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By In Ideas, Moral Psychology, Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (3)

Madame Bovary’s Predicament

In this little exercise in analytic existentialism, I’m going to contrast two kinds of stories we can live through, and suggest that the transition from one to the other is both something most of us will experience and a major challenge for finding our lives meaningful. In the sphere of personal relationships, the first kind of story is exemplified by Jane Austen’s novels (among many others), and the second by the setup of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (among others). I’ll label them Adventure and Service, respectively. Though we’re at least culturally conditioned to prefer the first, there is meaning to be found in both – but perhaps only on condition that we succeed in each of them.
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By In Applied Ethics, Moral Psychology, Normative Ethics Comments (12)

On Rage As a Moral Emotion

It is not rare to see groups of enraged people engaged in destructive behavior when you turn on the news these days. Such behavior is puzzling when we think of the agents as rational choosers, since it is often obviously counterproductive. The agents end up in many respects worse off – the neighborhoods that get damaged in riots tend to be the ones rioters live or work in, above all, and violent resistance often invites a brutal response from those who hold the power and control the drones. So what’s the deal with rage? Does it make sense to act out of rage? Can rage be warranted? In this tentative exploration of the issue (I haven’t come across any philosophical literature on it), I’ll argue that it can be, and that when it is, much of the moral responsibility for the wrongful harm that results from acting out of rage belongs to those who have created the rage-warranting situation.

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By In Moral Psychology, Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (4)

Why Afterlifism Isn’t a Ponzi Scheme

Samuel Scheffler’s original and provocative Tanner lectures, now published as Death and the Afterlife (OUP 2013), have already stirred discussion about the importance of humanity’s continued survival for the value of our own lives. In a witty and penetrating review of Scheffler’s work, Mark Johnston argues, among other things, that were our flourishing to depend on the flourishing of future generations, life would turn out to be a kind of Ponzi scheme: the value of our lives would depend on an infinite continuation of humanity. Since there’s good reason to think the chain of generations will eventually end, Schefflerian afterlifism implies the deeply pessimistic conclusion that “there are no value-laden lives to be found anywhere in the history of humanity”. Here, I’m going to argue that this objection fails: the point of many of our most cherished activities can depend on a certain kind of existence of future generations without any danger of regress. We need future generations to be there to be benefited by us or to appreciate our work and perhaps to continue our traditions, not necessarily to flourish in the same way as we do.

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By In Applied Ethics, Normative Ethics, Practical Rationality, Value Theory Comments (29)

What Mary Can Expect When She’s Expecting

It is an interesting fact about many of our most important choices, such as the choice of what kind of education to pursue, whether and whom to marry, and whether to have children – for short, life choices – that they transform us in ways we can’t fully anticipate, so that the person who lives with the consequences of the choice won’t be quite the same as the person who makes the choice. Recently, L.A. Paul has argued in a stimulating paper that the existence of such transformative experiences causes serious trouble for rational decision-making. I’ll grant here that her argument is more or less successful to the extent that the phenomenal quality of our experiences is central to the value of a choice or preference among options.

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By In Applied Ethics Comments (9)

Schmucks and Philosopher Kings: A Dilemma for Well-Being Policy

It’s fashionable to call for supplementing traditional
economic measures with measures targeting the impact of policies on well-being.
Leaving aside worries about measuring well-being and implementing policies, a
more basic question remains: should the state be in the business of monitoring
and promoting people’s well-being in the first place? Call this the Question. I’m
going to argue that there’s good reason to answer in the negative: either
well-being policy is paternalistic towards the beneficiaries, or it imposes an undue burden on the benefactors. Insofar as we have positive
duties toward each other, paternalism is the lesser evil.

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By In Applied Ethics, Value Theory Comments Off on Conference: ‘Measures of Subjective Well-being for Public Policy: Philosophical Perspectives’

Conference: ‘Measures of Subjective Well-being for Public Policy: Philosophical Perspectives’

Sam Wren-Lewis is organizing a conference on subjective well-being and public policy at Leeds in July that might be of interest to Peasoupers (indeed, several of us are speaking there). Here's the official announcement:

Conference:  'Measures of Subjective Well-being for Public Policy: Philosophical Perspectives'

Registration now open.

Keynote Speakers:

  • Richard Layard
  • Peter Railton
  • Valerie Tiberius
  • Dan Haybron

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By In Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (17)

Comparative Desert and the Bounds of Well-Being

Suppose, for simplicity, that the basis for moral desert is virtue and what’s deserved is well-being. According to the Ratio View of Comparative Desert, for two people to get what they comparatively deserve, the ratio of their levels of well-being must be the same as the ratio of their noncomparatively deserved levels of well-being. That is, if A noncomparatively deserves 10 units of well-being (A’s ‘peak’ is 10) and B noncomparatively deserves 20, they get what they comparatively deserve whenever B gets twice as much as A. So if A’s level is fixed at 15 (there’s no way to change it), B comparatively deserves 30.

This is an appealing view with an impressive pedigree (it is suggested by what Aristotle says about distributive justice, for example). But recently Shelly Kagan (2003, forthcoming) has presented seemingly devastating objections to it. I'll try out a straightforward response to them. It'll require that there is, at least, a lower bound to well-being.

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