What I'm Currently Working On

I haven’t uploaded anything to this blog in a while so I figured I would post a brief overview of what I’ve been thinking about and working on. I should start regularly uploading normal blog posts soon.

My current research is almost entirely based on a theory of belief formation and its implications for epistemology, rationality, and Streumer’s argument that we can’t believe a global normative error theory.

The theory of belief formation that I’m working with is called the Spinozan theory. The theory is situated as an alternative to the Cartesian theory of belief formation. The Spinozan theory says that we automatically form a belief that p whenever we consider that p. This means that the process of belief formation is automatic and outside of our conscious control. This theory has serious implications for several areas, such as rationality and epistemology.

In terms of epistemology, lots of philosophers working in that area will talk about belief formation in ways that presuppose a Cartesian theory. The Cartesian theory says that the process of belief formation and the process of belief revision are on par; both are within our conscious control. When we form a belief we base it on considerations like evidence. We consider the evidence for and against the proposition and then we form a belief. However, if the Spinozan theory is true then this is a misrepresentation of how we actually form beliefs. According to the Spinozan, we automatically form a belief whenever we consider a proposition. We may be able to revise our beliefs with conscious effort, but that process requires more mental energy than the process of forming a belief. If the Spinozan is right, we need to investigate whether or not we can do without talk of control over belief formation in epistemology.

The Spinozan theory entails that we believe lots of contradictory things. That we believe lots of contradictory things runs contrary to our ordinary view of ourselves as relatively rational creatures who do their best not to hold inconsistent beliefs. If any plausible account of rationality requires at least a lot of consistency among our beliefs, then we’re pretty screwed. But we might be able to work with a revisionary account of rationality that sees being rational as a constant process of pruning the contradictory beliefs from one’s mind through counterevidence. The problem with that sort of account, though, is that belief revision is an effortful process that is sensitive to cognitive load effects, whereas belief formation is automatic will occur whenever one considers a proposition. So, we’ll basically be on a rationality treadmill, especially in our current society where we’re bombarded with things that induce cognitive load effects.

Another project that I’m going to start working on is applying the Spinozan theory to propaganda. I think that somebody interested in designing very effective propaganda should utilize the Spinozan theory. For example, knowing that belief formation is automatic and occurs whenever a person considers a proposition would help one design some pretty effective propaganda, since one’s beliefs can root themselves in their mental processes such that they influence one’s behavior over time. If you throw in some cognitive load enhancing effects then you can make it more difficult for people to resist keeping their newly formed beliefs.

The last project I’m currently working on is a paper in which I argue against Bart Streumer’s case against believing the error theory. According to Streumer, one cannot believe a global normative error theory because one would believe that one has no reason to believe it, which we can’t do according to him. I think that if we work with the Spinozan theory then this is clearly false, since we automatically form beliefs about things that we have no reason to believe. My guess is that proponents of Streumer’s view will push back by arguing that they are talking about something different than I am when they use the word, “belief”. But I think that the Spinozan theory tracks the non-negotiable features of our ordinary conceptions of belief enough to qualify as an account of belief in the ordinary sense.

For those interested in the Spinozan theory, click this link. I should be regularly uploading posts here soon.


An Introduction to Morality and Emotions

When doing moral theory, the question of emotion will inevitably arise. Some theorists think that emotions should not play any role because they are antithetical to reliable moral reasoning. Others doubt that emotions are a wholly distorting influence. In this post, I’m going to lay out some ways in which emotions may feature in our theorizing about morality.

A popular view of emotion is to take them as intentional states that present their objects in an evaluative light. For instance, being happy about graduating from college is to have the state of affairs of graduating from college being presented to a subject such that she has certain positive feelings towards it. The way in which this view of emotion can be relevant to moral theorizing is when the object of emotion is a moral state of affairs. Your emotions get moralized in this sense when they are about moral states of affairs.

Another way in which emotions are relevant to morality is if they provide us access to moral facts. If emotions are our means of epistemic contact with moral reality, then emotions are epistemically relevant to morality. Emotions may then be ways of representing states of affairs with a certain sensitivity to morally salient features of what’s being represented. One simplistic possibility is that our emotional reaction to the idea of pushing a man off a bridge to stop a train that is headed for five people tied to the track provides us with epistemic access to the separateness of persons, which explains why it’s wrong to push the man to his death.

However, there may be a flip-side to the epistemic view of emotions. Emotions could also distort our sensitivity to morally salient features of states of affairs. Peter Singer has defended a view similar to this when he argued that deontological intuitions are subject to distorting influences rooted in our evolutionary development.

Emotions can also be the ways in which we are motivated to act morally. It could be the case that we need emotions to move us to act morally, which would make emotions necessary for moral action. On this view, a robot with the set of true moral beliefs would be unmoved to act on them if it is incapable of experiencing emotions. Mere belief is insufficient on this account of moral emotions.

We may also be subject to evaluation based on the emotions we experience. There are clearly good and bad ways to behave at a funeral. If somebody began laughing uncontrollably, we would probably consider that to be inappropriate, whereas we would be tolerant of grieving in the form of loud crying. A similar view is defended by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson.

One last way that emotions can be relevant to moral theorizing is if they are integral to our moral development. Perhaps eliciting certain emotions is a necessary means of moral education. Making developing moral agents experience things like guilt over wrongdoing by pointing out how they’ve let a loved one down could be formative for them. In this sense, emotions are part of the development of moral agents.

There are probably other ways in which emotions are morally relevant that I’ve missed. If you are aware of any more, let me know in the comments section below.

A Problem for the New Consequentialism

In a previous post, I outlined a non-deontic form of consequentialism that was supposed to avoid what I called the extension problem. The extension problem plagues deontic consequentialism, which is the view that the rightness, wrongness, permissibility, and impermissibility of actions are determined by their consequences. So, a simple hedonistic act utilitarian will say that there is one categorically binding duty, and that is to maximize pleasure when we act. But such a view suffers from intuitively compelling counterexamples. So it seems like hedonistic act utilitarianism gets the extension of our deontic concepts wrong.

Non-deontic consequentialism is designed to avoid the extension problem, because it defers how those concepts are applied by a society at a given time. By doing so, the theory allows for the extensions of our deontic concepts to pick out what our society takes them to be, which seems to preserve our intuitions about particular cases, like the drifter being killed by a surgeon for his organs. Hedonistic act utilitarianism requires that, if the surgeon is in the epistemic situation where he can rule out negative consequences, and he knows that he can use these organs to save five patients, then he is duty-bound to kill the drifter and harvest the organs. Non-deontic consequentialism avoids this because your typical person who is not a thoroughly committed act utilitarian would not agree that the extension of DUTY covers the surgeon’s organ harvesting endeavor.

An alternative that avoids the extension problem is scalar utilitarianism, which does without deontic concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, we judge actions as better or worse than available alternatives. The problem with this view is that it just seems obvious that it is wrong to torture puppies for fun. But a scalar utilitarian cannot give an adequate account of what makes that act wrong, so she must explain why it seems so obvious to say that it is wrong to torture puppies, even though it’s false.

Setting aside both of these forms of consequentialism, I want to discuss the non-deontic consequentialism I outlined in my other post. On the view I described, the rightness and wrongness, along with other deontic properties, of actions are a function of the social conventions that obtain at a given time in a given society. The consequentialism comes in at the level of critiquing and improving those social conventions.

Moral progress occurs when we adopt social conventions that are better by consequentialist standards. So, for instance, it used to be a social convention in the United States that we could have property rights over other human beings, and transfer those rights for currency. Those conventions are no longer in place in the United States, and at the time they were, they could have been critiqued by consequentialist standards. Those conventions were not better than available alternatives at the time, so it would have been better not to have the institution of chattel slavery. But these facts about betterness do not determine what is right or wrong. Rather, they should guide efforts to improve social conventions, and thereby change the extensions of our deontic concepts.

This seems all well and good, but I am a bit worried. This view entails that social conventions have normative force, no matter what. So, just because something is a social convention, we thereby have at least some moral reason to abide by it. Take slavery again; such an institution was once enshrined in many social conventions. Does it follow that at the time, everybody had at least some moral reason to abide by the conventions that said we ought to return escaped slaves to their so-called owners? It seems to me that slavery is and always was wrong. There was never a time at which it was right to own another human being. I think that the basis of my concern is that deontic judgments, especially when applied to important things like slavery, are not indexed to times and places. Just because a human being is sold in a marketplace in 1790 Virginia does not change the deontic status of the situation. What exactly is the morally relevant difference between that time period and today? Why is it wrong now to sell another human being but it was not in 1790s Virginia?

One potential response to my worries is to point out that I’m making these judgments from a particular time period when the extension of our deontic concepts rules out slavery being permissible. So, perhaps I find the entailment of this theory appalling because my intuitions are shaped by the extension of the deontic concepts I use. Since 1790s Virginia, we have undergone moral progress, and now it is wrong to own slaves because of the shift in social conventions. It could even be that according to our deontic concepts’ extensions now, it was wrong in the 1790s to buy and sell slaves.

I think these considerations certainly make my concerns less worrisome. But I’m experiencing a residual anxiety. It still seems counterintuitive to say that, if we had grown up in 1790s Virginia, our claims about the rightness and wrongness would be flipped. We would have an inverted moral spectrum when it comes to deontic judgments about slavery. That is what I find counterintuitive. The theory was developed to explicitly address the extension problem, which was that deontic consequentialists seem to get the extensions of our deontic concepts wrong. The reason I think that they get those extensions wrong is because their theories entail counterintuitive results. They end up having to bite a lot of bullets, such as the organ harvesting surgeon. But if non-deontic consequentialism also generates counterintuitive entailments, like slavery being permissible in 1790s Virginia for people at that time, then is it any better than its deontic consequentialist competitors?




 

A New Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a family of theories that takes the consequences of actions to be the location of the right-making or good-making features of those actions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s work with a very basic consequentialist view, which is that ought to maximize the good. The good is identified with happiness. So, we ought to maximize happiness with our actions.

The problem with this view is that it says the right thing to do, what we ought to do, is maximize happiness. However, intuitively, there are situations where maximizing happiness is not what we ought to do. For instance, nobody but the most committed act utilitarian would say that it’s ok to kill a homeless person to supply his organs to five needy recipients, even if nobody would ever find out.

So, this simple consequentialism fails to give a satisfying analysis of deontic concepts, like RIGHT and WRONG. In other words, it gives the wrong application conditions for RIGHT and WRONG, because it entails that certain actions which fall within the extension of WRONG actually fall within the extension of RIGHT.

What could we do to revise our simple consequentialism? Well, we could try not giving an analysis of deontic concepts. So, we could become scalar utilitarians, which is to say we could be people who think actions are ranked on a scale from best to worst. Maybe moral judgments that involve deontic concepts are just wrongheaded. We could just do without concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, let’s just talk about better or worse actions; actions which we have more or less reason to do.

This just isn’t satisfying, though. Clearly torturing children for fun isn’t just worse than not torturing them for fun, it’s wrong. We ought not to torture children for fun. There’s nothing wrongheaded about that moral judgment. So, we need to give an account of deontic concepts if we want a theory that captures what we do when we engage in moral discourse and deliberation.

Here is what I take to be the best way to deal with this problem. If we try to give a consequentialist analysis of deontic concepts, we get the extensions of those concepts wrong. If we try to avoid giving an analysis, then we exclude a large portion of our moral discourse from our theory. So, we should analyze deontic concepts as conventions based on contingent social arrangements. We still should employ deontic concepts in moral judgment, and they play an indispensable role in our moral lives. But they do not reflect some fundamental structure of the moral world; rather, they reflect contingent social arrangements.

The role that consequentialism can play in this theory is as a means by which we can critique these contingent social arrangements. So, we could give consequentialist critiques of the ways in which deontic concepts are deployed in specific classes of moral judgments. For instance, if the concept RIGHT once had within its extension returning escaped slaves to their so-called owners, then that deontic concept could be revised according to a consequentialist critique of the institution of slavery. Our deontic moral judgments, judgments of right and wrong, permissibility and impermissibility, are ultimately subject to a consequentialist evaluation if the need arises.

Is this just rule utilitarianism? I don’t think so. Typically, rule utilitarians think we ought to obey a certain idealized set of rules which pass the consequentialist test of goodness-maximization. What I’m proposing is that we work with the rules we already have, and revise as the need arises, rather than reason according to an idealized set of good-maximizing rules. Besides, a rule utilitarian analysis of deontic concepts will probably fall victim to the extension problem I raised above against our simple consequentialist analysis.

Check out Brian McElwee's paper on consequentialism for a similar account of non-deontic consequentialism that I based this post on.