Lopsided Lives (forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 2017)
Intuitively there are many different things that non-derivatively contribute to well-being: pleasure, desire satisfaction, knowledge, friendship, love, rationality, freedom, moral virtue, and appreciation of true beauty. According to pluralism, at least two different types of things non-derivatively contribute to well-being. Lopsided lives score very low in terms of some types of things that putatively non-derivatively contribute to well-being, but very high in terms of other such types of things. I argue that pluralists essentially face a trilemma about lopsided lives: they must either make implausible claims about how they compare in terms of overall well-being with more balanced lives, allow overall well-being to be implausibly hypersensitive to very slight nonevaluative differences, or else adopt implausible seeming limits on what things lives can contain or how much they can contribute to overall well-being. Such problems about lopsided lives thus push us away from pluralism and toward simpler theories of well-being, toward hedonism in particular. (This piece is the subject of Eden Lin’s paper “Well-Being and Hedonic Indispensability”.)
The Worseness of Nonexistence (forthcoming in Saving Lives from the Badness of Death, Oxford University Press 2017)
Most believe that it is worse for a person to die than to continue to exist with a good life. At the same time, many believe that it is not worse for a merely possible person never to exist than to exist with a good life. I argue that if the underlying properties that make us the sort of thing we essentially are can come in small degrees, then to maintain this commonly-held pair of beliefs we will have to embrace an implausible sort of evaluative hypersensitivity to slight nonevaluative differences. Avoidance of such hypersensitivity pressures us to accept that it can be worse for merely possible people never to exist. If this conclusion is correct, then the standard basis for giving no or less priority to merely possible persons would disappear (i.e., that things cannot be better or worse for them). Though defenders of Person-Affecting Views and their opponents may still disagree in theory, they could arrive at the same answers to many monumentally important practical questions.
Whether and Where to Give (Philosophy and Public Affairs 2016)
recommend that we give large sums to charity, but by far their more central message is that we give effectively, i.e., to whatever charities would do the most good per dollar donated. In this paper, I’ll assume that it’s not wrong not to give bigger
, but will explore to what extent it may well nonetheless be wrong not to give better
. The main claim I’ll argue for here is that in many cases
it would be wrong of you to give a sum of money to charities that do less good than others you could have given to instead, even if it would not have been wrong of you not to give the money to any charity at all. I assume that all the charities under discussion here do positive good overall, do not cause harm, do not infringe rights, etc. What makes my main claim here particularly interesting is that it is inconsistent with what appears to be a fairly common assumption in the ethics of giving, according to which if
it is not wrong of you to keep some sum of money for yourself, then it is likewise not wrong of you to donate it to any particular charity you choose. Roughly: if it’s up to you whether
to donate the money, it’s also up to you where
to donate the money. I challenge this common assumption. (This piece was featured in a discussion at PEA Soup
, with a critical précis by Johann Frick. A presentation I gave on this piece is the subject of an article in The Saint
– the St Andrews student newspaper.)
Risky Giving (The Philosophers’ Magazine 2016)
We might worry that Peter Singer’s argument from “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is unconvincing to non-consequentialists who accept moral constraints against imposing significant risks of harm on individuals. After all, giving to overseas charities often comes with such risks. I argue that plausible non-consequentialist criteria imply that it is not wrong to give to at least some of the charities that Singer and other effective altruists recommend.
Adding Happy People (Philosophers Take on the World, Oxford University Press 2016)
This is a short piece in which I sketch two types of argument for the view that we have substantial reason to bring into existence people with lives that are worth living. One is based on skepticism about the moral significance of person boundaries; the other is based on skepticism about the so-called Asymmetry in population ethics. (In “Unbounded Lives” and “The Worseness of Nonexistence” I more thoroughly defend the position sketched here.)
Does Division Multiply Desert? (Philosophical Review 2014)
It seems plausible that (i) how much punishment a person deserves cannot be affected by the mere existence or nonexistence of another person. We might have also thought that (ii) how much punishment is deserved cannot increase merely in virtue of personal division. I argue that (i) and (ii) are inconsistent with the popular belief that, other things being equal, when people culpably do very wrong or bad acts, they ought to be punished for this – even if they have repented, are now virtuous, and punishing them would benefit no one. Insofar as we cannot deny (i), we are either forced to abandon the popular belief in desert, or else allow that personal division could, as I put it, “multiply desert”. Some may not find the latter, considered by itself, troubling. But I argue that the thesis that division multiplies desert faces a potentially serious problem, which arises in the context of personal fusion. It is accordingly difficult to see how to maintain a particular family of desert views in light of the cases here presented. (This paper is the subject of a critical reply
; a response will soon be published in the same journal as the critical reply.)
Intuitions about Large Number Cases (Analysis 2013)
Is there some large number of very mild hangnail pains, each experienced by a separate person, which would be worse than two years of excruciating torture, experienced by a single person? Many people have the intuition that the answer to this question is No. However, a host of philosophers have argued that, because we have no intuitive grasp of very large numbers, we should not trust such intuitions. I argue that there is decent intuitive support for the No answer, which does not depend on our intuitively grasping or imagining very large numbers.
Works in Progress:
Much Ado about Nearly Nothing (book project)
I am developing a book project on the plausibility and wide applicability of various similarity-based supervenience requirements and anti-hypersensitivity intuitions, according to which particular very small nonevaluative differences cannot plausibly undergird very (arbitrarily) large evaluative differences. The general project bears on a variety of debates in normative ethics, including debates about well-being, population ethics, and distributive ethics (as illustrated by the papers it builds from: “Lopsided Lives”, “Unbounded Lives”, “The Worseness of Nonexistence”, “The Priority Monster”, and “Spectrum Arguments and Hypersensitivity”). The project is inter-sub-disciplinary in that it ties these debates in ethics to a variety of issues in metaphysics, including indeterminacy, personal identity, composition, and supervenience. Accommodating anti-hypersensitivity intuitions requires either adopting less plausible metaphysical views, or else adopting counterintuitively simple ethical views, such as impersonal total hedonism. Nonetheless many anti-hypersensitivity intuitions are strong, and may be reliable guides to follow.
Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues (edited volume project, with Hilary Greaves)
I am editing a volume on effective altruism, focusing on its philosophical foundations and under-explored philosophical questions to which it gives rise. Potential contributors include: William MacAskill, Larry Temkin, Ruth Chang, Roger Crisp and Theron Pummer, Susanne Burri, Andreas Mogensen, Brian McElwee and Iason Gabriel, James Lenman, Amanda MacAskill, Richard Chappell, Luc Bovens, Stephanie Collins, Ben Sachs, Emma Saunders-Hastings, Mark Budolfson and Dean Spears, and James Snowden.
Effective Justice (co-authored with Roger Crisp)
Advocates of Effective Altruism encourage promoting good most effectively with one’s charitable activities (donations of money, time, effort, and other resources). This paper explores the features and prospects of Effective Justice, advocates of which would encourage promoting justice most effectively with one’s charitable activities. Rather than donating a sum of money to train a seeing-eye dog (helping one blind person), for example, Effective Altruists recommend that we instead donate this sum to provide surgeries reversing the effects of trachoma (helping over one thousand blind people), on the ground that this would do much more good. Similarly, rather than donating a sum of money to help less privileged students find places at élite universities, Effective Justicists would recommend that we instead donate this sum to help educate women excluded from education in the developing world, on the ground that this would reduce injustice to a much greater extent. The strategy of the paper is first to characterize Effective Altruism by identifying the minimal philosophical views that underpin it, and then by analogy to elucidate Effective Justice. It shows that common objections to Effective Altruism apply also to Effective Justice, and that similar responses can be offered on behalf of each. Finally, the paper briefly discusses possible theoretical and practical conflicts between Effective Altruism and Effective Justice, and how they might be resolved.
Metaphysics can constrain ethics in some very surprising ways. I argue that the adoption of plausible views about the metaphysics of persons gives us good reason to reject intuitive ethical views about the aggregation of well-being within and across lives, including the so-called Asymmetry in population ethics. These ethical views, when combined with plausible metaphysical views, yield implausible forms of Hypersensitivity of the evaluative to the nonevaluative (they yield what I call Life Individuation Hypersensitivity).
Spectrum Arguments and Hypersensitivity
Larry Temkin famously argues that what he calls spectrum arguments yield strong reason to reject Transitivity, according to which the ‘all-things-considered better than’ relation is transitive. Spectrum arguments do reveal that the conjunctions of independently plausible claims are inconsistent with Transitivity. But I argue that there is very strong independent reason to reject such conjunctions of claims, and thus that the fact that they are inconsistent with Transitivity does not yield strong reason to reject Transitivity.
The Priority Monster
The Priority View says that benefiting people is more morally important, the worse off in absolute terms these people are. This view seems plausible: if we could achieve a large benefit for a fairly well off person, or a slightly smaller benefit for someone much worse off, it seems we should do the latter, assuming that we cannot benefit both people and that other things are equal. Nonetheless I argue that when the Priority View is confronted with a spectrum of possible benefits – each one slightly smaller than the last, and each for a recipient much worse off than the last – it is difficult for the view to avoid the conclusion that, rather than provide a very large benefit for someone quite badly off, we should instead provide a tiny benefit to someone who is extraordinarily badly off. I show that the Priority View, while not necessarily refuted, is inconsistent with the conjunction of a number of independently intuitively plausible claims. (This paper presents one of the central arguments of my PhD dissertation.)
The Fusion Problem
This paper offers a response to two objections to my “Does Division Multiply Desert?” The objections come from Benjamin Curtis
and Jake Ross, who have proposed different solutions to what I call the Fusion Problem
. I argue that this problem is persistent, and has a wide range of revisionary implications for ethical theory.
What’s Wrong with Cycling?
According to Cycling, there are possible situations where there is a particular time at which you can bring about one outcome, O1, O2, or… On, and your reasons for bringing about these outcomes form a cycle. That is, at this particular time, you have all things considered more reason to bring about O1 than O2, all things considered more reason to bring about O2 than O3, and so on… and all things considered more reason to bring about On than O1. Though many people find Cycling absurd, I argue that few have been able to say with accuracy what is absurd about it. I then present a new argument, which identifies what, fundamentally, is wrong with Cycling. This argument can plausibly rebut, rather than undercut, the intuitive case for Cycling.
Fair Treatment, Composite Actions, and Macroallocation
Several moral philosophers writing on the ethics of health care allocation have argued we should hold lotteries that give people equal chances of receiving scarce indivisible resources even when doing so expectably results in less (equality- or priority-weighted) well-being overall. A popular defense of this policy appeals to a fair treatment principle understood in terms of what is justifiable to each individual. However, I argue that this principle functions importantly differently in microallocation cases than it does in macroallocation cases, and that it does not justify holding (equal or weighted) lotteries in the latter cases.