you down in the process, generating net harm. So, if nothing else, hang on to your Pizza In Elevator bronze-prize. It's nontrivially yours, even if it drags them down.

After all, were you ever entitled to Bill's or April's or Jim's or George's seemingly neverending bouts of fortuitousness? Did they ever think to ask? Did it even occur to them to try putting in a good word for you? Y'know, even out the fortune-to-misfortune ratios a bit? Nope, they just went about their business; their narrow-minded, uninteresting, mind-numbing verbal-cockroach type business... and now they expect your help; your slices; your tinge of unearned fortune. You're roughly the same age as them and your utility score is well below theirs. It's nonnegotiable. They can afford to be levelled down a tincture. You can't. So soak up this relatively lucky break.

Utility, in cases like these, relies on the agent's outright refusal to be a moral chump. It entails a willingness to fight fire with fire via an egoist-seeming decision-procedure. In an environment where your contemporaries play by "You gotta look out for number one!" cultural maxims, your failure to adapt to their rules will only inflate global disutility. Panoramic disutility.

"...Well, there's five slices, and five of us, so... it's only fair, right?" says Bill, ever so meekly.

You say nothing in return and indulge some thought-mode insults "Go fuck yourself Bill, you parasitic nepotistic inconsiderate shitstain of a human being!".

Felt good. Maybe you'll say it out loud if he keeps pestering you.

It's now Sunday afternoon and you've just had your fifth and final slice. Finger licking good! You'll be out in less than 16 hours, if the upcoming Monday is anything like a normal Monday, which by all accounts will be the case. You now look over at them... they're disappointed in you, but too starved to verbally condemn you for hording the slices. Monday morning comes soon enough, and you're all freed on cue. They try giving you the silent treatment for a few days, but it all blows over before you know it. 

A year goes by. You receive a promotion, having played by a somewhat more self-interested set of rules ever since the elevator-entrapment tipping point. All of a sudden, you have money to spare. Additional promotions follow, as you've only become more cutthroat in your dealings with competitor colleagues; effectively elbowing out some of them from being promoted.

Another year passes, and you're swimming in spare cash by this stage. You make it a point not to donate any of it to the locals, for they are still recipients of western fortuitousness. No, you will instead spend the remainder of your working life donating a handsome percentage of your annual income to the global poor via EA, for they are still victims of Cosmic Unfortunateness. You select reliably cure-minded charities over bandaids-for-more-bandaids ones.

You are now the situational altruist, the situational egoist, and the ultimate methodological utilitarian all rolled into one. The surest way to pull it off, in a society where your competitors are socialized to craftily look out for number one, is to indulge in the same against them. Neglect them and their interests. Your non-competitors will thank you for it.


Disclaimer: Of course, no one is limited to choosing between the above three consequentialist calculi. There are non-altruist, non-egoist, and non-utilitarian alternatives available on the telic menu. One-dimensional consequentialists may find this trivial, and that's precisely why everyone should shun one-dimensional consequentialism in favour of multi-dimensional consequentialism so that no agent ends up glued to a utilitarian calculus in outlier-type configurations where a distinctly prioritarian calculus suffices in bringing about a more humane result.

More on Prioritarianism in future posts.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Prospective vs. Retrospective Judgements & What Oughtn’t Happen

Should modernists treat rightness and shouldness interchangeably? What about praiseworthiness and goodness; any interchangeability taking place there?

To answer appropriately, the first step is to deflate the longstanding polarity between deontological and teleological accounts of wrongdoing. Much of this gets inflated by the arguers’ misstep in not honing in on ultimatums modeled after many-worlds thought experiments, ideally the sort I’ve set up here:

  •  World A: Tom has been boozing it up throughout the day. Aggravated that his final two-six has run dry, he chucks it out the window despite the intense likelihood of it falling on a random passerby and causing serious harm. Tom lives on the 20th floor of a high-rise in the heart of a metropolis, so the infliction of risk here is weighty. Dozens of passersby saunter by his building on a minutely basis, but he pays no mind to this. Impulsiveness has a way of getting the better of him whenever he’s agitated. Blowing off steam is all he cares for at the moment. By sheer luck, his irresponsibleness ends up harming no one. The two-six lands straight into a dumpster nearest to his building. No one saw or even heard the two-six clash with the squishy items in the dumpster, as the collision coincided with a short-lived lull in pedestrian presence and vehicular traffic. Tom is one lucky bastard. His act was inexcusably inconsiderate, despite not having harmed –– or so much as perturbed –– anyone. Even so, Tom’s unconcern for others ran so deep that he couldn’t have even bothered peeking out the window to check if the bottle had maimed someone’s cranium.
  • World B: Tom is enjoying an ordinarily relaxing evening on his balcony. Looking to unwind from a hard day’s work, he pours himself a drink from the same two-six, but is startled by an aggressive crow. The crow charges speedily at him and he instinctually swings his arms upward to protect his face, losing grip of the two-six in the process. The bottle flies past his balcony’s barricade and, after picking up considerable freefall momentum, collides with a random passerby’s exposed cranium. This lands the passerby in the intensive care unit with permanent disfigurements and brain damage. The accident effectively ruins this person’s life. Tom wastes no time following up and feels tremendous guilt once informed of the man’s condition.

These are useful for particularists or anyone fatigued by introductory “What is morality?” discourse. Once the moral agent/patient interplays are spelled out as plainly as above, consensus around oughtness ceases to be illusive and attempts to puncture it come across as moral residue.

Theorists of the modernistic bent should be able to agree that, all else being equal, World A ought to have happened. That is, we should strive to bring about A if the only alternative is B, ceteris paribus. Taking this route doesn’t entail shying away from the fact that A carried all the makings of wrongness as pointedly as it did (with B carrying none). Recall that, after chucking the two-six in A, Tom goes about his business free of regret. His carelessness constitutes a moral blameworthiness of sorts, and yet, in and of itself, it tells us nothing about where A stands in relation to the moral fortunateness vs. unfortunateness axis. Traditionalistic ethicists have too often been incurious about the moral worth of this axis, whereas I allege that its displayed spectrum is what ultimately matters more.

You can refer to textbook-style thought experiments which are more intriguing and complex, but then you’d be obfuscating my endpoint. No one disputes that Tom acted improvidently in A, and blamelessly in B. Notable point being; the deployed ultimatum shares few (if any) characteristics with the breed of moral dilemmas that boomed in use around the Enlightenment, and now seem tritely prototypical. Seeing as not every telic vs. deontic vs. aretaic schism makes for a crowd-splitting moral dilemma, we can formulate rightness (praiseworthiness) and shouldness (goodness) separately and situationally.
Talks of “rightness” or “praiseworthiness” would still be gleaned by the acts, motives and characterological tendencies of the human agent privy to reason, compassion, deliberation, forethought, et cetera. I've no bones to pick with this, insofar as it only sets out to establish rightness or praiseworthiness at a practical, non-normative ground-level.

Goodness vis-à-vis shouldness, meanwhile, is to be discerned per the introduced fortunateness vs. unfortunateness axis. Once this takes hold, the modernist can actually start being modernistic with her ethical theorizing, noting that the “moral gridlocks” we keep hearing about (applied even to A vs. B) can be averted once the arguer explains how folk-judgements establishing “wrongness” and sentiocentric-judgements establishing events that “ought not have occurred” may function as isolated verdicts.

Just reflect on how rarely you’ve seen an "introduction to ethics" lecture astutely structured after examinations of many-worlds ultimatums. I’m still waiting on one to pop up in scholarly settings exported online, or even in middle-brow YouTube videos. If you’re a few steps ahead of me and have seen it, please link to some examples in the comments. I'll be right here, not holding my breath. We instead get lectures on (the triteness of) moral edifices and their (prognosticator-problem endowed) species of thought experiments where rightness/praiseworthiness/goodness/shouldness are lockstep and claims to the contrary are perceived as being distillatory of rightness, praiseworthiness, goodness and shouldness (or are simply unheard of).

In addition to downplaying the criterial role of moral fortunateness vs. unfortunateness, the trouble with rank-and-file introductions to ethics is their tendency to invite polemicists and disinvite conversationalists. Regular readers are already familiar with how disparagingly I view these presentations, so I won’t belabour the gripe. There’s reason to be confident in the conceivability of a “Master Key” presentation that sets out to reach modernist sensibilities regarding normativity (now centering on shouldness/goodness, not rightness/praiseworthiness). Nothing stops the modernist from conceiving prospective and retrospective wrongdoings as classificatory rather than as eliminatory. From there, the theorist is afforded the requisite room to tolerate more wrongness/blameworthiness under a state of affairs that ought to have occurred and less rightness/praiseworthiness under a state of affairs that oughtn’t have occurred (not unlike with A vs. B). This only sounds self-contradictory because, confusingly, moral verdicts have always been portrayed as eliminatory instead of classificatory, without justification. Because prospective and retrospective judgements have the cognitive capacity to operate as twofold judgements without the call for mutually-cancelling overridingness, we can ensure against catastrophic outcomes per sentiocentric overviews while accommodating innocuous components of folk morality into those same overviews. (Note: My use of sentiocentric is not a placeholder for Moral Naturalism any more than my use of folk is a plug for non-naturalism, but more on that in a future post.)

It should go without saying that consequentialists presented with A vs. B are concretely on board with the “B oughtn’t occur” adjudication. The ideal consequentialist arrives at this by stressing B’s moral unfortunateness overwhelming whatever shred of unfortunateness arose in A, while openly acknowledging the Tom-directed wrongness in A.

This is where absolutist theories latch onto outdated worries about the character of consequentialist thought, and how its grounding stands to undermine the role of prospective sordidness apparent in A. I see no basis for such inferences. Shouldness inciting A into effect doesn’t translate to a whitewash of the accompanying ill-will on the part of the agent, given the earlier point about classificatory (contra eliminatory) judgements.

Tom is quite the moral fool in A, but a lucky fool at that. He is 100% fool-proof in B, but unfoolishness here comes with the baggage of a mangled skull… surely there’s no slippery slope deluging that which privileges fortunateness over rightness through telic evaluations. I suppose one way to take umbrage with this is by believing that the central role of morality lies in agent-relative procurements of self-idolatry, which is as dubious as any Divine Command Theory. Third-person judgments run afoul of such setbacks and mesh with the 'equal-concern' practices of modernity.

So then, what of the non-consequentialists (or worse, those who identify as anti-consequentialists) and their treatment of an ultimatum like this? So far every deontologist –– or traditionalistic ethicist of aretaic persuasions –– I’ve encountered, when presented with A vs. B, did not push back against the “B oughtn’t occur” ruling despite emphasizing the prospective maleficence beamingly present in A. Wise move, but is it indicative of how most deontologists or aretaic traditionalists think about the ultimatum being toyed with? It could easily be true that the trend I speak of is just down to my not having had the opportunity to engage the big boys in the non-consequentialist tradition. I’m iffy on that though. It may be undue optimism on my part, but I’m unable to wrap my head around even the gratuitously ardent anti-consequentialist being presented with A vs. B and actually uttering something along the lines of: “Yes, World B contains no wrongdoing and should swing into effect if weighed against World A where the wrongdoing actually betides. Prospective and retrospective verdicts are eliminatory, not classificatory, and particularistic attempts to parse them are nonsensical. It’s moral ineptitude to even try.

By taking exception to final shouldness rulings in favour of A, one saddles one’s judgement with B as the follow-through, which should seem baffling to everyone. Can the reader point to anyone in the anti-consequentialist camp –– past or present –– who’d cite the lack of intentional agentic wrongdoing in B as the basis for why B should actually materialize… intensive care unit and all? I can’t, and this attests to the strength of consequentialist theories whenever noxiousness looms on account of unfortunateness.
Maybe I’m mistaken to think that inconveniencing deontologists or aretaic traditionalists with B’s fallout suffices in giving them cause to pause. If this is indeed my error, I’ll nod along to all charges of callousness levied at them going forward. I don’t consider this to be in the cards, because anecdotally, emphasis on B’s injurious outcome has led the ones I’ve bickered with to retreat from the catchall framing of deontology, in the vein of “It’s about the moral status of the act itself, not the consequences of the act”. Instead, the interlocutor, when put on the spot, adopts the refreshingly cautiousThat’s a straw man of deontology; deontologists can be pluralists and take into account some consequences”. (Examples @ 1:04:45 & 1:07:30 & 1:10:00 & 1:11:30).

If reverting to pluralism is as common as anecdotes suggest –– and as the hyperlinked podcast shows –– then pluralistic deontologists need to stop self-identifying as non-consequentialists (and esp. as anti-consequentialists), for if this newfound caveat is taken seriously, it severs ties with Kantian absolutism, which in turn earns them a title like quasi-consequentialist. I can’t in good conscience object too harshly to a quasi-anything, as I’m still heavily drawn to particularism, meaning quasi-consequentialism is fine in my book. Avoidance of absolutism and monism is what I’m really after, and new&improved deontic theories allowing for a give-and-take between outcomes and duties can manage this.

This give-and-take, however praiseworthy, does pose a potentially unanswerable question; where exactly on the continuum does a “deontic” theory with some telic adjustments blend into an otherwise “telic” theory with some deontic adjustments? The trickiness with planting such a flag in non-arbitrary ways only flatters the particularist’s framing of ethics, as I’ve come to find.

Whether a definitive line –– superior to all other lines –– is illusory or not, parting ways with absolutism remains an “all or nothing” move if I’ve ever seen one. There’s no such thing as “a little bit pregnant” and there’s no such thing as quasi-absolutism in ethics. Acts like murder, torture, rape are unwaveringly impermissible and should never be carried out irrespective of extenuating circumstances (absolutist view), or they are globally justifiable as a lesser-of-evils based on the morally understandable goal of securing against even more unfavorable outcomes (non-absolutist view). What can possibly be worse than murder, torture, rape? Well, the occurrence of murder, torture and rape tenfold, for starters. If ethicists are going to be serious about reconciling telic and deontic theories, the project will only takeoff by applying non-absolutist iterations of the latter. Absolutists objecting to this are moral fetishists looking to roadblock the project by tarnishing the consequentialist catalog altogether. Fuck ‘em.

As for the hyperlinked podcast; it's sophistic of Tamler to kvetch about straw while in the same breath drawing from absolutist versions of deontology –– which by definition disallow any weighing of negative outcomes against deontological commitments, no matter the severity of the outcome. Pluralism my foot. Guy wants to have his straw man accusation and eat it too.

Even when deontic theories are irreligious from head to toe, their traditionalistic advocates will not view, say, natural disasters luridly impacting sentient beings as events ripe for normative boos. This is our history in ethics, and it's why you get so many people who to this day cannot conceive of normative yays vs. boos unless “free will” (indeterminism/libertarianism) is embraced from the outset. “Ought implies can” and so on. The theorist who looked beyond Humancentrism 101 was the aberrant.

Enter determinism, and the Folk formulations begin to seem suspect (at least by modernists). Posit incompatibilism, and they look profoundly amiss, to the point where moral absolutism –– casting certain acts as verboten regardless of context weight –– is on par with DCT in its zealotry.

The explosion of sentiocentric consequentialism’s popularity as a rival theory to humancentric common-sense morality correlates with determinism gaining ground in public arenas. That’s not to say that determinism is a prerequisite for consequentialism (or indeterminism for non-consequentialism, for that matter) but to deny the correlative effects is to sport a blindfold.

I’m exultant over sentiocentric theories making headway in vital quarters; recognizing animals as moral patients in and of themselves, rather than as accessories through which we humans get to flaunt our moral merit or lack thereof. But the more folky attributions of wrongness can be preserved –– determinism and all –– even if they come at a cost to some categories of undesirable outcomes. I am in rare company when it comes to this, but viewed from an altered A vs. B ultimatum where the difference in B is that the two-six only startles the passerby (falling right in front of him rather than colliding with his head), it seems somewhat credible to contest “B ought not occur” as a ground-level given. Thus we can allow for some overridingness flattering to non-consequentialist theories if the consequence entails trivial levels of hardship (i.e. being startled) and never non-trivial levels (i.e. landing in the intensive care unit). There are admittedly epistemic issues with this, at least if we try hair-splitting the trivial and non-trivial.

So, to appropriately answer the original question with a resounding “No”, I'll freely remind myself that ethical value was traditionally measured not by establishing how the world ought to be for moral patients (sentient beings) and then endeavoring to bring about such a world. Rather, it was about the motives and virtues of moral agents (human beings). Accordingly, wrongdoings and concomitant oughtn't rulings could only be hurled at something a human said or did. Obviously this reads like moral myopia today, as non-human caused hardship (i.e. wildlife predation) is still hardship worthy of stoppage. Thus my pluralistic modernism and promulgation of “rightness =/= shouldness” reasoning.
[Add on 2015-09-23: The same is commonly referred to as Dual Consequentialism, already hyperlinked above]

Make no mistake, formulations of rightness [under Dual Consequentialism] would still be rooted in praiseworthiness, just as wrongness would remain rooted in blameworthiness. My purpose here was to explain how none of that has any bearing over goodness overlapping with fortunateness per se and badness with unfortunateness per se (dictated deterministically). This needs to be the baseline because goodness and badness are used, at least on my readings, to refer to general states of affairs, disconnected from agents' actions or motives. When discussing the latter, we'd do well to continue tracking rightness and wrongness as a sort of moral know-how. So even when causality is the name of the game, the case for social censure still holds, thus rightness merits praiseworthiness and wrongness merits blameworthiness. After all, we need to be dissuaded against acting improvidently, seeing as we're seldom bestowed with the sort of moral fortune Tom takes for granted in World A.

And no, this was not about Act vs. Rule Consequentialism, since Rule Consequentialism can either be:

  • (2) A rule so rigid to the point where it’s as uncompromising as moral absolutism. Rule Consequentialism that’s absolutist is hardy consequentialist; it’s crypto deontology.

Every “act vs. rule” debate I’ve seen has centred on moral tactfulness; a cost/benefit analysis regarding rigidity and flexibility in decision making. Strictly a “Human beings aren’t prognosticators, so how do we act?” scuffle, nothing more. And even this might not be a problem due to the oft-excluded middle; Two-Level Consequentialism. Some think that this synthesis makes the case for non-consequentialism operating as a refuter of unmodified Act or Rule consequentialisms, but at most it's an expander.


Endnote: Contrary to the vibe the post gives off early on, I wasn't trying to suggest that we can panoramically assert the existence of vindicatory moral dilemmas; conundrums wherein rightness, praiseworthiness, goodness and shouldness all happen to line up under solitary verdicts (contrary to overused ones about organ transplants or trolleys… telltale signs that, should a final ruling be paraded around a large enough swath of ethicists, bifurcation will follow and resolvability will die. Rinse and repeat. Yawn and repeat).