Suggested readings, #89

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Why you make so many wrong decisions. And why it doesn’t matter. (Medium)

When does a human embryo have the moral status of a person? (Psyche / Aeon)

How foods may affect our sleep. A growing body of research suggests that the foods you eat can affect how well you sleep, and your sleep patterns can affect your dietary choices. (New York Times)

The Beet Paradox. Why the Australians’ peculiar love of beetroot is more than just a cultural curiosity, and puts into question basic assumptions in classical economics. (Medium)

On the moral obligation to stop shit-stirring. (Psyche / Aeon)

Published by

Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

39 thoughts on “Suggested readings, #89”

  1. 40/80 days on embryos, according to such authorities as Aristotle and “Moses.” More seriously, “interesting.” A temporary stopgap says, let’s see how often an embryo is sustained to 14 days, what works best etc. then address this more in the future.

    I’d read the food/sleep already. My Triscuits (WHOLE wheat, of course) with high-end Cheddar and Gouda are officially approved!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The shit-stirring article:

    As someone who has stuck with Virtue Ethics, I became more sympathetic to consequentialism in recent years for two reasons.

    1. Meta-ethical issues. The reasons for actions, the basis for evaluating normative claims, has to come down to non-moral feature of the world, some natural feature of human life. Just as evaluating chess moves ultimately comes down to winning the game (or enjoying it), there has to be something more fundamental to our notions of well-being, I’m skeptical of relying on “thick” moral concepts. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jeremy Bentham was both a utilitarian (however problematic his formulation) and centuries ahead of his time on a number of moral issues.

    2. Political issues. Many areas of political ethics are more de-personalized than the focus of virtue ethics. Like evaluating and advocating for certain policies or courses of political action, we all think about these things in terms of observable collective effects on society.

    That being said, I’ve recently read Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek’s & Peter Singer’s A Very Short Introduction of Utilitarianism and there was just a deep unsatisfaction, a lack of a compelling force to the whole idea. I don’t see how anyone can use this as the basis for morality, either personally or politically (and you can detect the authors’ own struggle with their position, they claim utilitarianism may require a form of self-effacement that occasionally needs to rely on other moral philosophies).

    There’s something wrong there. Julia Evans’ Virtue Consequentialism & Douglas Portmore’s Common Sense Consequentialism are more interesting to me for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find consequentialism unappealing for the same reason you bring up after reading Singer, and also because it is eminently impractical: there is no way that we can have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of our actions, so judging their morality after the fact is a non starter, in my opinion.

      By contrast, virtue ethics puts the emphasis squarely were I think it belongs: on intentions and character. I’m aware of the “it doesn’t scale up to the polis” objection, but I’m not sure what one means by that. Our laws are informed by the intentions of the legislators, not by the (not easily predictable) consequences they will carry.

      Like

    2. Yeah I think I lean more towards consequentialism after your comment.

      Yeah life is difficult to live because we don’t know where actions will lead us, that’s why we learn and adapt. Both from our own lives and the wisdom passed down by our communities and writers. That doesn’t mean consequences aren’t a guide.

      Laws are clearly not informed by the intentions of our legislators, because throughout history, popular movements have forced legislators to adopt them. And even then, the legislations that have successfully passed were often not the ideal policies, but the best the movements have been able to push forth. The outcome affecting people’s lives were better than what we have for, why else would we design and formulate policy? Those are clearly consequentialist considerations.

      Like

    3. I think you may be laboring under a common misconception: that virtue ethicists don’t care about consequences. We simply acknowledge that consequences are difficult to predict, that outcomes are not under our control. Hence the focus on intentions. Of course intentions aim at certain objectives and not others.

      As for your point about legislators and popular movements, it does not affect my point at all. Fine, laws are passed because of the intentions of both legislators and public pressure.

      Like

    4. Right, virtue ethics has room for consideration of consequences. As Rosalind Hursthouse says, none of the 3 big moral theories completely leaves out virtues, consequences, and duties, the question are matters of centrality, what are the deep down reasons for our actions. My comments were responding to the reasons you brought up about why consequentialism is unconvincing, reasons that I found unconvincing. Like Virtue Consequentialism advocates developing our virtues, but we do that “because” that’s the most predictable way in which we bring about improvements in human lives throughout society, and that final end is how we adjust what we consider good or bad character traits.

      I think we act the way we do because a lot of outcomes are under our control. That’s why empirical evaluations have an impact on which choices we make, how wisdom improves throughout the ages. I mean if we live in a world where the consequences are so chaotic that much of what we intend to do leads to bad results under a consequentialist framework, yeah that wouldn’t be the real . (and you can surely devise thought experiments where intentions and consequences are mismatched, and probably do happen in the real world now and then) But I don’t think so. There is good and bad moral advice because we see the tests. Yeah it’s difficult and not obvious, but not impossible. Small steps of understanding of moral progress.

      When talking about good and bad policies, like libertarian economic policies for an example. Do you really chiefly discuss the intentions of citizens and politicians when answering question about the morality or reasonableness of those policies? Like imagine a debate you have with a libertarian friend, or debate between politicians, or the advocacy of activists in the streets. I’ve never done that or seen anyone else do that.

      Like

    5. saphsin, I think you, like many, significantly overestimate what is under our control, and therefore, logically, discount the importance of intentions in favor of predictions of consequences. No, we don’t live in a chaotic world. But we don’t live in one in which we can confidently make predictions about what actions increase overall happiness.

      As for virtue consequentialism, in my book it’s an oxymoron, unless one simply means that we should cultivate virtue and act according to our best guesses about consequences. But that’s just regular virtue ethics.

      Like

    6. Okay let me clarify. Take your bow and example from your Stoicism book. Archers can train, choose the type of bow and arrow, and how he aims. But there’s more going on in terms of the result, we can’t control the wind and so on, so we should focus on improving our agency. Its a compelling argument for a narrowed focus in personal ethics.

      But it depends on what you meant by controlling the outcome right? It’s odd to say that the chief interest isn’t the consequence, hitting the center of the target. Clearly the result is why archers adjust their actions, and the better they have control over their actions, the better outcomes we expect, in a sense. I’d prefer to be a better trained archer than someone who got the center of the target lucky, but thats not really an argument against the centrality of consequences, that a better archer is one thats trained to get the center of target right. If that wasn’t the case, whats the meaning of being a better archer?

      Also, the questions for consequences are difficult but not impossible. I think you’re waayy understating the case in which we can make cases for better or worse actions, even if not the best possible actions. Like in chess, sure fire solutions to winning are probably not something we can figure out, not even computationally. Maybe those don’t even make sense. But avoiding bad chess moves are pretty obvious, and the better chess moves something we can figure out and work towards making. Like following Stoic principles seems to improve chances of happiness (even if that’s not the chief intent)

      At least that’s where I’m at. I think formulating a satisfying moral philosophy that comports with all of our understanding has ways to go and will take time.

      Like

    7. saphsin, you keep talking of virtue ethics as “narrow” and “personal.” It isn’t. The Stoics are cosmopolitan, and one of their virtues is justice. It doesn’t get less narrow and less personal than that.

      I never said that the chief interest is not the consequence. I said that the focus is on the effort rather than the outcome, because the first is under our control and the latter isn’t. Obviously the archer wants to hit the target, if possible.

      Equally obviously we would all prefer to be better trained archers. And that — the amount and quality of training — is indeed up to us.

      I may be understating, but I think you are way overstating our ability to predict the consequences of our action. Especially when it comes to societal-level or government policies that affect millions over a span of years or decades.

      But more crucially I think a lot of people misunderstand consequentialism. Let’s take the big one: utilitarianism. It’s point is not just that we should try to do whatever we think it’s going to work. Every ethical framework would agree with that. The point is that we should somehow engage in an hedonic calculus that allows us to take a course of action that maximizes people’s happiness. Good luck with that.

      Or, more broadly, for a consequentialist the moral worth of an action does not depend on intentions but only on consequences. This is very strange, given that the consequences are not entirely up to us.

      Like

    8. I’m not saying virtue ethicists don’t care about justice. I think a philosophical position on the nature of morality is one thing, and having good moral values and politics is another. My point was meta-ethics, not values. What are the fundamental reasons for action, the practical teleological justifications for courses of actions. This is the key part I think you’re misunderstanding to be honest. There’s a good recent paper on this “The Limits of Virtue Ethics by Timmerman & Cohen” that I’d like to discuss with you in the future if we ever get the time and chance.

      And no, I don’t think intentions matter, I’m very skeptical of intentions. Wasn’t the Stoic edict that people do things out of ignorance, not malice? Everyone acts the way to do to some degree because they think it’s the justified course of action. There are abusive parents who make their children miserable and they sincerely think they’re doing it out of love and care (Tiger Parenting), political leaders who militarily invade other countries who sincerely believe that they’re doing the right thing. It’s only when you go outside of your intentions and evaluate the results of their actions that the morality of their actions come into scrutiny.

      I don’t think I’m overstating the case for consequences. Or rather, I haven’t actually said much on this in detail so you wouldn’t know how to gauge my confidence about predicting consequences. But you do make it sound like we rarely can make predictions on consequences, which I find to be a really radical and hard to understand position. We certainly don’t act like this in real life when we make efforts to relieve suffering and treating people with love.

      I agree on the hedonic calculus thing as presented by utilitarianism isn’t practical, but maybe there’s a more nuanced position out there. I don’t think Moral Philosophy is at its end.

      Like

    9. Yes, we have been talking meta-ethics all along. I am just suggesting that virtue ethics is the best way to go if we care about moral values, including political ones. I’ll see if I can take a look at the paper, thanks.

      Intentions: it is precisely because people do things out of (moral) ignorance that the Stoics put so much emphasis on developing good (moral) judgment.

      I think anyone who takes on board the utilitarian framework is overstating the case for consequences, not just you specifically.

      Moral philosophy is very likely not at an end, but I’m not the only one to suggest that the double Kantian and utilitarian turn was a step back, not forth. See, for instance, Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness.

      Like

    10. I agree on improving moral judgment, and developing the habitual muscle to act upon them. but I don’t equate them as intentions. (maybe there’s a semantical dissonance between us, but semantics is important)

      Like

    11. Yes, there is a semantic issue at play here, probably. “Intention” in virtue ethics is not a generic “I want to do good,” but a specific “this is what I want to do and here is why.”

      Like

    12. I’m going to try add another nuance because you seem to be pushing a peculiar standard for what it means to evaluate actions by their consequences. I’m getting the impression that you interpreting evaluating actions by their consequences as holding moral responsibility for the final observed outcome. But I don’t think that’s how the semantics of evaluating consequences work, all we mean by evaluating actions by their consequences is if we have a rational basis for the contributive factor of those actions towards predictable consequences.

      So if I’m a healthcare activist, doing all the right things, and didn’t succeed in pushing my programs through because the politicians & oligarchs worked to block my efforts, being a consequentialist in your terms is implying that I’m responsible for that outcome. And based on your previous comments you seem to be saying “well that shows its not the consequence, which you can’t control, it’s the intentions of the healthcare activist that’s morally praiseworthy”

      No, if moral actions are evaluated by their consequences, I’m not responsible for that outcome, because those results were brought about by the other side, not my side. Their actions were the ones that brought about those consequences, and thus morally responsible for the consequences of their actions (blocking healthcare leading to people dying by their hand). And of course if a Hurricane hit Washington and delayed political activities, then that would also ruin the outcome, but that would just be an unfortunate event, no moral actors and thus no moral implications. But it doesn’t change the fact that activism helps increase the chance of implementing healthcare to succeed. Or if it fails, it would spur debate and shift public opinion, or some other positive effect. Those are the positive consequences of healthcare activism, and what makes those actions worth doing. That’s the moral evaluation. The final outcome not being under the full control of activists is not an argument that their actions are to be evaluated for their predictable contribution towards consequences.

      Like

    13. Again, there is nothing “peculiar” in my vocabulary. That’s exactly the way it works for a utilitarian: the morality, or lack thereof, is in the consequences, not the intentions.

      Since you are, constructively, changing tack, let me do likewise. In modern moral philosophy the emphasis is on whether an *action* is moral or immoral. Which makes little sense because actions have consequences that are outside of our control. The only thing for which we can be responsible are our intentions.

      Sure, nobody is going to blame you if a hurricane gets in the way. But you picked a conveniently artificial example. Take instead one of a number of real examples of humanitarian interventions in Africa that failed or backfired because the web of cause-effect was to complex to predict. That is where utilitarianism fails. And those cases are far from unusual.

      Like

    14. “Since you are, constructively, changing tack, let me do likewise. In modern moral philosophy the emphasis is on whether an *action* is moral or immoral. Which makes little sense because actions have consequences that are outside of our control. The only thing for which we can be responsible are our intentions.”

      If you think healthcare activism have potential negative consequences outside of our control, you should mention them. That’s why for instance, we can criticize the moral ambiguity of revolutions. Good intentions, but we have historical evidence that it tends to lead to a lot of unintended consequences and backfires. The evidence for activism for progressive legislation on the other hand, has a very positive record in history, I don’t see any reason to worry about consequences outside the activists’ control. That’s why I support them.

      I’m giving concrete examples, I’m an empiricist in nature. I don’t see any reason to adopt the principles you’re explaining here.

      Like

    15. Interesting how you, the empiricist, have completely ignored my counterexamples of a number of policies enacted by NGOs in the third world that did not work or backfired.

      You support the intentions, you cannot reasonably support the consequences, because you cannot be certain of them. But I believe we are going in circles at this point. Thanks for the exchange!

      Like

    16. “Interesting how you, the empiricist, have completely ignored my counterexamples of a number of policies enacted by NGOs in the third world that did not work or backfired.”

      I looked through the comments and you didn’t mention them. And the fact that they don’t work means we shouldn’t support those NGOs. That’s called accumulation of moral knowledge.

      And yeah I think I’ll end with my comments here.

      Like

  3. “I think you are way overstating our ability to predict the consequences of our action. Especially when it comes to societal-level or government policies that affect millions over a span of years or decades.”

    I don’t understand what you’re referring to. You don’t think we can predict the consequences on human lives from libertarian policies to be worse than social democratic ones? Why do you support one over the other than?

    Like

    1. That’s way too broad of a statement. And even there we would have to see which libertarian and which social democratic policies we are talking about.

      Like

    2. I agree with libertarians on police for instance, but it’s clear I’m talking about economic policies such as welfare state, regulation of business, labor policies and so on. There’s overwhelming evidence that Reaganite policies produce more suffering and Scandinavian countries’ economic policies producing less of it (non-economic issues like social issues is another story) I think my biggest disagreement with you (and my biggest confusion) on this thread was that said its not the effects of these policies for why we should support them, but the intentions of the people supporting them.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. You keep drawing too sharp a distinction between intentions and policies, as if somehow oppressing and exploiting people could be the result of good intentions. It isn’t.

      Like

    4. [“Intention” in virtue ethics is not a generic “I want to do good,” but a specific “this is what I want to do and here is why.”]

      Of course there’s a “here is why” included, intentions are about something, not just an arbitrary expression of emotion. But all I care about is the “why” part. Why do I oppose bombing a country, because I don’t see people not to blow up. Why do I support universal healthcare, because I don’t want people to not bury family members for being denied curable treatment. Those are the real reasons, the “why” part. Emphasizing intentions is extraneous, unless you’re arguing for significance of the not-why part, the “I want to do good” The mental states of activists and politicians is not why I think progressive policies are good, the intentions are irrelevant.

      Now of course, I think the advocacy of policies and citizens pushing for them and politicians adopting them will change their moral behavior for the better, developing better virtues. But that’s just another “why” Intentions have nothing to do with it.

      Like

    5. How is emphasizing intentions extraneous? You have given a number of examples of intentions, and those are the only things for which you are completely responsible. Whether you succeed in achieving universal healthcare is an open question. And whether universal care will turn out to have the effects you hoped for is also an open question.

      And in my mind you got the causal chain exactly reversed: it’s not the advocacy of good policies that turns people virtuous, it is because they are virtuous that they advocate good policies.

      Like

    6. “Whether you succeed in achieving universal healthcare is an open question.”

      This is throwing off the pace of the discussion because it’s not even what I was talking about. I was talking about the “why” reasons for supporting policies. I support healthcare because it leads to less people dying, the consequence. That’s why I support universal healthcare. Successfully pushing your political campaign and getting legislation passed is a different topic. Those are separate ethical issues, such as stupid strategic actions that prevent the passing of healthcare (like refusing to vote against the Republican)

      “And whether universal care will turn out to have the effects you hoped for is also an open question.”

      The effects of universal healthcare is not an open question, we have very strong evidence that it’s beneficial. I feel like you’re adopting a strange vocabulary that you wouldn’t be using if we were straight up talking about politics instead of moral philosophy.

      “And in my mind you got the causal chain exactly reversed: it’s not the advocacy of good policies that turns people virtuous, it is because they are virtuous that they advocate good policies.”

      Yes but that wasn’t what I was trying to point out for writing that bit.

      Like

    7. saphsin, you are the one who brought up universal healthcare, and we have been talking about the distinction between intentions and outcomes. I don’t see why that’s “throwing off place the discussion.”

      You support universal healthcare because you want people not to die or suffer. That’s intentions, not consequences. The consequences remain to be seen, since we don’t yet have universal healthcare. Nor do we know whether we’ll get it or not, despite your intentions to achieve it.

      The effects of universal healthcare will probably be positive, but they are very much open to question, if by effects you mean — as a utilitarian should — *all* the possible effects. Including those on the economy, unintended consequences, and so forth. Would I bet on UHC? Yes, I support it. But that’s the extent of the morality of my position: intentions, not consequences. Because I’m not omniscient.

      Accusing me of using strange language that I wouldn’t deploy in another context is not a good way to converse. You are essentially impugning my good faith.

      Like

    8. “Accusing me of using strange language that I wouldn’t deploy in another context is not a good way to converse. You are essentially impugning my good faith.”

      [“Or, more broadly, for a consequentialist the moral worth of an action does not depend on intentions but only on consequences. This is very strange, given that the consequences are not entirely up to us.”]

      You also used the word strange. I wasn’t offended, it just meant it didn’t jibe with with your understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

    9. “The effects of universal healthcare will probably be positive, but they are very much open to question, if by effects you mean — as a utilitarian should — *all* the possible effects. Including those on the economy, unintended consequences, and so forth. Would I bet on UHC? Yes, I support it. But that’s the extent of the morality of my position: intentions, not consequences. Because I’m not omniscient.”

      The evidence that moving from the US healthcare system to a universal healthcare is beneficial is very strong. If you believe there are risks that come with unintended consequences, you should say them so we can incorporate those cautions and minimize them. And even with unintended consequences, we can still make the case the benefits far outweighs the harm of continuing with the current system. It has nothing to do with omniscience, you can make an objective rational case for it.

      If we weren’t having philosophy discussion (in which I picked healthcare because I knew both of us agreed on it) and were having a policy discussion with conservatives who disagreed with us instead, we wouldn’t be mentioning intentions at all, because the other side doesn’t care, and it would be a bad look for the audience.

      Like

    10. The fact that we both thing the evidence for policy X is overwhelming isn’t the point. Unless you claim omniscience, there is always a possibility we could be wrong. Which would make our actions immoral, from a utilitarian perspective.

      I am not concerned in the least with the fact that conservatives don’t care about intentions. Which, by the way, they do, often.

      Like

    11. That sounds like a kind of radical skepticism, that we don’t have a rational reason for a course of action if we’re not omniscient even if we have overwhelming evidence.

      I mean same for epistemology too, overwhelming evidence is sufficient for believing something, because we use induction instead of logic to get around the world. I wouldn’t say that means intentions are what matters and not reasons.

      Like

    12. I don’t think you’re a radical skeptic either in epistemology or in your moral attitudes. I do think that kind of reasoning is what’s implied in your argument, making your standard for conclusive arguments based on consequences to be unnecessary high.

      Like

    13. Well yes, that’s the position I’ve been supporting. The consequence is what matters.

      The counterexample you gave with the NGOs, that seems to prove that its the consequences that matters and not the intentions. That’s why we shouldn’t support them anymore, or they should change their practices. I’m not sure why you think it’s an example supporting your position.

      Like

    14. “The consequence is what matters.” That’s not exactly the utilitarian position. The position is that the consequence is all that has moral value. Not the same thing. And, again, virtue ethicists do not claim that consequences don’t matter. We are just more realistic about how much control we have on outcomes.

      Like

    15. Sorry, I really meant the consequence is all that matters for the NGO example. If we do know that their good-intentioned actions backfired (unlike the healthcare activist example I gave, which we have good historical reasons to suppose not) and their actions backfired, the right moral advocacy is to change their practices, or not support them anymore.

      I only need to refer to the consequences of their actions as the justification for a change in policy. Why is there a need to reference an additional factor, intentions, to make the moral argument successful?

      Maybe they were corrupt bureaucrats in the NGOs that made their practices inefficient. Or maybe they were well meaning progressive minded people who simply adopted the wrong practices out of ignorance. If it was the former, clearly it was bad intentions + bad consequences that was the problem. If it was the latter, only the bad consequences were the problem.

      If I’m interpreting you correctly, you meant the latter when you offered that example, in which consequences are fundamental to making a moral argument to change policy.

      If you meant the former, there are two factors, intentions and consequences. Now if you were to go to Congress and give a speech, what kind of argument would you be making? You can point out their bad intentions by the nature of their actions, but the reason “why” their corrupt nature was bad was because it ended up in harmful policies. The harmful policies would be your primary argument, not the intentions. The reason why I think this is because if we had a half-hearted NGO leader doing a better job than the progressive minded NGO leader who did terribly out of ignorance, than the former is actually preferable (unless we have good reason to believe the latter is amenable to change)

      Like

    16. “Maybe they were corrupt bureaucrats in the NGOs that made their practices inefficient. Or maybe they were well meaning progressive minded people who simply adopted the wrong practices out of ignorance.”

      The latter, I’ll see if I can find the reference articles. But it wasn’t “ignorance,” it was the impossibility to predict what would happen because the situation on the ground was too complex. I guess that’s a type of ignorance, but it’s an inescapable type.

      Like

    17. [But it wasn’t “ignorance,” it was the impossibility to predict what would happen because the situation on the ground was too complex. I guess that’s a type of ignorance, but it’s an inescapable type.]

      That seems to be ignorance by any definition, whether they should be blamed for it is a different matter. They should be blamed for it today if they didn’t revise their practices despite the evidence we accumulated.

      Like

Leave a Reply to saphsin Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s