Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Rational Action

Just some ideas on what rational action consists of.

When we talk about free will, rational natures etc, all  that we require is a responsiveness to reasons. (All though I do not necesserily concede the impossibility of supernatural libertarin free will)

1. From the previous post, Rational action is driven by universalisable maxims.

2. Similar reasons for acting yield similar actions. i.e. Treat like cases alike - The principle of procedural justice. This says nothing as to what are the relevant bits of information that go into how to treat a case.

3. Treat two cases differently only insofar as the two cases are relevantly different. This is the principle of proportionality. We should not treat two slightly different cases very differently from eachother.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ideal Agent Approach

In this post, I will try to briefly outline this approach to ethics. This will be stated in point form

1. There are many entities that give reason to act. Value is one but there are possibly others. In general, let us call them maxims. (Note, we use the word more broadly than Kant did)

2. It is only rational to act on true maxims. False maxims do not provide any reason to act.

3. Ideal agents will act only on true maxims. They know what the true maxims are. They know what duties we have, what it means to be perfectly virtuous etc. This supposes that imperfect agents can act on false maxims.

For example, we can conceive of cases where imperfect agents like us desire things that to an extent that exceeds how much value they have to us. Or we desire certain things insufficiently. Addiction may be an example, where we desire something in excess to how much value it provides. e.g. desiring cigarettes in excess of the pleasure that they provide.

Note: This means that we may have to reject notions of value where somethings are valuable merely because we desire them, we always desire things which are valuable to the extent that they are so, and that value and desire have nothing to do with eachother.

4. An ideal agent is logically possible. 

Some things have to be said about this agent. For starters, the agent has perfect judgement, and is not limited by others. i.e. if an agent sets his mind to a logically possible goal, there is no reason why the agent does not achieve that goal. i.e. he is nomologically omnipotent.

5. A society consisting only of ideal agents is logically possible.

This has to be argued a bit. For  a start, it would seem odd if a society of perfectly virtuous people is not possible. From a perspective of reasons, if X is the ultimate reason to act, then X must be true for any and all agents. i.e. there should be no reason as to why any ideal agent cannot act from X. This is especially true when the agent is among other ideal agents. (As opposed to a situation where a virtuous agent is among malevolent agents who may be able to block the agent''s actions etc).

6. Maxims, which all ideal agents cannot act on simultaneously, cannot be what truly give reason to act. This follows from 5 as such a maxim which all ideal agents for some reason or another cannot act on cannot truly contain the ultimate reason from which to act.

7. The maxim must also be able to retain its meaning under universalisation.

For example, a pro thievery maxim would be incoherent as theft contains meaning only with respect to property rights. However, under universal thievery, there are no meaningful property rights. Therefore theft is unacceptable.

8. Given 2, 6 and 7, rational action by any agent is constrained by a filter. To qualify as rational, an action must be such that its driving maxim is universalisable.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Essay: Consequentialism And Value

The following essay pretty much is a restatement of my post Consequentialism (2): On Value. It is more precisely stated, and there is an interesting bit I want to develop towards the end.

Consequentialism and Value

Consequentialism simply is the theory that the only relevant considerations when making a moral evaluation are the consequences of the action, motive, rule etc depending on whether we are talking about act, or rule, or motive consequentialism. Its attraction lies in the intuition that it is a good thing (or at the least not impermissible) to make the world a better place. The aim of this paper is to propose that such an intuition is not as justified as it appears. Making the world a better place is not something that is easily defined. Once we start asking in what ways the world can be made better, it seems that we come across a problem of metrics. By what measure/metric do we judge that the world is better or worse? Another way we could say this is: what is the standard of value? Different consequentialist theories give different accounts of what is valuable. However, most of the classical consequentialist theories like utilitarianism propose that value is agent-neutral. 

Much has been said about agent-neutral value (of which some of the arguments may be repeated here) such that it is often plays a role in the many criticisms of consequentialism. One criticism is that many of our moral intuitions require a theory that incorporates agent-relative elements (Portmore, 3,2001). For example, it seems that we ought to avoid murdering an innocent even if it will prevent the murder of two innocents. Douglas Portmore argues that it is not necessarily the case that consequentialism involves agent-neutral value. He proposes that consequentialism can incorporate agent-relative value. I will try to show three things in this paper. First, I will show that agent-relative consequentialist theories are subject to a reductio. Then I will argue that agent-neutral value is under-motivated. Finally, I will argue that the limits of a theory of value suggest a move to deontological ethics.

Value, according to Scanlon, is simply that which gives us reason to act. The questions to be asked, of course, are “what type of value?”, and “what type of response. If we are rationally required to do that which we have most reason to, then we are rationally required to maximise value. Following this reasoning, consequentialists can be said to apply the basic principle: “Act so as to promote value”. It is Portmore’s contention that the agent-neutral / agent-relative distinction is not the same as the consequentialist / non-consequentialist distinction (Portmore, 11, 2001). Hence, it is possible to have a theory where an agent can value his own commission of one murder far less than he does the commission of a number of murders by other people. 

There are a number of things wrong with this. The most obvious criticism is that there is no hard and fast rule about how the two balance out. (Portmore, 19, 2001) Portmore actually argues that the balancing point where the value of ‘not being a murderer and a number of people being murdered’ outweighs the value of ‘being the murderer who murders one person’ is different for different people. Nominally, this point could be anywhere. Taken abstractly, there is no reason why any particular person may not set the threshold at one; i.e. he or she places a positive value on being the murderer. Hence, in some ghastly macabre version of Amartya Sen’s Prude and Lewd, our sadistic Prude would be morally obligated to be the murderer whenever he encounters a situation where an innocent would be murdered anyway.

Portmore says that this objection would be true only under particular theories of value where the value of the state of affairs is dependent on the agent/evaluator’s subjective desires (Portmore, 15, 2001). What type of desire independent, agent-relative value could there be? Portmore seems to be talking about cases where the facts of what happened may be agreed upon by two people but their evaluation differs and both are still correct in their evaluation. For example if A lets the murder of five others take place by refusing to murder an innocent, A will evaluate himself as doing the right thing while a third party C would evaluate A as have done wrong. He justifies the move by using the sunset example (Portmore, 19, 2001). At a particular point in time, the statement the sun is setting is true for someone standing at the east coast of the US but not at the west coast. Hence, the truth value of a factual issue is dependant on the location of the observer. The example is problematic in that the two situations seem to be disanalogous. In the sunset situation, the position of the sun in the sky at any point in time is necessarily dependent on the position of the observer on earth. This would necessarily have to be the case given the shape of the earth and the fact that light travels in a straight line. However, it does not seem to be the case that morality is such a creature that A’s moral judgement of a situation, could be different from B’s of that same situation and yet, both be right at the same time. It is not enough that A judge that it is wrong for A to murder in order to prevent five other murders. A must not only judge it impermissible when A murders one to prevent the murder of five others, but also judge it impermissible when B does the same thing. However, Portmore’s agent-relative consequentialism does not deliver this.

One curious aspect of consequentialist notions of value and the good are that they are not desire dependant. In order to avoid the nihilistic conclusion that it is right for one to do as one desires no matter what that desire is, consequentialists have often moved towards agent-neutral value. This seems to make sense in that agent-neutral value is definitely desire-independent. However, this seems to conflate agent-relative value and desire dependent value. But, is this conflation justifiable? One could ask, in what way does an agent/evaluator say that A is a better state of affairs than B? A would be a better state of affairs than B if and only if A was greater than B along the dimensions X, Y and Z, where X, Y and Z are the only dimensions along which it makes sense to measure the state of affairs. i.e. X, Y and Z are final goods and are the measures of value which all other measure are dependent on. To take the example of utilitarianism, let pleasure be the good. In what sense is pleasure valuable? It seems to be that pleasure is valuable in virtue of its desirability for its own sake.  

Actually, I have made an assumption here. There are actually three possibilities, only two of which can hold in order for the last sentence of the previous paragraph to make sense.
1. Pleasure is valuable only because it is desirable
2. Pleasure is valuable because it is desirable, but things may be valuable for other reasons as well.
3. Pleasure is desirable because it is valuable.
The first two statements pertain to what is under discussion in the previous paragraph. The third possibility will be dealt with later in this essay. The problem then lies with whether anything other than its desirability can make something valuable. If something is not desirable, there seems to be no reason to pursue it. The only way it could be a conceptual truth that value is what gives us reasons to act is if value is desire dependent. This means that we should be sceptical about the existence of desire independent value. This would apply equally to agent-relative desire independent value as well as agent-neutral value. This seems to provide a strong argument against consequentialist ethical theories.

The consequentialist could however argue that pleasure and other final goods are desirable because they contain value. This would put value as a constitutively basic concept, with desirability as the epistemic process by which we access value. If desire is an accurate epistemic guide to what contains value, then we are still reduced to pursuing only what we desire. If we, however, propose that our desires are not accurate guides to identifying what is valuable, how do we know what is valuable? Perhaps an idealised evaluator’s desire would track value perfectly. This would change the syllogism to: do what an idealised actor has most reason to. However, this still poses an epistemological problem. We seemingly have neither access to the desires of an idealised actor (excepting religions which state that God, the idealised actor has revealed his preferences in their religious texts), nor any desire independent access to value. We are therefore unable to really decide whether any quality is really valuable in any desire independent manner. Hence it seems that the only coherent notion of value has to be intimately tied to desire.

How about the maximisation of preference satisfaction? If we find that only the satisfaction our personal preferences and desires are valuable, then shouldn’t we aim to maximise this? No, we only value the satisfaction of our own preferences and only have sufficient reason to satisfy our own, not other’s preferences. But it is not clear that we care about everybody’s preferences, maybe just our own and our loved ones’. Therefore, according to the consequentialist framework, there seems sufficient reason to maximally satisfy our own desires but not other people’s. This is unsatisfying in a moral theory as a moral theory must at the very least conform to some basic intuitions like: it is immoral to kill innocent strangers.

One of the basic flaws in the consequentialist formulation is that while values do give reasons to act, they are not the only things that do so. One way of remedying this is to add in Ross’s list of prima facie duties. These prima facie duties are supposedly self evident and in themselves give reasons to act. Hence, some ad-hoc theory which incorporates both prima-facie duties as well as values that are deemed to be self evident would work. However, Ross’s duties are subject to the same criticism as consequentialist value in that there is no way to independently verify that these values or duties exist. 

Another approach is to consider higher order reasons that would order an agent’s desires. If we take higher order reasons into account, we may be able to find a way to decide what type of desires an ideal agent may act from. Consider an idealised agent in a polity consisting of other ideal agents. If such an idealised world is to be logically possible, then, an idealised agent would not choose any desires which would destroy another agent. For if our idealised agent was to act from those desires, then all other agents would also act from those desires and they would surely destroy themselves. Of all the desires, duties and values that any common agent can have, an ideal agent can only act from those desires which would leave our thought experiment logically possible. If we are to act only the desires and duties that an idealised agent could have, we have higher order reasons to choose such desires. These higher order reasons are prior in consideration to the first order duties and desires as, without them, we would incorrectly choose the reason giving forces from which to act. When phrased in the context of non-ideal agents, these desires, values and duties, maxims, if you will, must be universalisable. This principle could be formulated as such: Act only on maxims which can be universalised. This bears much similarity to Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it becomes a universal law” (Kant, 15, 1785) Hence the categorical imperative is a formal basic principle that is prior to other substantive maxims.

To summarise, we have explored various notions of value and concluded that the best notion of value is a desire dependent, agent relative one. Moreover, since this notion of value is unsuitable to a serious consequentialist ethic, a move to Kantian ethics was made using an idealised agent approach. Kantian ethics, however, are a deontological ethical system. Further criticism of this system is the work of other papers. More work can also be done in justifying the ideal agent approach to derive the categorical imperative.

Kant, Immanuel - Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott
Portmore, Douglas W – Can an Act Consequentialist Theory be Agent Relative? American Philosophical Quarterly 38 (2001): 363-377

I will indeed wish to say more about this ideal agent apprach in future posts

Quest for moral Excellence: Essays

In some of my future posts, I plan to put up essays that I have written for public viewing. The essays were assignments for the module, The Quest for Moral Ecellence. They are more technical than my usual posts. People are free to read them and comment if they want to. I'm putting them up because they go through various arguments in extensive detail which I may want to state more simply later on  in htis Blog. They are also there for public reference. Enjoy

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Public Goods

I think this article by Will Wilkinson makes lots of sense. Here is an excerpt:

Anyway, not to rehearse Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but I think the prospects for avoiding something like a state are slim. And I think it would be better to design a democratic structure in advance, rather than morphing into a neo-fuedal landlord/tenant model of territorial governance, or trying to cobble together an adequate constitution when the original system starts to break down. Of course, the point of the DIY frontier for its present advocates is precisely to demonstrate that society without politics is possible. So to recommend a democratic constitution at the outset is just to express pessimism about a project meant to show this pessimism unfounded. And why argue when you can experiment? Let’s do the experiment!

Now, as I’ve argued before, I think the anarchist is right about the minarchist: once you accept the public goods argument for state protection of various rights, you have accepted that there are no fully voluntary solutions to certain collective action problems, and you’re logic-bound to ride the public goods argument as far as it takes you, which is further than the minarchist thinks. And you have accepted that it is possible to justify a break from a full consensus or unanimity rule. You’re going to have to settle on a collective decision procedure that can determine what is and is not going to count as a public good, how much it will cost to pay for these goods, what the scheme of public finance is going to be, etc

So, if we can justify a slightly more than minimal state using deontological constraints, I'll be happy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Economic Fallacies

This is a small detour from the current thread of consequentialism and ethics in general. Below is an intelligent conversation  between Will Wilkinson and Joseph Heath. Will's site is quite brilliant and I reccomend you visit it from time to time. Will, of course, does speak in an American context, but he says lots of interesting things. His liberaltarian effort (A sort of fusion between modern american liberalism and libertarianism) basically aims to put together a sensible version of classical liberalism: Free markets as well as concern for the weakest among us. In terms of policy prescriptions, Singapore just requires a few steps to get there.

1. On the Gay issue, go the whole way. Repeal Section 377A, allow gay marriage as well as allow gay couples to adopt. This unfortunately is a source of shame in Singapore. Other modern industrial countries are debating about whether to legalise gay marriage or already have done so, but we are still arguing about whether to legalise gay sex. 

2. There are other not so obvious changes. Some relaxation of government control of certain things may be good too. For example, taxi fairs etc. I'm not sure whether it counts as a public good or not. I'm also not sure how well the public goods justification of the state works from a deontological standpoint.

3. Notice I've said nothing about National Service. Unlike most of the Singaporean bloggers out there, I actually think that we can make a good deontological case for NS. If that is the case, I can make a good case for some welfare provisions too.

4. Singapore has also a good distance to go on issues of freedom of speech etc. OB Markers being the elephant in the room. OB markers kind of make sense if they are measures to incentivise responsible speech. However, they are just tools that the government can use to prosecute us if we criticise the government on certain controversial issues. Singapore society is not so fragile as to require a complete moratoriam on thediscussion of certain topics like Gays and Religion by the public.

5. There are other private organisations which government can also butt out of. It is not seemly that there is a government presence in certain seemingly private organisations.

6. Relax immigration restrictions. Liberalise immigration rules as well as wrok permits. The only people who should be kept out are known criminals and terrorists and maybe given the times, people who are extremely likely to be either of the above.

Now, lets return to the main programming of the day. Will often does these diavlogs on called Free Will. This particular conversation was actually recorded on April 4th but was posted April 30th. The conversation covers a number of things about economics an other stuff and is very informative. We ought to be having more of these kinds of conversations in the blogosphere. Conversations that go beyond the level of GP essays and Chee Soon Juan screeds. Anyway, on with the show

Reply if you've got anything in response to the above.