Suppose you’re in a serious, long-term monogamous relationship. One day, your partner comes to you and says: “I have been finding myself irresistibly attracted to other people. I’ve tried just getting over it but it hasn’t worked. This has left me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. I still love you and remain committed to our relationship. Can we discuss options for alleviating my situation while still staying together? I am open to anything, and let’s talk, but I hope you will at least consider an option that involves my seeing other people in some form because I doubt that anything less will make me feel okay. In turn, I will consider anything that you might need to make that workable for you.”
How do you respond? As I see it, you have two broad options:
A: say ‘absolutely not, no chance in hell, if you require this to even be an option, then I’m out’; or
B: say ‘let’s look at our options’.
B can have a number of different flavors. It can be something, ‘yes, of course, if you really feel that way, let’s consider our options’. Or it can be something more like ‘I really don’t like this and doubt that it can work; what’s more, I have some non-negotiables; but, okay, let’s talk and see what we can work out’. One is more open than another, but both fall into category B.
If you can honestly say that your answer would be of form B, you’re already in a polyamorous relationship.…
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A quick observation about a trend in philosophical argumentation:
When a philosopher defends a view that seems to align with our immediate expectations, s/he will frequently raise something like the following, often in the introduction: this view aligns with common sense. And while it is possible for philosophy to overturn common sense, this is rare. Usually, common sense views are correct.
When a philosopher defends a view that seems counterintuitive, s/he will frequently raise something like the following point, often in the introduction: yes, this view runs counter to common sense. But sometimes radical shifts in thinking do occur, as in the Copernican revolution. It is a mistake to dismiss a view out of hand simply because it does not accord with common sense.
(I was recently reminded of the former attitude by Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments, and of the latter by Graham Priest’s In Contradiction, which, though it does not cite Copernicus, does cite scientific theories that were initially considered ‘outrageous’ and eventually accepted. I’m sure I have seen both before elsewhere.)
The two attitudes are not inconsistent. It is possible that both (1) it is rare for philosophy to overturn common sense; and (2) it is poor practice to dismiss arguments on account of their being counterintuitive. In fact, I suspect most would agree that both (1) and (2) are true.
Even so, the two attitudes do roughly pull in opposing directions. The stronger our belief in (1), the less serious we are likely to be about (2); and vice versa.…
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Disclaimers! First: I (somewhat indirectly) work for Tyler Cowen.
Second, this is a reply, not a review. My review is simple: Stubborn Attachments is a fascinating, thought-provoking work of political philosophy. Given its depth and originality, it’s also remarkably accessible. I strongly recommend it.
Third: there is plenty of interesting material in the book that I will not address at all. This includes narrow arguments about redistribution and environmental policy, as well as more abstract arguments about ethical disagreement and decision-making. I will not touch on these because I either simply agree, or if I have reservations, they’re not all that interesting.
Onto the fun stuff.
Introduction: Cowen’s argument in a nutshell, and map of my response
Essential to Cowen’s position is the claim that the discount rate for the value of the wellbeing of future people should be zero. In other words, the fact that someone doesn’t exist yet does not at all diminish the ethical value of their wellbeing. John, who is alive today, living a life of, say, 100 net utils, is worth exactly the same as Linda, who will live two hundred years from now, living a life of 100 net utils.
Presumably, there will be many, many more people alive in the future than are alive today. So, when we think about hard things like public policy and social organization, we shouldn’t aim to maximize the wellbeing of people alive today. Instead, we should maximize the wellbeing of all people—present and future. Given that there will be so many more future people, in practice this means our focus should be on maximizing the wellbeing of future people.…
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