Monday, January 31, 2011

Resilience to counterfactuals

One project that I have been pottering away at recently is an attempt to cash out what could be meant with something like Phillip Pettit's theory of 'freedom as non-domination' (meaning that we are free to the extent in that we can do what we go about our affairs without the arbitrary intervention of another party). To do so I develop a framework for highlighting some important modal considerations that are involved in our political deliberation. One of the dimensions on which we evaluate courses of action is on how likely they are to achieve their aims. I believe that we could provide a framework, perhaps even a semantics, of this evaluative dimension. My proposal is to discriminate amongst courses of action according to their 'resilience to counterfactuals' (as I call it), meaning the range of contingencies wherein they would succeed. One course of action is more resilient to counterfactuals than another if there are more possible worlds (within some specified degree of similarity to the actual world) where that course could successfully be pursued. The idea is that this might be a useful way to articulate how we distinguish between secure state of affairs and precarious ones – in the secure state of affairs, there are more contingencies in which we can accomplish what we might set out to do. Secure state of affairs lead to plans with greater resilience to counterfactuals.

An application of the project, a straightforward and I hope informative one, is that it would allow us to discriminate between the status of different political rights based on how secure those rights are (meaning, how resilient to counterfactuals they are). I also think, and am willing to defend, that considerations of this type is one of the reasons why political rights are such a central feature of our social lives (and would be even if there were no natural rights): legal protections of those kind cut down the range of contingencies that you need to secure yourself against, and thus gives you a greater safety margin within which to deliberate towards your chosen end.

This approach has important advantages over the decision-theoretic approach for judging among possible courses of action. Attempts to do feasibility studies in the usual decision-theoretic way -- looking at the probability that certain situations would arise, assigning outcomes to the situations and deriving their expected utilities -- run into serious problems, given that the result of such studies depends on what people intend to do, but that people very often radically change their courses of action given the circumstances. This means that you have to redo the feasibility study for each change in plan of anybody in the environment, leading to a combinatorial explosion of things to consider (if re-doing the sums is even possible at all), very quickly making the results of such a study intractable. The resilience-to-counterfactuals approach handles this feature of situations much better, since the fact that there are a number of different ways someone could try to achieve their goals is a premise of the analysis.

There is more to be said here, like how a formal semantics for such a framework might look -- a possible-worlds semantics is very suggestive here, but there are kinks to work out. I also want to see how this compares to other approaches in the literature. I have a decent idea of how it relates to Pettit's proposal, but given the influence of the 'freedom as non-domination' theory, there is a lot of different ways this gets cached out in the literature. One development in particular I want to take a closer look at is Dowding and Van Hees on 'counterfactual success', which seems similar but importantly different. There is also the question of how much we can conclude about some particular plan's resilience to counterfactuals. If A has a plan to acquire X that is relatively resilient to counterfactuals, does this have significance beyond just that particular plan? Does it tell us something about all A's possible X-involving plans? (I would hope so.) Does it tell us something about A's security in general? Or, perhaps only of A's security in his or her X-involving domains. (What is an X-involving domain, then?) These questions are so suggestive to me that I've proposed this as a possible PhD project. However it might turn out, this is something I've spent some time thinking on in the past, and I'm likely to keep coming back to this issue for the foreseeable future.


  1. A quick skim through some of Dowding and Van Hees' stuff makes me think of Jackson's "robustness" criterion for conditionals, as did your concept of "resilience". He spells it out primarily for indicative conditionals, but "a right is violated if the ex-ante probability of performing acts that fall under the right of that kind does not fall below certain thresholds" sounds a lot like Jackson's version of Adams' conditionals - Jackson kinda merges Adams' probability model for indicatives with Lewis' counterfactuals.

    Robustness/resilience of conditionals is also a key theme in my stuff, so I'm interested if you find any good papers on it.


  2. Hi Andrew, the Dowding and Van Hees stuff is the most interesting (for my purposes) I've seen so far. In fact, when I first saw it I thought I might have been scooped! But no, they're doing a slightly different approach for a rather different problem. I'll check out Jackson on this issue -- I didn't think to look at any of the philosophy of language on counterfactuals/indicatives, and maybe that was an oversight.

    I'll tell you if I find something else.