Friday, December 24, 2010

Moral epistemology in action

When we went out for drinks after I presented "The epistemic argument for hedonism" at ANU, Dan Korman and I both demonstrated our favorite ways of forming beliefs about the good.

Dan is using rational intuition to reach into Plato's heaven and grasp the Form of the Good. I'm using phenomenal introspection on my experience of pleasure to recognize its goodness.

Thanks to Jo Lau for taking the picture.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A while ago, I recorded a philosophy podcast with Luke Muehlhauser on Possible Girls, the Humean theory of motivation, and my version of hedonic utilitarianism. He's gone to the trouble of transcribing the whole thing so anyone interested can click over there and read it or download it to listen as you please.

Luke has been doing this sort of thing for a while with lots of philosophers (including ethics people Stephen Finlay, Don Loeb, and Ruth Chang) and he asks good questions.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Down Under in December

I'm going Down Under in December! The philosophical agenda looks like this:

December 2: presenting "Zarathustra's Metaethics" at UWA.

December 5-9: attending the AAP New Zealand and presenting "Why My Pants Are Not Subject To Requirements Of Rationality."

December 16: presenting something at ANU. I've been wavering on what to do.

(Then: fun exploring the Great Barrier Reef with Dan Korman, and maybe hanging out with some wonderful folks in Brisbane.)

The schedule is a bit lighter than last December, when I gave 8 talks in Australia and NZ. That's mainly because I've spent a lot of this semester polishing up old papers into talk form and sending them out.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Farewell, Philippa Foot

Just as I was preparing a lecture on her "Utilitarianism and the Virtues," I heard the news that Philippa Foot passed away. She was 90 years old. I wish I could've met her. (Longtime readers of this blog will remember a cheeky song dedication to her.)

Last night I was looking over the paper and enjoying the liveliness of her writing. In reading her, there's a feeling of interacting with a complete human being that I often don't get when reading philosophy.

I really like the picture on the right, taken in the early 1940s. I imagine that she's just heard somebody present a view, and she's about to respond. I want to hear what she's going to say.

Friday, October 01, 2010

I think in acronyms

When I saw the title of Brian Leiter's post, "National Association Representing Computer Scientists Denounces NRC Rankings", I wondered if that was actually the name of the organization. They would then be the NARCS.

As it turns out, the association is actually called the CRA.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I review Robert Pippin's new Nietzsche book in NDPR

It's a harsh review. I'm going to step back and say some things about why it came out this way.

In retrospect, being a reviewer rather than just an ordinary reader made reading the book an especially painful experience. The book is very unclear, often with very different directions in which each bit of unclarity could be resolved. If there are 2 ways to read each unclear bit, and n unclear bits, you end up with 2n possible interpretations. (A lot of the unclear bits admit of many more than two possible interpretations, so really it's more.) Trying to live up to your obligations of charity as a reviewer and figure out which of this huge array of different interpretations is the best one is exhausting. An ordinary reader can just shrug, say it's unclear, remember the bits he liked, and forget the rest. But a reviewer has to correctly describe the view to everybody.

Usually things wouldn't be this bad. The organization of the book, perhaps, would enable one to slice down 2n to a manageable number, perhaps by isolating separate elements of the position. But the book is very disorganized. As far as I can tell, the clearest expressions of the positive view are scattered throughout middle parts of late chapters.

It wouldn't be so bad either if the differing interpretations had substantial and distinctive virtues. If you're a connoisseur of philosophical positions, which is a good thing to be in our profession, you might enjoy savoring each one. Instead, I spent hours and hours figuring out which of a large range of yucky views I had to attribute to Pippin. It was a miserable, frustrating experience.

I met Pippin at a conference a few months ago. He's a nice man, and he was nice to me and one of my graduate students. I think of him without any negative emotion, and I don't want my review to cause him anguish. (I don't expect it will -- I'm sure he's doing well enough for himself to shrug off a harsh review written by some guy on the other side of the world).

But insofar as this makes any sense, I'm angry and resentful towards his book for the misery it inflicted on me. As I wrote I wanted to avenge myself against it, and rescue readers from it, by making its faults clear so it would be avoided by all and honored by none. If there are points in the review where you're wondering what emotion drove me to write as I did -- well, that's the feeling.

Monday, September 27, 2010

PhilosophyTV with Jason Brennan

I'm on PhilosophyTV with Jason Brennan of Brown University! The first half is him talking to me about his argument that the right to vote and the right to hold office aren't really valuable to the individuals who hold them. I found a surprising amount to agree with in the argument, at least once his conclusion was spelled out narrowly enough.

Unfortunately my computer isn't able to display video properly for some reason, so I haven't watched the finished product yet. For anyone who does: Assuming that the PhilosophyTV folks didn't get horrified and edit them out, I can promise you some silly visual gags in the second half of the video. I think I started them at some point after 35:21 when I start the segment focused on my work, which is the epistemic argument for hedonism.

If I can figure out how to embed the video properly, I'll post it here too.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Desire-Belief Account Of Intention Explains Everything

That's the new paper I've uploaded. I'll be submitting it somewhere by the end of the month, just in case some folks I sent it to want give me feedback before then.

I'm looking at a bunch of the things that the desire-belief view of intention supposedly can't explain -- for example, our tendency to rise in confidence that we're φing when we intentionally φ, our ability to choose which of several reasons we act on, and the stuff Michael Bratman describes in his 1987 book mostly dealing with the ability of intentions to explain deliberative phenomena. I argue that the view in fact explains all this stuff, often better than opposing views, because it can tell you why these phenomena obtain and say something about why, in some cases, they don't.

The title is kind of big and in-your-face because I got really annoyed with how casually the desire-belief view gets dismissed for supposed explanatory inadequacy. People didn't think seriously about functional properties of desire other than its motivational effects (and sometimes not even those) when dismissing it. My friend John Maier told me when I was giving a talk on something else at ANU in December that nobody accepted the view anymore. This got me really motivated and I gave talks at KCL and Tufts and Illinois and UChicago and Illinois State defending it this summer. If you're interested in intention, have a look and tell me how well I did!

Monday, August 09, 2010

The regress argument against understanding philosophers

Via Brian Leiter. The argument proceeds from the premise that to understand any philosopher, you have to understand the philosophers who influenced him/her. This pushes you back down the history of philosophy until there's nothing you can write a good dissertation on after Aristotle. (People in well-funded doctoral programs might be able to make it up to Epicurus.)

Obviously things aren't that bad. The big point to be made here is that it's impossible to produce work that comes from a perfect knowledge of everything. You pick the things you're going to be really good on, and you're going to be mediocre at some other stuff. Some of us are going to know Montaigne and we'll be able to understand what Nietzsche is saying about him, and what that means about Nietzsche. Others are going to know metaethics and we'll be able to characterize Nietzsche's metaethical position in more precise terms. Maybe imperfect knowledge of the areas we're not expert in will impair our efforts. That's why we talk to each other.

Also: I admire philosophers who do interdisciplinary work that engages with the humanities and social sciences. There's lots of bad philosophy out there, and the world seriously needs philosophers who have the intellectual ability, patience, and academic social skills to help people there see that their (often very worthwhile) projects shouldn't be shaped by bad theories.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Video up soon

I just did a diavlog (I think that's what we're calling it) on hedonism about value with fellow hedonist Ben Bradley of Syracuse. It went really well, and I look forward to putting it up here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


It's finally done! Not just this summer's philosophical travel (8 talks, 4 conferences only one of which I was speaking at) but everything from the big grant I got in early 2009. In total, I got 25 talks out of that pot of money. Things went well, but I'm feeling pretty tired right now.

I'm going to be roving around the UK for the rest of July, writing and sightseeing. Then I return to Singapore.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Remaining summer schedule

I've been remiss in not posting about where I'd be traveling. Here's the agenda ahead:

Now until June 26: Austin, TX
June 26-29: NYC
June 29-July 5: DC
July 7-9: Southampton, UK (Nietzsche's Postmoralism conference)
July 9-12: Dublin (Joint Session)
July 13: Giving a talk in St. Andrews
Until August 1: Bumming around the British Isles in some way or another until I fly from London to Singapore.

So far I've given 6 talks: at KCL, Tufts, Illinois-Urbana, UChicago, Illinois State, and Northern Illinois. I also attended SLACRR, which was great.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Habermas interview

I don't know a lot about Jurgen Habermas' philosophical views, but I'm impressed with the thoughtful and sensible answers he gives when asked about contemporary political issues.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Things you learn while grading exams

From a delightfully digression-packed essay on John Mackie's argument from relativity:
Anyway, back to monogamy, at some point humans become monogamous. It may have been brought about by natural selection processes that favour our species (a human is likelier to shoot you for sleeping with someone else, perhaps? than an animal would kill its mate → not just because animals have no firearms & excluding the likes of black widows that devour their male companion for nutrition after creation. More sensibly, the formulation of settlements and organized living would decrease the pool of mates met.)

Thursday, May 06, 2010


I was looking up the spelling of paraphernalia, and I discovered the historical meaning. Old views of gender and property rights are really strange.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

No open question argument here

From political reporter Glenn Thrush:
Generally, hiring one’s relative is illegal. Among the 27 relative designations listed in the federal law regarding nepotism and hiring, however, "grandson" is not mentioned.

So Moore, who makes a six-figure salary working for his grandmother, is just fine, ethics-wise, according to an ethics lawyer contacted by POLITICO.
Legal text from the House of Representatives ethics manual follows.

I guess people in politics needed a term for obeying laws that prohibit certain self-serving abuses of power, and "ethics" was closest to hand. But I hope that they're still aware that one can obey these laws and still do grossly unethical things, in the sense of what's really right and wrong.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bloggingheads and hedonism

I was on Bloggingheads recently with Jesse Bering, a psychologist. They've got the whole thing divided up into nice bite-sized pieces on the Bloggingheads site. Or you can watch it below.

A lot of the first part of the video deals with this paper I'm writing that defends universal hedonism. After doing the diavlog (that's what they call them), I suddenly realized that it would get people wanting to download the paper, and now I've spent a couple days frantically revising it. So if you're wondering how the heck the arguments I offer little pieces of in the video can possibly work, here's the paper! I'm probably going to do a couple more little revisions soon, but the big stuff is in there.

This is my first time doing this sort of thing on video, and I'm still learning how to do it. One thing I'll keep in mind in the future is to keep my eyes on the camera rather than in my lap when I'm talking. Another issue is that I'm good at talking about my research with philosophers, and I've gotten reasonably good at talking with ordinary people, but I don't really know how to pitch things to psychologists. Especially when I'm talking to a psychologist on video in front of an educated lay audience.

Jesse is writing a book on religion from an evolutionary psychology point of view. The biologists I've known in academia have been fairly skeptical of the whole thing and it's rubbed off on me, so we had a bit of a methodological dispute about how much you can get out of evolutionary psychology. That's a lot of the end part of the video.

Big thanks to David Killoren, who's a Wisconsin philosophy grad student and Bloggingheads associate editor, for setting this up.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Color analogies in metaethics

I'm trying to put together a list of people who have analogized morality to color in defense of one metaethical view or another. The best example I know about is John McDowell in "Values and Secondary Qualities." Geoffrey Sayre-McCord briefly uses the analogy in a defense of nonreductive realism in "Moral Theory And Explanatory Impotence." And in old times, there's Hume, who wrote, "Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compar'd to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind."

Does anybody else spring to mind?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My Humean reason-choosing post at PEA Soup

The nice folks at PEA Soup invited me to their blog more than a year ago, and I hadn't put up any posts yet. So I've done a big one over there on how Humean views of motivation can explain the choosing of reasons. Feel free to comment here if you're afraid of going up against the Reason-Fu of terrifyingly skilled top ethicists in comments over there. Or for any other reason.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Norms of democratic representation

I've been reading political scientist Jonathan Bernstein's blog lately, partly because he's been an excellent predictor of what was going to happen with health care reform. He was able to keep the political actors' incentives in mind a lot better than most people and especially news-of-the-day-obsessed pundits.

Anyway, he has an interesting view about how norms of representation work in democracy, and I wrote a big post on it at the other blog.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Matt's top ten

I've been reading Matthew Yglesias since 2003, and he's been a huge influence on my political views. He studied philosophy at Harvard, and he just put up a list of the ten books that had the most influence on him. Reasons and Persons is at the top. Lots of other interesting things there too. As somebody who teaches philosophy, it made me happy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Your intention is _____

When p is the case and you believe that p, we say that your belief is true. When p is the case and you desire that p, we say that your desire is satisfied. When p is the case and you intend that p, what do we say about your intention?

"Your intention is true" sounds bad. "Your intention is satisfied" sounds a lot better, though I think I'd say "Your intention is achieved."

I don't know how much weight this should have in getting us to prefer accounts on which intentions are desires to accounts on which intentions are beliefs. But it seems to me that it has a little bit of weight.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Supervenience, Australian and American

Do Australians and Americans tend to use the term "supervenience" in different ways? The way I've heard Aussies (and honorary Aussie David Lewis) use the term fits the characterization in the Stanford Encyclopedia: "there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference". But I've heard some Americans use the term to mean something that adds a conjunct to make supervenience something much stronger: "there cannot be an A-difference without a B-difference, and A's aren't reducible to B's." Were these Americans just being weird?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Back from India

It was good! If you haven't been to rural India and are curious, I have a big post here with lots of photos and it might interest you.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In India

I'm flying out to India tomorrow. Most of next week is going to be spent in rural West Bengal, where there will be many cows but probably no internet. I'll be back around February 21st or so.

We're not really sure where Mom's village, Bikrampur, is on Google Maps. But our guess is that it's somewhere here. Dad's village, Kadakuli, is about two miles northwest. If you happen to be in town, come by and say hi!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Not the best way to criticize Kant

I like my Kant-bashing as much as the next utilitarian who defends the Humean theory of motivation and works on Nietzsche. But this really isn't the best line of attack:

In his latest title, Lévy launches a scathing attack on the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, calling him “raving mad” and a “fake”.

The book, De la guerre en philosophie (On War in Philosophy) , has been greeted with the customary rapture, and its ubiquitous author has been a fixture on television and in the press all week.

In framing his case, Lévy – BHL to the Parisian cognoscenti – drew on the writings of the little-known 20th century thinker Jean-Baptiste Botul – author of The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant , and a man Lévy has cited in lectures.

The problem? Botul never existed. He was invented by a journalist from the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné 10 years ago as an elaborate joke. And since the hoax was revealed, BHL has become a laughing stock.

“As it turns out, it was a hoax,” admitted the author in a blog post after the blunder was spotted by a journalist from Le Nouvel Observateur .

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Claire Danes on Jonathan Dancy's leather pants on Craig Ferguson

Claire Danes spent several minutes discussing her father-in-law, Jonathan Dancy (of particularism fame), on Craig Ferguson's show!

Dancy was on my dissertation committee. He read my dissertation and let me know that it was done. That was very helpful, especially coming from an opponent of my view.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Korsgaard, Yawgmoth, and personal identity

In “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit,” Christine Korsgaard writes:
It is, I think, significant that writers on personal identity often tell stories about mad surgeons who make changes in our memories or characters. These writers usually emphasize the fact that after the surgical intervention we are altered, we have changed. But surely part of what creates the sense of lost identity is that the person is changed by intervention, from outside. The stories might affect us differently if we imagined the changes initiated by the person herself, as a result of her own choice. You are not a different person just because you are very different. Authorial psychological connectedness is consistent with drastic changes, provided those changes are the result of actions by the person herself or reactions for which she is responsible.
She then states the broader thesis that these reflections serve: “the sort of continuity needed for what matters to me in my own personal identity essentially involves my agency” (123).

However, drastic changes that are fully intended consequences of one's own agency can similarly disrupt one's personal identity. Consider the following story:
Yawgmoth was the cruelest of demons, and he liked tormenting the damned. But his greatest wish was to leave Hell and wreak horrible misery upon the happy people living above. He knew why no demon had ever done such a thing – the gates of Hell were enchanted so that only a creature of pure benevolence could exit. So he learned how to make a potion that would wipe all the malevolence from his mind and replace it with benevolence just for one minute, allowing him to leave and then become cruel again. He poured it into a goblet, strode to the gates, and drank.

But what happened then? Having become a creature of pure benevolence, he recoiled at the horrors that the living would endure if the cruelest demon of Hell was among them. Instead of passing through the gates, he ran back into Hell. And wishing to spare even the damned from the torments of a furious and frustrated Yawgmoth, he bravely pulled a cleaver from the hands of another demon, struck off his own head, and perished.
Intuitively, Yawgmoth becomes a different person after drinking the potion, no less than Dr. Jekyll or any victim of a mad surgeon. That he intends this change and is responsible for it does not make him the same person before and after.

This is not to reject Korsgaard's broader thesis that personal identity has some interesting esential relation to agency. Nor is it to say that intentionally causing the changes in oneself is wholly irrelevant to personal identity – just that it is one among many more or less significant sorts of psychological connectedness.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

What are they doing to KCL Philosophy?

I presented my defense of universal hedonism at King's College London during June of last year. Question and answer period there was one of the most lively, stimulating, and productive sessions I've ever had. A couple of the faculty came out for coffee afterwards, and my only wish was that I could've talked with them longer.

That's part of why it's astonishing to hear about the people losing their jobs there. You don't usually hear about this kind of thing happening at top departments. Shalom Lappin and Charles Travis, in particular, are big people who have continued to be very productive researchers.

Update: Here's a letter and petition for friends of KCL to sign.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Violating duties to yourself is hard

I'm not big on duty, but I think that people who are would consider this a generally plausible principle:

Conditional Release: If A has a duty to B, B can conditionally release A from that duty by choosing that A act otherwise, rather than fulfill the duty. Then if A acts otherwise and does not fulfill the duty, A has not violated the duty.

Now what happens in the case of a self-regarding duty, where you are both A and B? Then you can choose to act otherwise rather than fulfilling the duty, and when you do it, you haven't violated any duties. So it's pretty hard to violate duties to yourself.

Maybe there are some duties for which Conditional Release doesn't hold. Maybe I have a duty not to kill you, and you can't release me from it. Then you could still get a duty not to commit suicide. And if you can violate duties without making any choices, perhaps by falling asleep at an unfortunate time or forgetting about them, this won't get you off the hook for those duties.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Frege-Geach whiteboard

I have a whiteboard in my office. I've used it three times over the 18 months or so that I've been here. Each time was to draw up the Frege-Geach problem for students.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Do a whale's hip bones have a function?

I think the right answer is 'no'. (So says this evolution website: "These bones resemble those of other mammals, but are only weakly developed in the whale and have no apparent function.") They had a function for whales' ancestors who walked on land in the distant past and needed hip bones for their leg bones to attach to. But lacking legs, whales have no use for hip bones, rendering these structures without function in the present.

This is a problem for evolutionary accounts of function. On these accounts, the function of the whale's hip bones is something like connecting up with the whale's leg bones. That's because evolutionary accounts of function are historical. On such accounts, the selection pressures that caused a particular part to exist are what gives it its function. I'm fine with saying that whale hip bones had the function of connecting with legs in the past, when they were in whale ancestors who had legs. They just don't have it now.

Maybe we could build a better account of function by looking at the way that some part relates to an animal's present interests. This gives many of the same intuitive answers as to what the function of a particular part is, but it deals better with vestigial structures that have lost their function. I don't see any reason why the function of some part needs to connect to the process that produced it -- natural objects that we find can be put to some purpose, and thus acquire a function. If I find a bunch of rocks and use them as ballast in my submarine, their function is to add weight so that the sub will go down, even though that has nothing to do with the process that produced them.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Dolphins Are Smart!

Being a longtime cetacean fan, I'm excited to see these scientists (and a philosopher) saying dolphins are smart enough to have some of the rights we accord to persons. All popular science article warnings apply, but there's a pretty good roundup of their cognitive abilities at the linked article.

Assuming that humans don't screw things up by killing ourselves or the dolphins, I think there'll be a time when humans can engage in much fuller communication with dolphins than currently possible. We'll probably need some really crazy neurotechnology to make this work out, but I think humans will eventually put that together given enough time. When it happens, it'll be one of the coolest things our species has ever done.