Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Transgender Athletes & Fairness: Consistency

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It is likely that my adopted state of Florida will pass a law banning transgender women from competing on women’s and girl’s school sports teams. This Republican bill explicitly endorses a rather invasive confirmation process: if an athlete’s eligibility is challenged, then they would need to get confirmation from a health care provider. This might involve an examination of their genitals. Yes, this is the same party that rages against mask mandates and vaccine passports as violations of rights. On the face of it, these sorts of bills seem aimed at saying to the Republican base “we hate and fear transgender people as much as we think you do so keep voting for us.” Obviously enough, proponents of the bill do not make this claim; the argument they advance is that they must act because they are very concerned about women and girls being treated fairly. In fact, they call the bill the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. Republicans profess to be the party of small government, but this bill would expand the involvement of the state and as noted above, would literally have agents of the state looking at genitals. I also profess to favor minimal government and have argued in other essays that the state should restrict its laws to cases in which the harm needs to be addressed by law and the good the law does meaningfully outweigh any harms or costs of the law. Those backing the law have been unable to point to cases in Florida where harm is occurring—so this is a law that is allegedly aimed at addressing a harm that has not occurred. While inconsistent with the small government and freedom values that Republicans profess to value, it is certainly consistent with their approach to voter rights: imposing restrictions where no meaningful harm exists. As such, the act would seem to be unwarranted by the professed principles of the Republicans.  But perhaps they are motivated by this professed principle of fairness to women. Let us test this hypothesis. If the Republicans hold to. . .

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News source: A Philosopher's Blog

Num Nums

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My paper 'Negative Utility Monsters' is now forthcoming in Utilitas.  It's a very short and simple paper (2500 words, expanding upon this old blog post), but kind of fun.  Here's the conclusion:Nozick’s utility monster should no longer be seen as a damning objection to utilitarianism. The intuitive force of the case is undermined by considering a variant with immensely negative wellbeing. Offering significant relief to such a “Negative Utility Monster” plausibly should outweigh smaller harms or benefits to others. Our diverging intuitions about the two kinds of utility monsters may be explained conservatively as involving standard prioritarian intuitions: holding that benefits matter more the worse-off their recipient is (and matter less, the better-off their recipient is). This verdict undermines the distinctiveness of the utility monster objection, and reduces its force to whatever level one attributes to prioritarian intuitions in general. More ambitiously, the divergence between the two cases may be taken to support attempts to entirely explain away the original utility-monster intuition, e.g. as illicitly neglecting the existence of an upper bound on the monster’s wellbeing. Such an explanation, if successful, suggests that our intuition about the original utility monster scenario was based on a mistake. Either way, the force of Nozick’s objection is significantly undermined by the Negative Utility Monster.NUM: just imagine that the cookies are people, and the monster only looks so happy because this is his first respite from torture for several centuries...

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News source: Philosophy, et cetera

From Mind-as-Computer to Robot-as-Human: Can metaphors change morality?

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Over the past three years, I have returned to one question over and over again: how does technology reshape our moral beliefs and practices? In his classic study of medieval technology, Lynn White Jr argues that simple technological changes can have a profound effect on social moral systems. Consider the stirrup. Before this device was created, mounted warriors had to rely largely on their own strength (the “pressure of their knees” to use White’s phrase) to launch an attack while riding horseback. The warrior’s position on top of the horse was precarious and he was limited to firing a bow and arrow or hurling a javelin. The stirrup changed all that: The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of violence without precedent. The fighter’s hand no longer delivered the blow: it merely guided it. The stirrup thus replaced human energy with animal power, and immensely increased the warrior’s ability to damage his enemy. Immediately, without preparatory steps, it made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle. (White 1962, p 2)  This had major ripple effects. It turned mounted knights into the centrepiece of the medieval army. And since the survival and growth of medieval society was highly dependent on military prowess, these knights needed to be trained and maintained. This required a lot of resources. According to White, the feudal manor system, with its associated legal and moral norms relating to property, social hierarchy, honour and chivalry, was established in order to provide knights with those resources. This is an interesting example of technologically induced social moral change. The creation of a new technology afforded a new type of action (mounted shock combat) which had significant moral consequences for society. The technology needed to be supported and sustained, but it also took. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

Corporations, Ethics & Voting Rights

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After a concerted effort to undermine democracy, Donald Trump still lost the 2020 Presidential election. In response, the Republicans in states such as Georgia and Texas have taken efforts to impose new voting restrictions. Republicans and their supporters are a numerical minority, so they rely heavily on anti-democratic tactics to win certain elections.  But there has been pushback against these tactics. In Georgia, pressure has been put on companies like Delta and organizations like Major League Baseball to respond to these restrictions. Democrats and those who favor democracy want these companies to use their influence to get these restrictions lifted. Republicans generally do not want them to do this. This raises the moral issue of whether corporations should be engaged in such political actions. While it is appealing to argue that corporations should stay out of politics (because of the harms they have inflicted by capturing American democracy), the practical fact is that they are firmly embedded in politics and, at this point, can hardly make any plausible claim to political neutrality. After all, they are the major shapers of American laws and to profess that they wish to stay out of politics would be an absurd claim. They certainly want to avoid being involved in controversial politics, but they are already playing the political game and cannot claim that they are spectators rather than participants. Companies that do not want to get involved in matters such as voting rights can argue that they have the moral right to stick to using their influence to shape American law and practices to maximize their interests while having no moral obligation to get involved in political disputes that are not in their interest. Making a case for this would be to argue that the individuals with the power in question have no moral obligations as citizens or people to address such matters. That is, it would be morally acceptable for them to do nothing. There are numerous. . .

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News source: A Philosopher's Blog

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