The best argument against Williams on integrity I’ve read

Spencer Carr, “The Integrity of a Utilitarian,” Ethics 86:3 (Apr. 1976). Pages 243:

Several formulations of Williams’s case suggest that the problem of integrity loss is one faced by a special sort of person, one who, like George, has a special commitment to a nonutilitarian project. But this seems dubious. For consider: either George takes the U-advice or he does not. If he does not, there is no suggestion of any integrity loss. If he does, then either he retains his special commitment to pacifism or he does not. If he does retain it, we have a clear loss of integrity, but it is the loss of the trivial sort just noted. If he does not retain his old commitment but abandons or significantly modifies it in an appropriate way, then there is no longer any gap between project and action. So if George is vulnerable to a nontrivial sort of integrity loss, either it is one that any consistent utilitarian must face or else there is some aspect of the conversion process that leads to the loss. For it is important to see that the utilitarian is not so much asking George to act against his continuing project as he is urging him to adopt a more utilitarian project. And this is just what George does if he comes to accept U-reasons as legitimate grounds for modifying his position. But it seems clear enough that the conversion process itself is not supposed to be the source of the alleged integrity loss. Intuitively it is implausible to hold that a mere change of moral beliefs damages one’s personal integrity. And, furthermore, Williams hardly mentions the matter of project change, except only to point out that a change in projects does not render one’s projects less morally significant. It is to consistent utilitarian belief and behavior that we must look for any loss of integrity.

It’s hard to read Williams as being anything other than question-begging on this point.

2013 – Best So Far

Standard caveats. Seriously, though, you guys, Mikal Cronin.

Albums:

  1. Mikal Cronin – MCII
  2. DJ Koze – Amygdala
  3. Pacific Air – Stop Talking
  4. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt
  5. Major Lazer – Free the Universe
  6. Charli XCX – True Romance
  7. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze
  8. The Story So Far – What You Don’t See
  9. Rhye – Woman
  10. Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic
  11. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
  12. Deafheaven – Sunbather
  13. Savages – Silence Yourself
  14. Iceage – You’re Nothing
  15. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
  16. Phoenix – Bankrupt!
  17. The Boy Least Likely To – The Great Perhaps
  18. Shuggie Otis – The Wings of Love
  19. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
  20. Dungeonesse – Dungeonesse
  21. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
  22. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer, Different Park
  23. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
  24. The James Hunter Six – Minute By Minute
  25. Villagers – {Awayland}

Songs (one per artist):

  1. Autre Ne Veut – “Play By Play”
  2. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
  3. Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”
  4. Charles Bradley – “Strictly Reserved for You”
  5. Mikal Cronin – “Shout It Out”
  6. Kurt Vile – “Wakin on a Pretty Day”
  7. Dungeonesse – “Drive You Crazy”
  8. Charli XCX – “You’re the One”
  9. Tegan and Sara – “How Come You Don’t Want Me”
  10. Pacific Air – “Float”
  11. Vampire Weekend – “Ya Hey”
  12. Rhye – “Open”
  13. DJ Koze – “Don’t Lose My Mind”
  14. Waxahatchee – “Dixie Cups and Jars”
  15. Deafheaven – “Dream House”
  16. Major Lazer ft. Amber Coffman – “Get Free”
  17. Foxygen – “No Destruction”
  18. Villagers – “Nothing Arrived”
  19. Phoenix – “Entertainment”
  20. The Story So Far – “Empty Space”
  21. Robin Thicke ft. T.I., Pharell – “Blurred Lines”
  22. The Boy Least Likely To – “Climbing Out of Love”
  23. Kisses – “Air Conditioning”
  24. Laura Marling – “Take the Night Off”
  25. Iceage – “Ecstasy”
  26. Savages – “Husbands”
  27. Phosphorescent – “Ride On / Right On”
  28. Mariah Carey ft. Miguel – “#Beautiful”
  29. Divine Fits – “Chained to Love”
  30. Janelle Monae ft. Erykah Badu – “Q.U.E.E.N.”
  31. Say Lou Lou – “Fool of Me”
  32. A$ap Rocky ft. Florence Welch – “I Come Apart”
  33. Free Energy – “Hangin”
  34. Majical Cloudz – “Bugs Don’t Buzz”
  35. Shuggie Otis – “Special”
  36. Kacey Musgraves – “Merry Go ‘Round”
  37. The James Hunter Six – “Minute by Minute”
  38. She & Him – “Together”
  39. Young Lagoon – “Pelican Man”
  40. Queens of the Stone Age – “Smooth Sailing”
  41. Deerhunter – “Dream Captain”
  42. Beliefs – “Gallows Bird”
  43. James Blake – “Retrograde”
  44. The Thermals – “You Will Be Free”
  45. Parquet Courts – “Master of My Craft”
  46. Ashley Monroe – “You Got Me”
  47. Baths – “Ossuary”
  48. Bleeding Rainbows – “Waking Dream”
  49. The National – “Don’t Swallow the Cap”
  50. Pistol Annies – “I Feel a Sin Coming On”

Great moments in academic laziness

Kieran Setiya, Knowing Right From Wrong, page 19:

Suppose, for instance, you belong to a homogenous community whose ethical beliefs are true and who are non-ethically well-informed. For the first time, you meet a stranger. He agrees with you outside of ethics, but when it comes to practical reason, his beliefs are shocking. Fill in the details as you like. Perhaps he thinks we should act on our final desires, whatever they are, that we should be utterly selfish, that we should maximize aggregate happiness, no matter who is trampled on the way. It turns out that he, too, belongs to a homogenous community, exactly as numerous as your own. What should you now believe?

Kieran Setiya, Knowing Right From Wrong, page 29:

Suppose, one again, that you belong to a homogenous community whose ethical beliefs are true and who are non-ethically well-informed. Let us add that your beliefs are proportioned to your intuitions, finding the perfect balance of simplicity, power, and explanatory depth, weighed against fidelity to how things seem. For the first time, you meet a stranger. He agrees with you outside of ethics, but when it comes to practical reason, his intuitions are shocking. Fill in the details as you like. Perhaps it seems to him that we should act on our final desires, whatever they are, that we should be utterly selfish, that we should maximize aggregate happiness no matter who is trampled on the way. Despite this, his ethical beliefs are as well-proportioned to his intuitions as your beliefs are to yours. It turns out that he, too, belongs to a homogenous community, exactly as numerous as your own. What should you now believe?

Commonalities, exact or near-exact, bolded. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with this. It shouldn’t shock anyone to learn that I don’t entirely rewrite my explanation of the six different unemployment rates that BLS calculates for every installment of Wonkblog’s monthly “job report in graphs” post. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done with the proud brazenness on display here. Well-played, Setiya. Well-played.

Inverting the stack

This is probably hopelessly outdated, but back when I was more up to date with the hot new programming paradigms and the like, people liked talking about “web stacks,” with the archetypal one being LAMP. At the bottom you had the operating system (Linux), then the server software (Apache) on top of that, then the database software (MySQL) on top of that, and then the programming language that you write the site’s code in (Perl/Python/PHP, depending on your preferences) operating over everything.

The vertical metaphor is useful for pretty obvious reasons. You can’t get much done writing a website with a given language without data in a database for your code to play with. There’s no point having the data on a server without server software with which to make it accessible to users. And you can’t run anything without your OS underneath it. Each layer needs the layers underneath it to do any work.

I wonder if it’s useful to think about philosophical frameworks, or at least those which Rorty would have derisively categorized as “systematic philosophy,” in a similar fashion. At the bottom, you have metaphysics to tell you what stuff exists. Then you have epistemology on top of that to tell you what you can know about that stuff. Then you have philosophy of science (and of the various sciences, and perhaps philosophy of mind and language too) to tell how you can know the stuff that your epistemology says you can know. And finally you have practical philosophy — ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and so forth — to tell you what you should do in the world that the rest of philosophy has laid out for you.

Very few people this side of Kant lay out a full stack, but Cornell Realists like Richard Boyd and Nicholas Sturgeon come pretty close. At the very bottom you have metaphysical naturalism: what exists is the natural, physical world as described by modern science. Epistemologically you have some kind of reliabilism: you are justified in believing what reliable processes (to whit, the scientific method) lead you to believe. Methodologically, you have scientific realism: science is the best means of acquiring knowledge. And then you have naturalistic utilitarianism on top of it: you should do what maximizes the good, and “good” is just the natural fact of maximizing utility. It looks sort of like this:

Image

I don’t presume to speak for anyone but me, but this is certainly how have usually thought about philosophy. And I’m starting to think, for reasons I touched on two years ago here and in part as a result of mulling of Matt’s response, it’s kind of mixed up. There is no necessary reason for the stacking to go in that order. Indeed, it might make more sense to make value theory foundational.

Consider this stack:

Image

Instead of starting from the foundation of naturalism, someone who accepts this stack starts with his ethical theory — in this case utilitarianism, for ease of illustration — and moves from there. The question “what beliefs are justified?” is rephrased as “what ought I believe?” and so out comes a kind of pragmatism (“one ought to believe whatever beliefs maximize utility”) as one’s epistemological theory. And out of that comes an instrumentalism about science; it’s a tool for figuring out what’s best to believe, not a means of access to a mind-independent reality. And as for metaphysics — whatever! You don’t really need it. You have a pretty coherent picture of what one should do and believe and think about the world without getting into ontological matters.

The obvious objection here is, “But how do you know utilitarianism is true?” From the perspective laid about above, however, this reply is sort of confused. Utilitarianism isn’t something you can know. It’s a precondition of obtaining knowledge. If to “know” something consists in believing what you ought to believe about a given subject, then you can’t explain how you know something without making reference to an underlying ethical (or at least normative) assumption about what’s best to believe.

You can think about this as a kind of fideism about ethics. Just as theological fideists don’t think that it’s necessary or even wise to come up with reasons for believing in God, on this view you can’t come up with reasons to believe one ethical doctrine or another. All you can do is take your stand and see what follows.

I don’t necessarily buy this view, though as you can probably tell I’m quite sympathetic to it. And one reason for that is that it avoids a difficulty that my previous post was trying to identify in the Cornell version of utilitarianism. On Boyd’s view, the answer to “should I perform action A?” is always “you should if A maximizes utility” except if action A is of the form “hold belief X”. Answers to questions like “should I hold belief X?” are more like “if belief X is verified by scientific methods and corresponds to the mind-independent world.” But why should this kind of question and only this kind of question be exempt from utilitarian reasoning? Isn’t it simpler to just junk the separate epistemological theory and start with the ethical theory as a foundation?

Steve Petersen makes a persuasive case along these lines from an act utilitarian perspective here. As Petersen says, the burden of proof should be on value pluralists to explain why epistemic value is special and deserving of its own treatment apart from all other kinds of value. This challenge is particularly grave if, like Cornell realists, you think that epistemic value is the only exception to your view that one kind of value holds for all things.

P.S. Paul Kelleher, who unlike me is an actual philosopher (with a PhD from Cornell, no less!), notes that it’s probably fairer to characterize the Cornell folks as non-utilitarian consequentialists. D’oh. In any case, I think the above critique still applies.

Lists

Movies

  1. Silver Linings Playbook
  2. Moonrise Kingdom
  3. Django Unchained
  4. The Master
  5. Looper
  6. Argo
  7. The Imposter

Albums

  1. Death Grips – The Money Store
  2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
  3. Grimes – Visions
  4. The Shins – Port of Morrow
  5. Sharon van Etten – Tramp
  6. Passion Pit – Gossamer
  7. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  8. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
  9. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
  10. The Men – Open Your Heart

Songs

  1. Fiona Apple – “Every Single Night”
  2. Solange – “Losing You”
  3. Spiritualized – “Hey Jane”
  4. Cloud Nothings – “Stay Useless”
  5. Grimes – “Oblivion”
  6. Japandroids – “The Nights of Wine and Roses”
  7. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe”
  8. Death Grips – “Hacker”
  9. The Men – “Open Your Heart”
  10. Sky Ferreira – “Everything Is Embarrassing”

Shows

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. Archer
  3. Mad Men
  4. Girls
  5. Boardwalk Empire
  6. Happy Endings
  7. Louie
  8. Community
  9. Justified
  10. Veep

Episodes

  1. Breaking Bad – “Dead Freight”
  2. Archer – “Lo Scandalo”
  3. Boardwalk Empire – “Two Imposters”
  4. Girls – “The Return”
  5. Louie – “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Pt. 2)”
  6. Mad Men – “Signal 30″
  7. Justified – “The Devil You Know”
  8. New Girl – “Santa”
  9. Community – “Virtual Systems Analysis”
  10. Happy Endings – “Boys II Menorah”

Comedy

  1. John Mulaney – New in Town
  2. Tig Notaro – Live
  3. Louis CK – Live at Beacon Theater
  4. Kyle Kinane – Whiskey Icarus
  5. Hannibal Buress – Animal Furnace

Disappointments

  1. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
  2. Parks and Recreation
  3. The Mindy Project
  4. Grizzly Bear – Shields
  5. Beach House – Bloom

Has any economist ever been a better writer than Bob Solow?

According to George Stigler, economists are generally conservative because the scientific study of economics makes them so. According to Professor Heilbroner, the more likely explanation is that economists tend to take care of the System because the System takes care of them, by paying professors’ salaries well into the upper reaches of the income distribution.

I have my doubts about that last bit of reasoning. It seals off discussion. If I disagree on an issue, the implication is that I am a paid lackey of the System. If I protest that I, like Professor Heilbroner, am above that, I am doubly suspect. It is like what happens if I say that Freudian theory is obvious nonsense: I am told that I only say that because of my relation with my mother. I protest that my mother had nothing to do with it. “See!” says my Freudian friend and walks away a sure winner. (Even in the days when I was a close student of Marxism I used to wonder about a similar question: if social theory is part of the ideological superstructure, hence not to be taken at face value, why is not Marxism also part of the superstructure—and in that case why should we take at face value the Marxist notion that social theory is part of the ideological superstructure?)

Link here. More:

Many people seem to have rushed from the claim that no social science can be perfectly value-free to the conclusion that therefore anything goes. It is as if we were to discover that it is impossible to render an operating-room perfectly sterile and conclude that therefore one might as well do surgery in a sewer.

Your job’s so easy a robot could do it!

Luckily that applies to my job very rarely. But there are a few aggregation tasks that a computer can do better. Like writing “The Election in Numbers.” So I wrote a Python script to do TEIN for me. It’s progressed in fits and starts but now it’s good enough that I can just copy the HTML it spits out, add tags and assorted other metadata, and post away. The last two components to come together were the party IDs for Senate and gubernatorial candidates (accomplished by manually entering info into a dictionary, because I couldn’t think of a better way) and the screenshot at top (which is a YouTube URL hack).

Anyway, the script runs off of ScraperWiki here, where you can also see the code. There are points where it could be more sophisticated. For example, I’m sure there’s a better way to read JSON than what I use for scraping Nate Silver’s predictions, and I fiddled with raw HTML on YouTube user pages rather than spending the time to learn the site’s REST API. I also considered and rejected using HuffPo’s Pollster API in place of the RealClearPolitics scrape for the same reason. But it does the job and writing it was more fun (and faster) than manually copying poll results every day, so I’ll take the win.