Monday, August 2, 2010

If there were a market in organs, we would be obligated to trade on it

I'm participating in a debate on the goodness of markets for the trade of organs on the Practical Ethics blog hosted by the University of Oxford. Nicholas Shackel has made a case that such a market would only be a benefit. Simon Rippon has objected that such a market would give rise to social obligations to make use of the market even when doing so would harm you. Shackel has responded that talking about such social obligations is unwarranted, because at most there would be an expectation to trade on the market, but never an obligation. I've chimed in and made use of David Lewis's work in Convention to show that expectations do sometimes lead to obligations, and it would in the case of a trade in organs (and, in fact, in any legitimate market).

Shackel believes that a market in organs would be a good thing, even for the poor people who are most likely to be the ones selling organs, because it allows the buyer to gain a kidney, greatly extending their life, and the seller to make a lot of financial headway. He describes this as a win-win situation. But believing that this is a fair trade is exactly which leads to there being obligations to trade on the market, as Lewis's framework shows.

A quick, simplified gloss on Lewisian conventions: there is a convention to do C (and we should do C rather than not) when almost everybody expects people in the relevant circumstances to do C (and expects people to expect doing C), prefer doing C given this expectation, and would prefer some other action C* if almost everybody expected to do C* instead. This gives rise to straight-forward obligations because when I act against these expectations, I frustrate everybody's ability to co-ordinate towards mutually preferred ends. This is all pure game theory to this point, so I don't expect you have much to object to here. So, for the organ market case, it would go: for any legitimate market, I expect that trading occurs on that market and I prefer there being trade on a market over no trade (otherwise there wouldn't really be a market), which covers the 1st and 2nd conditions. If there were no market, or if it were banned, I prefer no trade on it, like I do for the market for hard drugs or illicit weapons (the 3rd condition). Because the three conditions are met, there is a convention to trade on the organ market. Thus, if I am in the relevant circumstances -- needing money and having something to trade on the market -- there is a convention to make use of the market, and an obligation to do so, otherwise I am arbitrarily frustrating people's attempts to reach the type of scenario Shackel describes as win-win. But this means that a market in organs leads to at least some obligations.
Shackel is committed to this result exactly because he describes someone improving their economic condition through organ trade as a win-win situation. To deny that somebody would prefer trade to non-trade (denying the 2nd condition I outlined above, and the only plausible response) would mean denying that such an exchange, even at full market value, would be fair, and that would be to deny the good of the organ market. Shackel makes the claim that we have second-order norms on the fairness of expectations which would stop exploitation, and such norms are certainly present and in effect. But for there to be such norms describing even trade at full market value as an unfair expectation would mean that there are constraints on the fairness of trade which goes beyond what determines fair market value. Those of us who are more skeptical of the goodness of such a market have that option available to us, but Shackel does not.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Formal Methods in Political Philosophy

On the off-chance that there is somebody reading this who doesn't already know about it: the political philosopher Robert Wolff is running a very detailed serialised introduction to game theory and related fields here. Wolff is very much a skeptic about most of the uses that people try to make of formal methods in political philosophy, especially about the simplifying assumptions that are made without due comment, and applying theorems and models outside of their proper scope.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The moral life of babies?

In the New York Times magazine a psychology researcher, Paul Bloom, has published a report of research into some signs that very young children show some inklings of a moral sense, distinguishing between mean and nice actions and preferring the latter to the former.

I'm afraid I can't agree with Bloom's conclusions. The article gestures at psychological research which shows that babies sometimes predictably and spontaneously behave in ways we'd expect moral beings to. There are two large problems it doesn't address: which responses are supposed to count as moral and why; and, how the sentiments which underlie the babies' actions are supposed to relate to morality as a whole.

On the first point: why should we take those baby responses to be moral ones? For instance, the studies record the babies' interests by tracking their eye movement. But by that measure, babies prefer human faces (and other objects) with symmetrical features, or anthropomorphic figures to non, in just the same way they prefer 'nice' to 'mean' actions. You and I know that the first group are aesthetic rather than moral preferences, but we have reason to believe the babies don't (and no reason to believe otherwise). Making these types of distinctions is crucial to moral action (though we need not conclude from that, as many have, that moral preferences have no links to non-moral ones). Secondly, whatever morality is, it is not just the expression of sentiments. There are sentimentalist moral theories which are serious candidates (Michael Slote's comes to mind), but even in them there is a lot of ground to cover between having a sentiment which is broadly compatible with moral action, and having a moral life. For one thing, there must be some way to seperate the appropriate sentiments from the inappropriate ones. And we have no reason to believe that children, even well past infancy, are able to do so.

The conclusion that there is some, if even a rather impoverished, moral life at work with babies is likely to be a case of the over-analysis of results. The quickest way to point this out is to gesture at a confusion and its converse. It is a mistake to believe that if babies (or anyone else) doesn't have a moral life, properly construed (whatever that turns out to be), that no action they take would be moral. This is like believing that because dice themselves can't know or care how they land, they will never roll the numbers we like. The article goes the other way: because babies act in ways we see as moral, they actually are moral, at least in some way. But it is quite likely that babies would occasionally do things we would look upon as moral, even do so reliably and spontaneously, for reasons of their own. That is, for non-moral reasons. And that possibility is never discussed in the article.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Racial tensions on the rise in South Africa

Keep an eye on South Africa for the near future, because racial tensions are on the rise. Today saw the murder of EugĂ©ne Terre'blance, the leader of the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging - Afrikaner Resistance Movement), the largest political and paramilitary organisation of the far-right, white-supramecist fringe of SA politics (recently re-activated). I won't be shedding any tears for him – even under apartheid SA, he became a figure of ridicule in the mainstream, his movement clashed even with apartheid-era police and in the late 90s was jailed for assault and attempted murder on two blacks – but this bears watching. He was apparently beaten to death in his sleep by two blacks, on his farm. This touches a few sensitive issues for Afrikaners: firstly, for years there has been an endemic phenomenon of white farmers, still a heartland consituency of Afrikanerdom, being murdered on their farms, sometimes including torture and the murder of very young children; secondly, the leader of the ANC's youth wing, Julius Malema, has recently though well of it to resurrect violent chants like 'kill the Boer [white farmer]' and accordingly as been found guilty of hate-speech, causing huge public controversy. Malema is a major public figure, and considered by many to be a possible future leader of South Africa, and his vitriol towards non-blacks (predominantly, but by no means exclusively, whites) is a major sticking point in current SA politics. Terre'blanche's support is more vocal than widespread, though it must be mentioned that it has mobilised violently before, once to spectular effect, and once in bloody farce. But the major danger of this episode is as a bellwether, or as something which causes the lines of racial conflict to again be drawn across my homeland.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thomas Hobbes on climate change

Which is the cause, that the doctrine of Right and Wrong, is perpetually disputed, both by the Pen and the Sword: whereas the doctrine of Lines, and Figures, is not so; because men care not, in that subject what be truth, as a thing that crosses no mans ambition, profit, or lust. For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any mans right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, That The Three Angles Of A Triangle Should Be Equall To Two Angles Of A Square; that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of Geometry, suppressed, as farre as he whom it concerned was able.
Leviathan, Chapter XI

This incidentally, is also Thomas Hobbes's view on the debate surrounding evolution.

I'm no climate scientist, and I have no special reason to believe that the orthodox view in that field, that our planet is experiencing anthropogenic climate change, is correct. But I do note that the interests of the skeptics in climate science are pretty narrowly focussed, and incidentally, focussed on exactly those parts of it which interferes with the interests of people outside of the science.

What is suspicious about this is that the results in favour of anthropogenic climate change is part of a normal science: they have been spit out as part of the business as usual of a research programme, and fits in place with the other aspects and results of that normal science. For instance, pronouncements on anthropogenic climate change depends on tracking the greenhouse effect, of  measuring the role of carbon in said effect, of tracking climate change over time, etc. None of these things have been questioned by the climate change skeptics, except to the degree necessary to deny anthropogenic climate change. And that's strange, from a scientific point of view. It isn't quite that all these things stand and fall together, but they definitely are interlinked. But public interest in the field extends exactly as far as its results impact business as usual outside of climate science. And that arch-cynic Thomas Hobbes gives an indication of what to expect in such situations.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Metal interlude - The Headbang Riff Force Scale

Bolt Thrower has given the world many great things: a succesful marriage of Napalm Death-esque grind and heaviness and head-bopping riffage; unabashed, even triumphant, links with hobby wargaming and other ostensive displays of geekery; albums like Mercenary (listening to which gave birth to this post) showing that they are much more than a novelty band as it thrashes all and sundry without making use of a ludicrous (and ridiculously awesome) fantasy backdrop; and the greatest live photo of all time (which I respectfully reproduce above). Because there are so many dimensions to their staggering (literally) achievement, I have drawn up the following measure (based on the Beaufort Scale for wind speed), based on the impact of the sound waves on the listener. In the future I can perhaps point to this scale as a way of indicating how much some album rocked my boat, but now it should suffice to say that Mercenary encouraged me to draw it up. Even while sitting down and typing this out the music hit force 10 quite often. These are conditions not to be trifled with, and I humbly submit this dispatch from the front lines. This story must be told.

The Headbang Riff Force Scale

Force 0 (Silence): No sound.

Force 1 (Light sound): Ambient sounds in background.

Force 2 (Light melody): Discernable musical structure to sounds in background.

Force 3 (Gentle melody): Music with clear structure in background.

Force 4 (Moderate melody): Music listened to with attention.

Force 5 (Fresh theme): Music is met with approving nods.

Force 6 (Strong theme): Music is met with repeated bobbing of head to the beat.

Force 7 (Heavy theme, moderate riffing, near metal): Listener actively and energetically bobs head to the beat, tapping bodily extremities in time.

Force 8
(Metal): Listener ceases all tasks except for energetically bobbing head to the beat, or percussively marking out time in some other bodily fashion, giving full attention to the impact of the music, may casually throw the sign of horns.

Force 9 (Heavy metal): Listener is engaged in headbanging behaviour, may energetically throw the sign of horns, starts grimacing, pursing lips or holding some other abnormal facial expression, entirely given over to the riff.

Force 10
(Storm, fucking metal): Headbanging is so energetic the listener might bump into stationary objects and struggle to keep balance, or is accompanied by simultaneous throwing of horns or tense arching of fingers towards the chest while grimacing in an exaggerated manner.

Force 11 (Violent storm): Listeners behaviour is so energetic as to seem to disregard personal safety, as in apparently intensionally bumping into objects with some force, slinging head in a distressing manner, or fixedly staring ahead with battered consequence as the body gets rolled around by the riff force.

Force 12 (Hurricane force): No further thought is given of continued existence past that off the riff, displayed either by the greatest extremes of headbanging behaviour, like throwing oneself off of heights, into crowds or into solid structures, or by standing transfixed by the force of the riff, showing traces of panic or relief but solid in the belief that this is the inevitable and appropriate sign of the end times to come.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Swanton - A Virtue Theoretic Account of Right Action

There's too little philosophy on here at the moment, despite the fact that what keeps me from updating this blog is all the philosophy I'm doing out there in meat space. Here's a small something I did in the course of the programme I'm in: a summary of one of my favourite ethical articles, Christine Swanton's 'A Virtue Theoretical Account of Right Action' (Ethics 112 (October 2001): 32–52, ).

During my time as a philosophy undergraduate at Auckland I came to understand that the normal textbook portrayals of virtue ethics are terribly insufficient. On most accounts, virtue ethics is supposed to be not about what you do but what kind of person you are. That's complete nonsense, of course. To paraphrase Mary Midgley: to do something based not on what the situation demands but merely in order to not sully your own character is far from admirable, but frivolous and narcissistic. If virtue ethics really were about being and not doing, it would make its adherents all be guilty of crass inconsiderateness. And the theory is certainly better than that. The mistake the common 'being not doing' characterisation of virtue ethics makes is that it makes the virtues to be about a person, whereas they obviously should concern people's relationship to their situations: honest people respond to questions with earnestness, to deceipt with distaste, and so on.

What I like about Swanton's paper is how clearly and powerfully it addresses that relationship between the person and the situation, and what the virtue- and vice-terms say about that situations. Swanton isn't the only virtue ethicists to get this right, of course, but I like the way she addresses it.

She tries to give us criteria for acting rightly as follows: “(1) an action is virtuous in respect V (e.g., benevolent, generous) if and only if it hits the target of (realizes the end of) virtue V (e.g., benevolence, generosity); (2) an action is right if and only if it is overall virtuous.” She presents this 'target-centred' approach as an alternative and in contrast to Rosalind Hursthouse's 'qualified agent' approach (which is what Timmons discusses), wherein we can identify right actions by considering whether a virtuous person acting in character would do them, and Michael Slote's 'motive centred' approach, where an act is right if it comes from virtuous motives. How her approach differs from the other two is that she teases apart 'acting from virtue', where you act with the same motivations, emotions and perspective as somebody with the virtue would, and 'virtuous acts', which are when you do what the virtue demands of you (hit the target of the virtue). For her the right acts are the ones that manage to do the just, honest, benevolent, etc, thing, whereas the good ones are those you do out of justice, honesty, benevolence, etc.

Even if we don't end up agreeing with Swanton, the article is interesting and worthwhile in a few ways. Most importantly, the distinction between acting from virtue and virtuous acts helps us to understand exactly what virtues are and how they're supposed to help us make the right decisions. Virtues are dispositions of character – the way somebody might characteristically respond to their circumstances – which includes what they see in a situation, how they feel about what they see, what they are motivated to do and what they aim for in those situations. Acting from virtue is to act based on all of these internal states, that is, to have that virtue during acting. However, you can do something with the same effect as someone who has a virtue without really having it: for instance, I can do something kind even if I am not by following the prompts a kind person gives me. This example of kindness would be a virtuous action, but it wouldn't be acting from virtue. A virtuous act, like the example, would be one which hits the target of the virtue: nurturing the well-being of the person I'm tending to, or however you want to put it. It is worth noting that the distinction between acting from virtue and acting virtuously isn't one of getting everything internal to yourself right versus getting everything external right, since the target of a virtue might sometimes be internal to yourself, like courage where you need to control your own fear and confidence.

The example of somebody doing the right thing by imitating somebody virtuous is an example where you act virtuously without acting from virtue. You could also act from virtue without hitting the target of the virtue. For instance, I can have all the relevant internal states but not the necessary knowledge about the circumstances to do what is appropriate, and thus my actions in such a situation won't be virtuous. This is a problem to both the qualified agent and motive centred approaches, since they concern themselves only, in some way, with acting from virtue. So, if we think that an action having the appropriate effect is important to it being a right action, we need to consider the targets of the virtues if we are to make use of them in action guidance.

Swanton's paper gives an admirably clear and comprehensive discussion of what a target-centred approach to virtue ethics is and why we should pursue it. We don't need to decide now whether the other virtue ethical approaches can take up Swanton's challenge: that would be a very involved discussion which goes somewhat further into the detail of virtue ethics than we need. For our purposes, though, it is very worthwhile to see how the virtue ethical approach is different from the others we've studied. As Swanton shows, using Pettit's distinction between promoting and honouring goods, we can see that virtue ethics isn't consequentialist, not even a target-centred version. This is because an act must hit the target of every virtue in play in a situation, thus you can't rightly do something vicious but must keep your hands clean. Swanton mentions that deontology typically doesn't distinguish between right and good acts like she does, where it is possible to do every good thing you can and still not do what is right. For a deontologist to say this would be to say that you can follow every rule and law and still miss the right action, which isn't something they could admit. There are other differences as well, but this will do us for now.