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31 May, 2003

The philosophy papers blog is

The philosophy papers blog is up. Quiet day – two papers and a book review.


I’m still trying to think of something interesting to say about consequentialism. It’s almost getting to the stage where I’d be better off going and doing some research rather than trying to figure everything out on my own. But that’s not the blogging way. Or at least it’s not my blogging way.


Let’s grant as a starting point that prudential norms are concerned in the first instance with expected consequences rather than actual consequences. Paying $1 for a lottery ticket with an expected value of 1 cent is dumb, even if the ticket ends up winning. Dumb luck indeed. The question that arose in two posts by John Quiggin (here and here) was whether the same kind of point applies to ethical norms. Assuming (controversially) that something like consequentialism is the right theory of personal morality, is it actual consequences or expected consequences that matter for morality? And if it’s expected consequences, is it expectation according to the agent’s beliefs, her society’s beliefs, the beliefs it is rational for her to have, or some other beliefs?


I’ve been trying to think of something useful to say on this, and I haven’t. First, a quick sociological note. Contra the impression that may have been created by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Stanford entry on consequentialism, a lot of consequentialists think it is expected consequences not actual consequences that matter. Frank Jackson has some papers where it is basically assumed as a premise that it’s expected consequences that matter, and that premise is used to try to defuse some challenges to consequentialism. How successful the defusing is is a matter for some debate, but it’s clear which side of the actual/expected debate he’s on.


Second, three examples that I’ve been puzzling over while trying to think of something interesting to say. I don’t even have commentary on the examples, because I’m just stuck. Well, except to note that one of John Quiggin’s points, that philosophy examples are often gratuitously violent, is true and may be confirmed here. And to note that none of the examples bear any intentional resemblance to any person living dead or imaginary.



The Shooter
Ken believes, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that he can tell whether a gun is loaded. He thinks he can detect the difference in weight that the extra ammunition provides. This is completely untrue. In fact he’s no better at this than random. He thinks the gun he is holding right now is unloaded. In fact he is certain that it is unloaded. So he thinks there is no harm in pointing it at Sharon’s foot and pulling the trigger, and some small gain since he very much enjoys ‘firing’ unloaded guns. He does this, and Sharon gets a bullet in the foot. Was Ken’s act of pulling the trigger morally wrong?


The Bigot
Gene has been brought up to hate Rhode Islanders. Filthy irreligous corrupt scum, he thinks. And many other people in his part of Connecticut agree. All of Gene’s evidence about Rhode Islanders supports his beliefs. That evidence is all testimonial – he wouldn’t actually go into the horrible Rhode Island – but it seems remarkably consistent. One day Gene sees a car with Rhode Island licence plates stop at his father’s store and its inhabitants stop at his father’s store, and its occupants get out to buy some food and drink. Believing that they are filthy irreligous corrupt scum, Gene launches into a tirade of abuse directed at them, with the intent of making them go away. Underneath his tough exterior, Gene is actually quite worried what these dangerous Rhode Islanders will do if they stay. The Rhode Islanders are quite upset, even shaken, by Gene’s outburst and quickly get back in their car and drive away. Was what Gene did in abusing the Rhode Islanders morally wrong?


The Cook
Jamie is cooking a rather distinctive dish for his dinner guests tonight. The ingredients include two rare herbs, X and Y. (I should make up names for these, but I am a little lazy.) Jamie doesn’t know this, in fact no one who hasn’t studied a bit of medicine does, but X and Y should never be served in combination. Although each is safe, together they are rather toxic. Although this knowledge is not widespread, Jamie could probably have figured it out if he’d reflected for a bit on this evidence. For he knows that W and Y in combination are toxic, that’s why he used X rather than W, and he knew that X and W have very similar effects on humans. He just somehow forgot to put 2 and 2 together here to conclude that X and Y are probably very dangerous also. But he did put X and Y together, and all of his guests ended up being rather sick for the next week. Did Jamie do the wrong thing in preparing a dish with X and Y in it?



As I said, no commentary, just examples to think about.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 2:26 pm

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30 May, 2003

In a paper cited on

In a paper cited on the philosophy papers blog today, Alexander Pruss makes the following remarkable claim:

Despite the fact that the strength of argument is clearly on the pro-life side—nobody except a handful of academics would question the grave wrongness of abortion were pregnancy never inconvenient—somehow ordinary intelligent people, like our students, often remain unconvinced.

As Ayer might have put it, there’s a normative claim and a factual claim here. And they’re both wrong. I’ll leave the discussion of the normative claim to the experts. (Take it away, 617 Bloggers!) But what of the factual claim, that nobody except academics would believe abortion is permissible if it were not for the associated inconvenience? Is this true?

Well, Pruss charmingly gives no evidence whatsoever for his claim, so I’ll guess it’s just basically anecdotal evidence. So I’ll offer my competing anecdotal evidence. Anyone who wants to substitute actual evidence should feel free to do so.

In my experience, the ‘convenience’ argument for the permissibility of abortion is more persuasive among men than it is among women. Pro-choice women are more often moved by arguments to do with autonomy. And by this I mean not just arguments to do with bodily autonomy, narrowly construed, but to do with the right to control fundamental aspects of one’s life, such as if and when one will procreate. (I seem to recall Liz Harman had some good discussion of this point somewhere, but I can’t find the relevant paper online.) You can sort of test for this by getting people’s reaction to the use of ectogenesis as an alternative to abortion. I think that many, if not most, pro-choice men think that there would not be a right to abortion if it were possible to (relatively painlessly) remove the foetus and have it grow in an incubator and be nurtured by adoptive parents. My impression is that relatively few pro-choice women (even non-academics!), think this possibility would be a sufficient reason to ban abortion. But if Pruss’s assumption were correct, they all should find this a compelling reason to introduce a ban, because given this possibility there need not be the ‘inconvenience’ of pregnancy.

As I said, I don’t have the actual data at my fingertips to support all my assertions here, but if anyone knows where to find relevant data, the comments section is open!

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 12:19 pm

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What’s in a blog?


One of the other points that struck me about John Quiggin’s response to the Sinnott-Armstrong’s Stanford piece was that it was the first time I could recall someone treating the Stanford Encyclopaedia as a blog. That is, someone (quite properly) treating what it says as contentious rather than authoritative, and responding to it in ‘real-time’. This all seemed perfectly natural, as soon as it was done. The Stanford Encyclopaedia is a kind of carefully written (large) group blog. That got me thinking about other sites which could well be regarded as blogs.


I seem to recall that a while ago I used to read all sorts of blogs that didn’t update regularly, but the updates they had were usually careful and well thought out. Blogs that emphasised quality over quantity. I still read lots of high quality blogs, but mostly they tend to be fairly high quantity as well. (And I read plenty of low quality high quantity blogs. Gotta keep up with the competition.)


Maybe, though, I do read the high quality low quantity blogs, I just don’t think of them as blogs. For instance, one could well regard Geoffrey Nunberg’s home page as a blog, with the entries being the frequent NY Times and Fresh Air pieces he posts. Today’s entry is on whether there is a word for ‘compromise’ in Arabic, and what we might think about those why deny such a word exists. Geoff’s entries are not that infrequent. He posts something every week or two, which is helter-skelterish by academic standards, and given that the entries usually involve actual research, it seems reasonable to count it as an exemplar of the quality over quantity blog I was discussing above.


Another page like this is Shawn Fitzgibbons’s blurbs page. (Shawn is a philosophy grad student at UMass.) I didn’t agree with several of Shawn’s conclusions, but again it’s an example of a site updated reasonably regularly (one entry per week on average this year I guessed) with more careful thought than you’ll see on some blogs.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 12:01 pm

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I still haven’t got around

I still haven’t got around to writing my intended post on consequentialism (a follow up to John Quiggin’s post attacking Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s entry on consequentialism in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). But I was interested to see that some of the issues at issue here came up in an online debate about the virtues of a trade the Red Sox made yesterday. (Sending over-rated third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to Arizona in exchange for vastly under-rated sidearmer Byung-Hyun Kim.) One of the issues that arose in the on-line discussion of the trade here was what we should conclude about the merits of the respective General Managers involved in the trade if, contrary to everyone’s expectations, Hillenbrand outperforms Kim over the next few years. The consensus was for an anti-consequentialist (antecedentalist?) position – what matters for assessing the quality of the decision the two GMs made is the reasonable expectation of their performance, and that if Hillenbrand does outperform Kim, it will be more plausible to conclude that this was due to dumb luck than skill on their part. Of course, it’s an internet based discussion board, so the level of discourse soon degenerated to somewhere below the bleachers at Wrigley, but I thought it was cute that philosophical issues could arise so quickly in a baseball discussion. (And I just wanted a chance to gloat about the Red Sox making such a great acquisition.)

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 11:07 am

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29 May, 2003

Kai von Fintel just pointed

Kai von Fintel just pointed out that I got mentioned in the Chronicle’s article on weblogs. I’d like to point out that of all the blogs they discuss, I have by a bit the lowest readership.


If I knew I was about to get press coverage I’d have been more careful with some recent posts. I do note in the posts below which entries contain less than the minimum 5% philosophical content required by law to count as a philosophy blog post.


Neil Levy alerted me to an error in the papers blog. A little coding mistake had led to the last two days updates not being published. I fixed this, but now there are two posts listed for Thursday, not one. There are ten papers and assorted reviews that I should have linked to in the last two days. Hopefully the links are now active. Sorry for the delay in this.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 9:54 pm

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LanguageHat reports that a computer

LanguageHat reports that a computer program has been developed that can tell with 80% accuracy whether a given text is written by a man or a woman. LanguageHat (is that a male or female name, and could the program tell) is impressed by the results, though s/he is rightly very suspicious of the stereotypes the programmers used in building the machine.


If the results are good, shouldn’t that be enough? Maybe not. I’m always reminded in these cases of Daniel Hausman’s little refutation of Friedman’s instrumentalism: Why Look Under the Hood?, just about my all-time favourite philosophy paper. Here’s a bad way to judge the quality of a used car: drive it around the block a few times and see if anything goes wrong. That’s not a useless test. After all, you’re testing whether the car does what you eventually want it to do. But we know in practice it’s much better to look under the hood, and see how it’s doing what it does. (If you disagree, contact Hausman – he’s got some great cheap cars to sell you.) Hausman argues that the lesson generalises. Some theories do well for a while by luck, or because they have only been tested in areas for which they were specifically designed. Looking forward, and outward, it’s more important to know how they get it right than that they get it right.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 4:29 pm

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The philosophy papers blog is

The philosophy papers blog is up, with five new papers, three of them from the hard working staff at CAPPE. I think CAPPE needs its own group blog, sort of a cross between Philosophy from the (617) and TAPPED.


I managed, while convincing myself I had not missed the bus, to find a better analogy for how voluntary I think beliefs are. It is impossible to sneeze at will. At least, I can’t do it. I could at will use external means to induce a sneeze, but that’s not the same thing. On the other hand, it is sometimes possible to prevent oneself sneezing more or less at will. It’s not always pleasant, but if the alternative is sneezing loudly across a seminar room or a dinner table, it may be the right thing to do in the circumstances. The sometimes is important here – sometimes the relevant parts of the body are not suitably responsive to the will. But sometimes they are, and that’s enough to make one (mildly, occasionally) culpable for sneezing loudly while, say, a visitor is presenting a paper. I think beliefs are similar. The standard methods for inducing reasonable sceptical doubt – reminding oneself of the possibility of error and of alternative explanations of the evidence, recalling times when similar evidence was misleading, and so on – sometimes work. They are sometimes enough to stop the body drifting towards the belief it wants to have. And when an agent does not use such methods in a circumstance where they would have been appropriate, s/he may be culpable for the resulting beliefs. The analogy is imperfect in a few ways – it doesn’t allow for possibilities like my positively believing against all the evidence that my bus would soon be arriving – but it’s close to what I think the most common interaction is between belief and the will.


I should have mentioned some credits in last night’s post. The link to Charles Murtaugh’s “worst. post. ever.” was by Matthew Yglesias. The comments on his post have a rather large collection of candidates for worst movie ever. And the link to the Andrew Sullivan fantasy was via Ted Barlow. (I also should have mentioned that one further similarity between Australia and rocky Ithaca – both seem to be good places for raising sheep in very large quantities. I’d go back and add that now, but blogs aren’t meant to be edited.)


I hadn’t quite noticed how self-indulgent some of the ‘jokes’ were there when reading it. I knew that practically every line was a joking reference to some event or book or theory that would not be obvious to most readers. What I forgot was that several of the jokes were me making fun of something I’d thought earlier in the night. (As noted, I’d managed to go through some moderately spectactular doxastic gymnastics en route to Providence.) Some of those references are transparent enough to be effective, but others are completely obscure. (Well, except to me. And a Ulysses themed post is meant to be self-indulgent a bit.) I guess it’s all more evidence that I should stick to my day job.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 2:20 pm

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She was One in a Million


I managed to miss the bus I was meant to catch home tonight from South Station. Things didn’t turn out too badly. There was a still later bus I could, and did, catch, so I just got home a little later than expected. I had hoped to write some philosophy for the blog when I got home, but given the time I think I’ll have little time to write much more than the story of my trip home.


I don’t really know how I managed to miss the bus in question. It was, or I guess it must have been, just a few metres from where I was sitting. I was reading a newspaper and listening to a CD, but I thought that I would have noticed an interstate bus arriving just near where I was. Apparently not, it turns out.


For a while after it was perfectly clear that I’d missed the said bus, I managed by sheer force of will to believe that (a) the bus was somehow running late and (b) all the people who seemed to have been waiting for that bus had caught some other bus, or walked off to get Dunkin’ Donuts ‘coffee’ or had been vaporised by a passing spaceship or something so© I hadn’t really missed the bus. Obviously that wasn’t a state of mind that a reasonable person could maintain forever, so after a few minutes, by which stage it was abundantly perfectly clear I’d missed the said bus, I stopped believing the bus would still arise. But my willpower was still strong enough for me to keep holding it as a live possibility that (a) the bus was somehow running late and (b) all the people who seemed to have been waiting for that bus had caught some other bus, or walked off to get Dunkin’ Donuts ‘coffee’ or had been vaporised by a passing spaceship or something so© I hadn’t really missed the bus. It was remarkable, if I do say so myself, just how long I was able to maintain this state of mind. Of course at the time I thought it was the most natural thing in the world.


From now on I’m not going to bother seriously arguing for doxastic voluntarism. I’m just going to ostend my period of not believing I’d missed the 1am Providence local, and the even more remarkable period of believing I had not missed it, and point out that if those events existed then doxastic voluntarism is true. And since I was there I’m pretty sure the events did exist. Though, I did manage to miss the nearby presence of an interstate bus, so maybe I’m not the most reliable source about who really was there. So I’d understand if you, dear reader, doubted my account of the events. You’d be wrong, but I’d understand.


It isn’t surprising in general that I’d miss a bus from South Station to Providence, especially after midnight. It’s not uncommon for me to be catching that bus after a drink or two, and sometimes after a couple of drinks I’m not the most alert person in the world. What is surprising was that tonight was when I missed the bus. It wasn’t that I hadn’t touched a drop all day, not by any means, but for a temporal part of Brian located in South Station after midnight I was positively sober, as judicious as (a) Hooker. (That joke is awful on so many levels I don’t know where to start – ed. In that case you’re probably going to dislike the next fifty jokes, because this post is about to turn positively catachlyseimic.)


Why did Brian’s situation at the bus station remind him of Bloom?


Both of them had missed an intermodal transfer late at night. In both cases this led to minor inconvenience, but not to any catastrophe.


What were the differences between Bloom’s situation and Brian’s?


Brian missed an embarkation, Bloom missed disembarking. Bloom was on a train, Brian was meant to be on a bus. Bloom was going to an area of ill-repute, Brian was leaving South Station for Providence. Bloom had been drinking heavily.


Why was Brian pleased to see a comparison between himself and Bloom?


Because Bloom is Everyman, the übermensch for non-English English speakers. Bloom is curious, thoughtful, loyal, principled, industrious. And at the end of the day, he gets the girl.


In what respects was the comparison between Brian and Bloom flawed?


It is essential to Bloom’s character that he not see himself as a character in a novel. Such self-comparisons are better suited for one like Bloom’s friend Stephen.


What is the relationship between Brian’s age and that of Bloom and Stephen?


It is equidistant between Bloom’s age and Stephen’s. If all three were twice as old as they actually are, Brian’s age would be equidistant between Bloom’s age and Stephen’s. If all three were nine years older than they actually are, Brian’s age would be equidistant between Bloom’s age and Stephen’s.


Before Brian missed the bus, what story was suggested as being suitable for TAR?


A prominent garden statist lover of wisdom self-ascribed authorship of a semanal nominal modal book.


Was the self-ascription correct?


No. It was laughable, inadvertant, accidental, Freudian, forgiveable.


What was the highlight of the show at the Paradise Rock Club on May 28?


A quartet featuring a vibraphone and three players on a glockenspeil.


Could the instrument a trois have been instead a second vibraphone, a xylophone or a camel?


Visual evidence was insufficient to determine whether it was a glockenspeil, a second vibraphone or a xylophone. Auditory evidence would have been sufficient to determine this had circumstances for processing the evidence been ideal and the processor sufficiently knowledgable. Both visual and auditory evidence confirmed that the second instrument was not a camel.


Are temporal parts the right category of thing to be drunk or sober?


No. Only fusions of past and present temporal parts are of the right category to be drunk or sober. A temporal part may be the truthmake for the claim that a particular past-present fusion is drunk or sober. Fusions of past, present and future temporal parts are never drunk or sober, but are sometimes hungover.


What albums did Brian listen to in transit between Boston and Providence?


Sleeping with Ghosts by Placebo. Elephant by White Stripes. Rings Around the World by Super Furry Animals.


How good were these albums?


All were excellent albums, but none were better than earlier works by their respective artists, some critical opinion to the contrary.


What is the worst. blogpost. ever?


Charles Murtagh’s post that The Usual Suspects is the worst movie ever.


Is it really worse than Andrew Sullivan’s MoDo/Raines post?


There are several perfectly good transcendental arguments that that post could not, and hence does not, exist.


If Brian’s short-term journeys resembled Bloom’s, which other literary character did Brian’s longer-term journeys resemble?


Odysseus. Both keep trying to return home, even when Fate sends them to circumstances that many objective observers would decree better than a simple return to home. Brian has a comfortable, high-pay, low-work, low-stress position at a prestigous university. Odysseus twice lands on islands with beautiful nymphs with lovely braids, the second of whom offers to make him immortal.


What differences are there between Odysseus and Brian?


Odysseus is a war hero, a champion athelete, and crafty. Brian is a philosopher.


What differences between Odysseus’s voyage and Brian’s?


Providence, RI does not resemble Circe’s island, or Calypso’s. Australia does not resemble rocky Ithaca. Brian will not be killing any suitors when he returns home. Brian gets to visit home during the voyage.


What are the striking differences between Providence, RI and the islands on which Odysseus stays?


Those islands contain beautiful nymphs with lovely braids. Providence, RI reveals no distinctive sign of supernatural inhabitants.


What are the striking differences between rocky Ithaca and Australia?


Ithaca is largely barren, while Australia is, at least along the seaboard, incredibly fertile. It produces grapes, people and ideas in high quality. (Though some of the people who grow the ideas often have odd, even defective, ideas about personnel. It is unknown whether the people who grow the grapes have a similar shortcoming.)


What are the striking similarities between rocky Ithaca and Australia?


Both are islands. Both are far away from those travelling in distant lands.


Why will Brian not kill any suitors when he returns home?


The moral injunction against killing. The legal codification of that moral injunction. The absence of any suitors.


When will Brian next visit home?


Leaving Monday June 2, arriving Melbourne June 4, leaving Melbourne July 1, returning July 1.


Will the philosophy papers blog be updated in his absence?


Yes. Paul Neufeld, who runs ephilosopher, will run the papers blog while Brian is away.


Will TAR be updated while Brian is away?


Yes, but not as frequently as it is updated while Brian is in America. And there will be fewer links to other sites, since Brian spends less time internetted in Australia than he does in America.


What effect will this have on philosophical productivity around the world?


Several competing models have been advanced in this area. One school of thought is that long interrogative posts on TAR have effectively removed all the audience, so it will have no discernable impact. Another school is that the time freed up from TAR-related procrastination will lead to a huge productivity rise. A third school says that there will be a rise in output, but 120% of the new output will go on other blogs, leading to a net reduction in non-blog philosophising.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 5:11 am

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28 May, 2003

I mean to think more

I mean to think more about this later, and if I come up with anything write about it, but for now I just want to post a link to John Quiggin’s follow-up to his earlier post on consequentialism. A large part of the post consists of criticisms of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s entry on consequentialism in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. There’s some interesting questions here on the (rather large) boundary between economics and philosophy, which I’ve long though should be one the most productive areas for interdisciplinary work in philosophy.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 4:56 pm

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The philosophy papers blog is

The philosophy papers blog is up, with five new papers on metaphysics, the knowledge argument, and legal and political philosophy.

Posted by Brian Weatherson at 12:31 pm

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