Wednesday, July 28, 2010


... a new essay of mine, available here. I first presented this essay at a conference in Fullerton organized by JeeLoo Liu and Heather Battaly in 2009. (See here for a YouTube video of the original talk.)

This is a (relatively) short paper arguing that we have poor knowledge of our stream of conscious experience, of our morally most important attitudes, of our evaluatively loaded personality traits, and of our overall moral character.

It sacrifices depth and detail for breadth and readability, but I suppose that isn't always a bad thing.

Comments welcome, as always, either by email or on this post.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Young Female Philosophers Must Feel Bad About All That Meat They Eat

Regular readers may recall that in 2009 Josh Rust and I surveyed several hundred philosophers and non-philosophers on their opinions about various moral issues; we also asked survey respondents to describe their own behavior on those same issues. Some preliminary results of the study are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The biggest divergences in moral opinion concerned our question about "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork". 60% of ethics professor respondents rated mammal-meat consumption as morally bad, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and just 19% of non-philosophers. Opinion also divided by gender and age. Women were about 1.5 times as likely to condemn mammal-meat consumption (55% of women rated it bad vs. 37% of men). There was a similar shift of opinion with age: 55% of respondents born in 1960 or later condemned mammal-meat consumption, compared to 35% born before 1960. One might expect a compound effect for young female philosophers, and indeed it was so: Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals. To put this degree of consensus in perspective: In last year's PhilPapers survey of philosophical opinion, only 82% of philosophers endorsed non-skeptical realism about the existence of an external world. (No word, so far, on how philosophers who deny the existence of an external world feel about seeming to consume meat.)

People often do things they think are a little morally bad. For example, I think eating meat is slightly morally bad (on par with driving a gas-guzzling car or being somewhat neglectful of emails from undergraduates), and yet for lunch today I had a salami sandwich. Apparently, a substantial proportion of young female philosophers think and act as I do: 38% of them reported having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal -- a rate not statistically different from the 39% reported rate among respondents overall. (Caveat: The total number of female philosopher repondents born 1960 or later was small -- twenty-six -- so the exact percentage should be interpreted cautiously.) Similarly, despite the difference in normative view, there was no statistically detectable difference in the mean age of respondents who said they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening's meal: mean birth year 1954.3 for those who said they had vs. 1955.1 for those who said they hadn't.

Our survey doesn't call into doubt the relationship between normative ethical view about meat-eating and strict vegetarianism: 78% of those who reported that they never eat mammal meat said eating mammal meat is bad, compared to 32% of those who reported sometimes eating meat. However, it seems that among non-vegetarians there is little if any relationship between normative ethical view and actual meat consumption: If you don't think eating meat is bad enough to warrant strict vegetarianism, but you still think it's somewhat bad, you're just as likely as anyone else, it seems, to have a salami sandwich for lunch. Conscience and behavior go separate ways.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Apologies for being slow in posting and replying to comments recently. I spent last week on vacation in Yosemite.

In Yosemite, I heard two bears (on two different occasions), each within about 20-30 feet, but I saw neither. For some reason, this is vastly more disappointing than had I seen two bears at the same distance but not heard them. Why is that? I don't think it's just that visual information is much richer than auditory information -- for I would have been happy even with a fleeting glimpse, even if that glimpse contained no more information than I received by hearing the crashing sounds through the underbrush.

It is also quite likely that light from those bears was reflected into my eyes and made some difference to my visual experience, despite the fact that I was unable to discern its bearish source. This also is disappointing, for some reason. In some sense, I probably saw both bears -- I just didn't see that they were bears. Seeing that is just much cooler.

In about 20 miles of hiking the trails of Yosemite, I noticed only two pieces of litter. I find that quite remarkable given that some of these trails get 10,000 hikers a day.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

John Stuart Mill on the Value of Moral Disagreement

I have been thinking lately about the value (or disvalue) of philosophical moral reflection, and I find myself reading, yet again, Mill's On Liberty. I love the prose in that book. Here is what Mill says about the value of moral disagreement:

We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively apprehension of the truth which they normally recognise, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed's existence, not a few persons may be found, who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be an hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively -- when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being. Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.
You go, baby!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Nature of Attitudes

I've written extensively on belief (e.g., here, here, and here), but very little on other attitudes like desire, intention, and love (though see here on love). (I regard desire and intention as "propositional attitudes" in the philosopher's sense, but not love.) Here's the summary version of my current thinking:

(1.) Attitudes are dispositional. To believe that there's beer in the fridge is to be disposed to act, react, and cognize in certain ways. It is not a matter of what you're currently doing or thinking. So, for example, your attitudes don't change simply by virtue of your falling unconscious. To believe that there's beer in the fridge is to be disposed to go to the fridge if you decide to have a beer, to say "yes" if someone asks you if there is beer in the fridge, to feel surprise were you to open the fridge and find no beer, to conclude "I will win a million dollars!" if you're told that you will win a million dollars if there is beer in your fridge, etc. Such dispositions are, of course -- like virtually all dispositions -- subject to defeaters or excusing conditions (for example, you might not tell the truth if you want to keep the beer a secret). Similarly: To want to complete your dissertation is to be disposed to feel good if it seems that you're making progress on your dissertation, to favor actions that promote completion of the dissertation over other actions all else being equal, to think to yourself "completing that dissertation would be a good thing to do", etc. To love someone is to be disposed to prioritize that person's well-being in your choices, to feel especially bad when bad things happen to that person, to value having a connection with that person, etc.

(2.) But attitudes also have an occurrent face. In fact, they have two occurrent faces. (By "occurrent" here I mean having to do with events that transpire at particular moments of time.) Attitudes can manifest, that is, the disposition can be activated. You can actually go to the fridge to find the beer, do something to further your dissertation work, choose something reflecting your prioritization of the welfare of someone you love. And attitudes can form (or disappear). A minute ago, perhaps, you had no desire for the chicken sandwich vs. the roast beef. You hadn't started thinking about it yet; sometimes you choose one, sometimes the other. You look at the menu and make a choice, forming a desire for the chicken.

Forming an attitude can be nonconscious, if it happens underground, as it were, or it can involve dedicating attention or consciousness. The conscious formation of a belief -- or the conscious reinforcement of that belief, if it was already present -- we can call a "judgment". The conscious formation of an intention we can call a "choice". We don't have natural names for some of the other conscious attitude formation episodes. ("Falling in love" isn't quite what I have in mind as the conscious formation of love; judging that something is good isn't quite the same as forming a desire for it -- though perhaps judging good and forming/reinforcing a desire are close enough to explain why we don't have separate terms for them.) Of course, sometimes the judgments and choices don't stick and the attitude isn't actually formed. You choose to exit the freeway at the next offramp, for example, but then forget. You say to yourself, and quite sincerely judge, that death is not bad while failing to form the dispositional profile appropriate to that attitude. (I have a paper about such cases here.)

(3.) Attitudes are not discrete entities; rather they overlap. This is true both within and between attitude types.

First, within attitude types: I do not have one ball in my "belief box" for "my cat is in the tree" and another separate ball for "Waterball [the name of my cat] is in the tree" and yet another separate ball for "Waterball is in the oak" and yet another for "our only pet is in that tall plant right there", etc. I believe all those things, more or less, but not via discretely held contents. What I have is a cluster of dispositions such that all of these things are approximately true to say of me -- though possibly some are more apt than others (for example, if I'd be disposed to call the tree an elm rather than an oak if asked).

Second, between attitude types: The dispositional profile for thinking that it would be good to finish your dissertation largely overlaps with the dispositional profile for wanting to finish your dissertation, such that probably you have both or you have neither. But the dispositional profiles come apart enough that in some cases one way of putting things can be more apt: Intellectual acceptance is more central to the belief-good profile and emotionality is more central to the desire profile so that if you are prone to form pro-dissertation-completing intellectual judgments that leave you cold, it might be more apt to describe you as believing-good than as desiring (though still, in a way, you desire or half-desire), and vice versa if you're more prone to desirous emotionality than intellectual endorsement. But let me be clear: On my view this is not a matter of the attitudes being ontologically distinct and causally connected; rather it's a matter of their having partly overlapping dispositional profiles with different dispositions closer to the center. Similarly for hating vs. loathing, appreciating vs. being thankful, resentment vs. anger vs. feeling wronged vs. thinking you've been wronged, etc.

Lots of cool things follow from this approach to the attitudes, such as weak motivational internalism; the avoidance of puzzles about the countability of beliefs and of problems in drawing the line between implicit and explicit beliefs, an appealing gradualism about attitude change (including learning and forgetting), the lack of a need for a discrete type of cognitive token for every attitude verb, and a nicely moderate position about the relationship between desiring and believing good.