Wednesday, December 30, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Final Day

Last day today. Typically, I overslept -- read "I turned the alarm off and rolled over" -- and missed the first morning session. Which is unfortunate, as it looked interesting, but oh well.

In any event, did the whole getting up, getting ready to go down to Times Square thing. Coloured this time by the joys of packing up as much of my stuff as I wasn't going to need before flying back to good ol' TO.

I haven't really said much about the NYC subway system, so let me pause to sing its praises. It runs all night, you never wait more than 5 minutes for a train, and it costs less than the TTC. Oh, and, your fares are all loaded on a card with a magnetic stripe which you swipe to unlock and walk through the turnstiles. You can pretty much go anywhere on this system. Very, very well done. Why don't we have anything like this in Canada? Vancouver is the only city that comes close, and that's pushing it. Montreal and Toronto's systems are sad jokes.

In Times Square, they were starting to set up for the New Year's Eve thing. Very glad I'm not anywhere near that; Times Square is bad enough on a regular day, but tomorrow night you wouldn't be able to move. There was, apparently, some sort of a bomb scare in Times Square today (see here, for example), but I really didn't see anything. It's actually not surprising that a van could sit in Times Square for days and no one would notice: you're so busy dodging people that you barely have time to notice the lights and the buildings, let alone the vehicles (of which there are so many that, again, one little van wouldn't really register). Saw a number of reporters around, but I assumed that was a New Year's Eve thing, shooting for the evening news.

Saw a number of folks standing around the Mariott Marquis with luggage in hand. Given that I hadn't seen that many before, either the hotel was clearing out to avoid the jacking-up of prices for New Year's, or philosophers were trying to grab early flights.

The session I ended up in was called "Duties to Others", which can really mean anything. Turns out it was about what sorts of health-related obligations we have to the global poor (first paper), and how to resolve a logical puzzle about obligation to future generations (second paper). If I had to pick, I'd say the second was more interesting, as the first was -- overtly and deliberately -- utilitarian. But both were interesting discussions.

I will say, though, that I'm not a fan of the "colloquium" set up. The APA has, basically, four kinds of sessions. First are invited papers, and I didn't go to any of those. They were in larger rooms, IIRC, and so I expect they'd be more like formal presentations. Second are symposia, which was what I went to yesterday. Smaller rooms, but still relatively formal; papers are presented in about 40 minutes or so, with 15 or so minutes of questions and discussion. Third are colloquia, which was what I went to today. Even smaller rooms, and much more informal; papers are presented in about 20 minutes, with a response from a commentator (10 minutes), followed by a reply from the presenter (5 minutes), and then some time for discussion. And, fourth, there are group meetings, and I didn't go to any of those. Group meetings are put on by various groups affiliated with the APA -- the Society for Philosphy and Psychology, for example -- and are conducted under their rules. So, I imagine there's a fair bit of variation there.

As said, I don't really like the colloquium set up, for two reasons. I think the 20 minute rule is insane. Philosophical papers have a nasty tendency towards minutiae anyway, and reducing the time of presentation exaggerates this propensity. Both papers today avoided this problem, but they skated pretty close to the line. I also don't like the whole presentation/commentator/reply thing. I get the logic of it -- it's a way to try to get the discussion going, without the danger of the room just going dead because no one wants to talk -- but I don't think it's effective in achieving that goal. A more effective method, I suspect, would be to make papers available some time before the APA, so everyone would have time to consider the arguments and come up with things to say in advance. In practice, the commentary/reply thing becomes little more than a somewhat forced extension of the paper's own dialectic -- better to just give those extra 15 or 20 minutes to the presenter.

First paper was "The Moral Basis of Global Health Aid", by Christopher Lowry and Udo Schüklenk, both of Queen's University. Well, Lowry was of Queen's, but he defended his dissertation and got a job at the Chinese University of Hong Kong -- and hence wasn't able to make the presentation. This left Udo to fly solo, apparently at the last minute. Have to say, he acquitted himself admirably. Very good presentation, very interesting argument.

Here's the gist. There are, according to Lowry and Schüklenk, two approaches to the issue of whether we are morally obligated to provide health aid to the global poor. One they called either the "institutional" or the "political" approach. This derives from work by, e.g., Thomas Pogge, and holds that we are morally obligated to provide aid on a compensatory rationale. That is, national and transnational institutions have created the conditions of global povery and affluence, and thus affluence is due to the existence of poverty elsewhere. Given that the affluent have caused poverty, the affluent are obligated to alleviate poverty. When it comes to health aid, then, insofar as we healthy folks in the West make people elsewhere less healthy (more prone to disease, shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and so on), to just that extent we are obligated to aid those poor. The other approach they called either the "humanitarian" or, probably more accurately, the "utilitarian" approach. This derives from work by, e.g., Peter Singer, and holds that we are morally obligated to provide aid on a reduction of suffering ratoinale. That is, suffering is a moral bad. Insofar as someone can alleviate suffering, they are obligated to do so, as long as the costs sustained in alleviating the suffering are not too great. Given that it would not be too burdensome to give up some of our luxuries in order to ensure that the global poor experience less suffering, we should do so. When it comes to health aid, then, insofar as we healthy folks in the West could, without much cost, do something to make people elsewhere more healthy, thus reducing their suffering, we should do so.

Straightforward enough. Here's the twist. According to Lowry and Schüklenk, the institutional approach has a serious problem with prioritizing who should receive health aid. It's unquestionably true that national institutions have a direct and obvious causal impact on the health of citizens of that state. It's also unquestionably true that measuring the extent of the causal impact on the health of citizens outside the state is very difficult. So, more often than not, a compensatory rationale for aid will entail focusing on domestic health aid rather than international. Improving domestic health aid is not a bad thing, of course. But, often, it doesn't seem as morally pressing or weighty as international health aid, and so the institutional approach is often going to give us the wrong answer.

When it comes to the utilitarian approach, however, with a little modification, it can work quite admirably. We need modification because the undiluted utilitarian approach would give us no way of distinguishing between aiding a needy country with an open, responsive government and aiding a needy country with a dictatorial, corrupt government or currently in a state of civil war. Clearly, if we have to choose between these two countries, we should choose the former, but it's not clear on a pure utilitarian approach why this is justified. Lowry and Schüklenk's suggestion is that we should always prioritize efficiency of aid over need, whenever need is already particularly severe. (So, we shouldn't prioritize efficiency when choosing between a country that needs very little and one that needs very much, but we should prioritize efficiency when choosing between two countries that are both suffering significantly.)

Fair enough, right? Putting aside general worries about utilitarianism, it seems like a tight little argument. I do have one concern, though: namely that the rejection of the institutional rationale seems to turn on a bit of an elision. Institutional rationales are available for harms imposed by national and transnational institutions -- so, national governments and global institutions like the IMF and multinational coporations. The objection on the basis of priority, though, only applies to national institutions. The objection is that institutional rationales will prioritize domestic health over international health, because the causal impact on citizens is easier to measure, and just more obvious, than the causal impact on non-citizens. But transnational institutions have no citizens, by definition. So, why can't they solve the prioritization problem?

One move at this point is to repeat a point raised by, IIRC, Mathias Risse (sorry if that's a misattribution; I'm working off memory here), namely that many poverty-stricken countries can't be helped on a compensatory rationale, because their problems simply aren't caused by affluent nations -- except on some very tortured appeal to "the system", à la Naomi Klein's (laughable) "Shock Doctrine". They aren't integrated into global markets, so no harms are done, so no compensation is owed. As an argument, it's a fine one, but I have no reason to believe that Lowry and Schüklenk would endorse it.

Another move is to suggest that there's some analogue to citizens available when talking about transnational institutions. National institutions have citizens, transnational institutions have members, so transnational institutions are going to favour the needs of their members over the needs of non-members. This is not a bad argument, but it's substantially weaker than the one advanced in the national case. Many transnational institutions have hundreds of member countries, including many of the poorest nations on Earth: examples include the UN, obviously, but also the dreaded IMF. Indeed, the IMF is a telling example, as it (arguably) has directly caused harms which have led to the impoverishment -- and thus poor health states -- of many member countries. So, I suspect the institutional account of the prioritization problem is much stronger than Lowry and Schüklenk have allowed, and more needs to be said about transnational institutions and the compensatory rationale for global health aid. (FWIW, it gets worse if we include multinational corporations in our set of transnational institutions, for participation in the global markets can, arguably, cause harms for which the affluent owe compensation to the poor. I say "arguably" here, BTW, because participation in global markets may actually help more than it hurts.)

Good paper, though. I enjoyed it.

Next was David DeGrazia of George Washington University on "Obligations to Future Generations". Here's the gist of this argument. Basically, it's a logical problem: we have competing intuitions about what makes certain kinds of conduct towards future generations wrong, and it's difficult to find a way to make them gel together.

Intuitively, we have obligations towards future generations. DeGrazia considered environmental stewardship, but we could pick many different sorts of cases. The important point is that we do some morally obligated in certain ways towards future generations. And this includes not only those people who currently exist and will be part of the "future generations" (so, children, infants, etc.) but also people who don't exist yet. But, there's a problem with people who don't exist yet. Drawing off Derek Parfit, this is called the "non-identity problem".

Suppose we don't adopt any policy to reverse environmental damage. Environmental damage occurs, and people who live in the future -- say, 200 years in the future -- live in a degraded environmental state. They don't lead bad lives, their lives are still worth living, but they do face some problems. They should have reason to resent us, and believe we have done something morally wrong. But, suppose that the policy we could take would actually cause at least some of these people to not exist. That is, in one scenario, the policy is not adopted, damage occurs, and some group of people come into existence, who resent and blame us for our failure. In the other scenario, the policy is adopted, damage does not occur -- and other things change as a consequence -- and a different group of people come into existence. What, then, is the basis -- maybe there isn't a basis -- for the resentment and blame towards us of the people in the first scenario?

One possible basis is harm. But it's hard to make that work. The alternative to the first scenario, ex hypothesi, is the second scenario. Living a decent life in a degraded world is not a harm when compared to non-existence. DeGrazia worked through a few definitions of harm in order to make this point.

Another possible basis is rights violation. Again, though, it's hard to make that work. The problem here is identifying a plausible, non-waived right which has been violated for the future generations. It can't be a right to exist in a non-compromised environment, because no one has a right to exist at all. It can't be a right to have a non-compromised environment, because that would likely be waived in order to exist at all. It can't be a right to, if one exists, exist in a non-compromised environment, for that right can be satisfied both by existence in a non-compromised environment and by non-existence (in other words, we lose the wrong completely). And there aren't any other obvious candidates.

What DeGrazia turned to instead, then, was an idea of negligence. Part of what is wrong about damaging the environment so it affects future generations is that we have failed to be certain kinds of people: concerned, interested, careful, and so on. Which gets part of the idea, but DeGrazia notes that there still seems to be some sort of harm-like thing involved here. There is negligence, that is, but it's not just negligence; there's a moral difference, that is, between just leaving the stove on and leaving the stove on and burning the apartment building down. So, DeGrazia invokes Parfit's idea of impersonal harm, but within limits. Personal harm -- harm done to someone by someone/something -- is our usual idea of harm, and applies in most cases. But, in non-identity cases, we need an impersonal view of harm, which views harm as producing a state of affairs that is worse off than it otherwise would be.

Thus, our obligations to future generations are grounded on our negligence in failing to perform certain actions, and in impersonal harm to the state of affairs that would exist given what we have done or failed to do.

I have two concerns with DeGrazia's account -- while appreciating how ridiculously careful and tight the argument is. The first is with regard to the metaphysics of impersonal harm. I can understand how there is personal harm -- we take something away from someone that they had (diachronic view) or that they would have had (counterfactual view). The metaphysics of the former is unmysterious -- the thing was theirs and now it is not -- and the metaphysics of the latter is unmysterious insofar as the metaphysics of counterfactuals is unmysterious. But how can there be impersonal harm? Well, I suppose we're going to have to import the diachronic and counterfactual notions and simply relate them to states of affairs. But this is when it gets weird, because the harm done to persons is based on taking away something that they had. The notion of "having" (which is at least quasi-ownership, if not ownership outright; think of the case of theft as a diachronic harm) is doing some work here. In the impersonal case, nothing "has" the state of affairs that is lost (diachronically) or failed to obtain (counterfactually). All we have, then, is difference -- so, what's the basis, metaphysically, for calling one state of affairs a harm and the other not a harm?

The second is with regards to the appeal to negligence. While I understand and accept that negligence is a matter of virtue, in the sense that negligence displays a kind of character defect -- lack of sufficient concern or some such -- I don't know how to unpack the notion of "lack of sufficient concern" without appealing to harm. A lack of sufficient concern seems to me to be measured in terms of whether I am concerned about the harms I do or might do. If I don't care about the interests of others and how my actions affect them, then I am not sufficiently concerned, and am negligent. I suppose we could go Aristotelian and appeal to the idea of a mean, and "lack of sufficient concern" is considered a deficiency, somehow falling short of a threshold point of interest in others. But that doesn't really help, for how do we fix the point of sufficient concern without making reference to harm? How can I say that this much concern is enough without claiming that it's the point at which I am interested in how my actions affect others' interests, i.e., the extent to which I harm them? So, the appeal to negligence might turn out to be vacuous, and this account really works out to being based on harm. And then the worries about impersonal harm come to the fore.

Enjoyed this paper, too, but I think the session was going a bit long at this point. Not a lot of questions, and everyone seemed ready to go. Too bad, as I think DeGrazia's paper was conceptually quite rich.

Overall, this has been a mixed bag for me. I still think this conference was organized in a way that was basically punitive towards graduate students, and mildly abusive towards junior faculty, for that matter. The job services are terrible, and the job market itself is awful. It really wouldn't have killed anyone to go out of their way to be a little friendlier to grad students, in light of the extra burdens we're being expected to bear. Instead, the attitude was generally quite unfriendly. For example, I saw a faculty member who is rather prominent in my academic history (not naming names) who walked right by me. Possibly I don't look the way I used to, but I suspect I was deliberately ignored.

But, the sessions I did manage to go to, although not particularly friendly, were at least interesting and entertaining and got me thinking about various issues I maybe hadn't thought that much about before. So, to that extent, it was fruitful. I think I need to get in to some of the smaller philosophical groups, though, so that I might have a better chance of getting into some informal conversations with people. That might also cure the unfriendliness I sensed at this, rather large and impersonal, conference.