Saturday, December 17, 2022

The right can be derived from the good

There is a way to connect the right and wrong with the good and bad:

  1. An action is right (respectively, wrong) if and only if it is noninstrumentally good (respectively, bad) to do it.

This is compatible with there being cases where it is bad for one to do the right thing. Thus, refraining from stealing the money that one would need to sign up for a class on virtue is right and noninstrumentally good, but if the class is really effective then stealing the money might be instrumentally good for one, though noninstrumentally ba.

I think (1) is something that everyone should accept. Even consequentialists can and should accept (1) (though utilitarian consequentialists have too shallow an axiology to make (1) true). But natural law theorists might add a further claim to (1): the left-hand-side is true because the right-hand-side is true.

The title of this post contradicts the title of another recent post, but the contents do not.

Variation in priors and community epistemic goods

Here is a hypothesis:

  • It is epistemically better for the human community if human beings do not all have the same (ur-) priors.

This could well be true because differences in priors lead to a variety of lines of investigation, a greater need for effort in convincing others, and less danger of the community as a whole getting stuck in a local epistemic optimum. If this hypothesis is true, then we would have an interesting story about why it would be good for our community if a range of priors were rationally permissible.

Of course, that it would be good for the community if some norm of individual rationality obtained does not prove that the norm obtains.

Moreover, note that it is very plausible that what range of variation of priors is good for the community depends on the species of rational animal we are talking about. Rational apes like us are likely more epistemically cooperative than rational sharks would be, and so rational sharks would benefit less from variation of priors, since for them the good of the community would be closer to just the sum of the individual goods.

But does epistemic rationality care about what is good for the community?

I think it does. I have been trying to defend a natural law account of rationality on which just as our moral norms are given by what is natural for the will, our epistemic norms are given by what is natural for our intellect. And just as our will is the will of a particular kind of deliberative animal, so too our intellect is the intellect of a particular kind of investigative animal. And we expect a correlation between what a social animal’s nature impels it to do and what is good for the social animal’s community. Thus, we expect a degree of harmony between the norms of epistemic rationality—which on my view are imposed by the nature of the animal—and the good of the community.

At the same time, the harmony need not be perfect. Just as there may be times when the good of the community and the good of the individual conflict in respect of non-epistemic flourishig, there may be such conflict in epistemic flourishing.

I am grateful to Anna Judd for pointing me to a possible connection between permissivism and natural law epistemology.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Panteleology: A few preliminary notes

Panteleology holds that teleology is ubiquitous. Every substance aims at
some end.

The main objection to panteleology is the same as that to panpsychism: the incredulous stare. I think a part of the puzzlement comes from the thought that things that are neither biological nor artifactual “just do what they do”, and there is no such thing as failure. But this seems to me to be a mistake. Imagine a miracle where a rock fails to fall down, despite being unsupported and in a gravitational field. It seems very natural to say that in that case the rock failed to do what rocks should do! So it may be that away from the biological realm (namely organisms and stuff made by organisms) failure takes a miracle, but the logical possibility of such a miracle makes it not implausible to think that there really is a directedness.

That said, I think the quantum realm provides room for saying that things don’t “just do what they do”. If an electron is in a mixed spin up/down state, it seems right to think about it as having a directedness at a pure spin-up state and a directedness at a pure spin-down state, and only one of these directednesses will succeed.

Panteleology seems to be exactly what we would expect in a world created by God. Everything should glorify God.

Panteleology is also entailed by a panpsychism that follows Leibniz in including the ubiquity of “appetitions” and not just perceptions. And it seems to me that if we think through the kinds of reasons people have for panpsychism, these reasons extend to appetitions—just as a discontinuity in perception is mysterious, a discontinuity in action-driving is mysterious.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The right cannot be derived from the good

Consider the following thesis that both Kantians, utilitarians and New Natural Law thinkers will agree on:

  1. All facts about rightness and wrongness can be derived from descriptive facts, facts about non-rightness value, and a small number of fundamental abstract moral principles.

The restriction to non-rightness good and bad is to avoid triviality. By “rightness value” here, I mean only the value that an action or character has in virtue of its being right or wrong to the extent that it is.

I don’t have a good definition of “abstract moral principle”, but I want them to be highly general principles about moral agency such as “Choose the greater over the lesser good”, “Do not will the evil”, etc.

I think (1) is false.

Consider this:

  1. It is not wrong for the government to forcibly and non-punitively take 20% of your lifetime income, but it is wrong for the government to forcibly and non-punitively take one of your kidneys.

I don’t think we can derive (2) in accordance with the strictures in (1). If a kidney were a lot more valuable than 20% of lifetime income, we would have some hope of deriving (2) from descriptive facts, non-rightness value facts, and abstract moral principles, for we might have some abstract moral principle prohibiting the government from forcibly and non-punitively taking something above some value. But a kidney is not a lot more valuable than 20% of lifetime income. Indeed, if it would cost you 20% of your lifetime income to prevent the destruction of one of your kidneys, it need not be unreasonable for you to refuse to pay. Indeed, it seems that either 20% of lifetime income is incommensurable with a kidney, or in some cases it is more valuable than a kidney.

If loss of a kidney were to impact one’s autonomy significantly more than loss of 20% of your lifetime income, then again there would be some hope for a derivation of (2). But whether loss of a kidney is more of an autonomy impact than loss of 20% of income will differ from person to person.

One might suppose that among the small number of fundamental abstract moral principles one will have some principles about respect for bodily integrity. I doubt it, though. Respect for bodily integrity is an immensely complex area of ethics, and it is very unlikely that it can be encapsulated in a small number of abstract moral principles. Respect for bodily integrity differs in very complex ways depending on the body part and the nature of the relationship between the agent and the patient.

I think counterexamples to (1) can be multiplied.

I should note that the above argument fails against divine command theories. Divine command theorists will say that about rightness and wrongness are identified with descriptive facts about what God commands, and these facts can be very rich and hence include enough data to determine (2). For the argument against (1) to work, the “descriptive facts” have to be more like the facts of natural science than like facts about divine commands.

Web-based tool for adding timed text and a timer to a video

When making my Guinness application record video, I wanted to include a time display in the video and Guinness also required a running count display. I ended up writing a Python script using OpenCV2 to generate a video of the time and lap count, and overlaid it with the main video in Adobe Premiere Rush.

Since then, I wrote a web-based tool for generating a WebP animation of a timer and text synchronized to a set of times. The timer can be in seconds or tenths of a second, and you can specify a list of text messages and the times to display them (or to hide them). You can then overlay it on a video in Premiere Rush or Pro. There is alpha support, so you can have a transparent or translucent background if you like, and a bunch of fonts to choose from (including the geeky-looking Hershey font that I used in my Python script.)

The code uses webpxmux.js, though it was a little bit tricky because in-browser Javascript may not have enough memory to store all the uncompressed images that webpxmux.js needs to generate an animation. So instead I encode each frame to WebP using webpxmux.js, extract the compressed ALPH and VP8 chunks from the WebP file, and store only the compressed chunks, writing them all at the end. (It would be even better from the memory point of view to write the chunks one by one rather than storing them in memory, but a WebP file has a filesize in its header, and that’s not known until all the compressed chunks have been generated. One could get around this limitation by generating the video twice, but that would be twice as slow.)

Monday, December 12, 2022

More on non-moral and moral norms

People often talk of moral norms as overriding. The paradigm kind of case seems to be like this:

  1. You are N-forbidden to ϕ but morally required to ϕ,

where “N” is some norm like that of prudence or etiquette. In this case, the moral requirement of ϕing overrides the N-prohibition on ϕing. Thus, you might be rude to make a point of justice or sacrifice your life for the sake of justice.

But if there are cases like (1), there will surely also be cases where the moral considerations in favor of ϕing do not rise to the level of a requirement, but are sufficient to override the N-prohibition. In those cases, presumably:

  1. You are N-forbidden to ϕ but morally permitted to ϕ.

Cases of supererogation look like that: you are morally permitted to do something contrary to prudential norms, but not required to do so.

So far so good. Moral norms can override non-moral norms in two ways: by creating a moral requirement contrary to the non-moral norms or by creating a moral permission contrary to the non-moral norms.

But now consider this. What happens if the moral considerations are at an even lower level, a level insufficient to override the N-prohibition? (E.g., what if to save someone’s finger you would need to sacrifice your arm?) Then, it seems:

  1. You are N-forbidden to ϕ and not morally permitted to ϕ.

But this would be quite interesting. It would imply that in the absence of sufficient moral considerations in favor of ϕing, an N-prohibition would automatically generate a moral prohibition. But this means that the real normative upshot in all three cases is given by morality, and the N-norms aren’t actually doing any independent normative work. This suggests strongly that on such a picture, we should take the N-norms to be simply a species of moral norms.

However, there is another story possible. Perhaps in the case where the moral considerations are at too low a level to override the N-prohibition, we can still have moral permission to ϕ, but that permission no longer overrides the N-prohibition. On this story, there are two kinds of cases, in both of which we have moral permission, but in one case the moral permission comes along with sufficiently strong moral considerations to override the N-prohibition, while in the other it does not. On this story, moral requirement always overrides non-moral reasons; but whether moral considerations override non-moral considerations depends on the relative strengths of the two sets of considerations.

Still, consider this. The judgment whether moral considerations override the non-moral ones seems to be an eminently moral judgment. It is the person with moral virtue who is best suited to figuring out whether such overriding happens. But what happens if morality says that the moral considerations do not override the N-prohibition? Is that not a case of morality giving its endorsement to the N-prohibition, so that the N-prohibition would rise to the level of a moral prohibition as well? But if so, then that pushes us back to the previous story where it is reasonable to take N-considerations to be subsumed into moral considerations.

I don’t want to say that all norms are moral norms. But it may well be that all norms governing the functioning of the will are moral norms.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Utilitarianism, egoism and promises

Suppose Alice and Bob are perfect utilitarians or perfect amoral egoists in any combination. They are about to play a game where they raise a left hand or a right hand in a separate booth, and if they both raise the same hand, they both get something good. Otherwise, nobody gets that good. Nobody sees what they’re doing in the game: the game is fully automated. And they both have full shared knowledge of the above.

They confer before the game and promise to one another to raise the right hand. They go into their separate rooms. And what happens next?

Take first the case where they are both perfect amoral egoists. Amoral egoists don’t care about promises. So the fact that an amoral egoist promised to raise the right hand is no evidence at all that they will raise the right hand, unless there is something in it for them. But is there anything in it for them? Well, if Bob raises his right hand, then there is something in it for Alice to raise her right hand. But note that this conditional is true regardless of whether they’ve made any promises to each other, and it is equally true that if Bob raises his left hand, then there is something in it for Alice to raise her left hand.

The promise is simply irrelevant here. It is true that in normal circumstances, it makes sense for egoists to keep promises in order to fool people into thinking that they have morality. But I’ve assumed full shared knowledge of each other’s tendencies here, and so no such considerations apply here.

It is true that if Alice expects Bob to expect her to keep her promise, then Alice will expect Bob to raise his right hand, and hence she should raise her right hand. But since she’s known to be an amoral egoist, there is no reason for Bob to expect Alice to keep her promise. And the same vice versa.

What if they are utilitarians? It makes no difference. Since in this case both always get the same outcome, there is no difference between utilitarians and amoral egoists.

This means that in cases like this, with full transparency of behavioral tendencies, utilitarians and amoral egoists will do well to brainwash or hypnotize themselves into promise-keeping.

In ordinary life, this problem doesn’t arise as much, because as long as at least one person is more typical, and hence takes promises to have reason-giving force, or if public opinion is around to enforce promise-keeping, then the issue doesn’t come up. But I think there is a lesson here and in the previous post: for many ordinary practice, the utilitarian is free-riding on the non-utilitarians.

Utilitarianism and communication

Alice and Bob are both perfect Bayesian epistemic agents and subjectively perfect utilitarians (i.e., they always do what by their lights maximizes expected utility). Bob is going to Megara. He comes to a crossroads, from which two different paths lead to Megara. On exactly one of these paths there is a man-eating lion and on the other there is nothing special. Alice knows which path has the lion. The above is all shared knowledge for Alice and Bob.

Suppose the lion is on the left path. What should Alice do? Well, if she can, she should bring it about that Bob takes the right path, because doing so would clearly maximize utility. How can she do that? An obvious suggestion: Engage in a conventional behavior indicating a where the lion is, such as pointing left and roaring, or saying “Hail well-met traveler, lest you be eaten, I advise you to avoid the leftward leonine path.”

But I’ve been trying really hard to figure out how is it that such a conventional behavior would indicate to Bob that the lion is on the left path.

If Alice were a typical human being, she would have a habit of using established social conventions to tell the truth about things, except perhaps in exceptional cases (such as the murderer at the door), and so her use of the conventional lion-indicating behavior would correlate with the presence of lions, and would provide Bob with evidence of the presence of lions. But Alice is not a typical human being. She is a subjectively perfect utilitarian. Social convention has no normative force for Alice (or Bob, for that matter). Only utility does.

Similarly, if Bob were a typical human being, he would have a habit of forming his beliefs on the basis of testimony interpreted via established social conventions absent reason to think one is being misinformed, and so Alice’s engaging in conventional left-path lion-indicating behavior would lead Bob to think there is a lion on the left, and hence to go on the right. And while it woudl still be true that social convention has no normative force for Alice, Alice would think have reason to think that Bob follows convention, and for the sake of maximizing utility would suit her behavior to his. But Bob is a perfect Bayesian. He doesn’t form beliefs out of habit. He updates on evidence. And given that Alice is not a typical human being, but a subjectively perfect utilitarian, it is unclear to me why her engaging in the conventional left-path lion-indicating behavior is more evidence for the lion being on the left than for the lion being on the right. For Bob knows that convention carries no normative force for Alice.

Here is a brief way to put it. For Alice and Bob, convention carries no weight except as a predictor of the behavior of convention-bound people, i.e., people who are not subjectively perfect utilitarians. It is shared knowledge between Alice and Bob that neither is convention-bound. So convention is irrelevant to the problem at hand, the problem of getting Bob to avoid the lion. But there is no solution to the problem absent convention or some other tool unavailable to the utilitarian (a natural law theorist might claim that mimicry and pointing are natural indicators).

If the above argument is correct—and I am far from confident of that, since it makes my head spin—then we have an argument that in order for communication to be possible, at least one of the agents must be convention-bound. One way to be convention-bound is to think, in a way utilitarians don’t, that convention provides non-consequentialist reasons. Another way is to be an akratic utilitarian, addicted to following convention. Now, the possibility of communication is essential for the utility of the kinds of social animals that we are. Thus we have an argument that at least some subjective utilitarians will have to become convention-bound, either by getting themselves to believe that convention has normative force or by being akratic.

This is not a refutation of utilitarianism. Utilitarians, following Parfit, are willing to admit that there could be utility maximization reasons to cease to be utilitarian. But it is, nonetheless, really interesting if something as fundamental as communication provides such a reason.

I put this as an issue about communication. But maybe it’s really an issue about communication but coordination. Maybe the literature on repeated games might help in some way.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Transfer of endurance

There are empirical indications that various skills and maybe even virtues are pretty domain specific. It seems that being good at reasoning about one thing need not make one good at reasoning about another, even if the reasoning is formally equivalent.

I do have a piece of anecdotal data, though. I’ve been doing some endurance-ish sports. Nothing nearly like a marathon, but things like swimming 2-3 km, or climbing for an hour, typically (but not always) competing against myself.

And I have noticed some transfer of skills and maybe even of the virtue of patience both between the various sports and between the sports and other repetitive activities, such as grading. There is a distinctive feeling I have when I am half-way through something, and where I am fairly confident I can finish it, and a kind of relaxation past the half-way point where I become more patient, and time seems to flow “better”. For instance, I can compare how tired I feel half-way through a long set of climbs and how tired I feel half-way through a 2 km swim, and the comparison can give me some strength. Similar positive thinking can happen while grading, things like “I can do it” or “There isn’t all that much left.” Though there are also differences between the sports and the grading, because in grading the quality of the work matters a lot more, and since I am not racing against myself so there is no point of a burst of speed at the end if I find myself with an excess of energy. Pacing is also much less important for grading.

I have no idea if anything like this transfer works for other people.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Dividing up reasons

One might think that reasons for action are exhaustively and exclusively divided into the moral and the prudential. Here is a problem with this. Suppose that you have a spinner divided into red and green areas. If you spin it and it lands into red, something nice happens to you; if it lands on green, something nice happens to a deserving stranger. You clearly have reason to spin the spinner. But, assuming the division of reasons, your reason for spinning it is neither moral nor prudential.

So what should we say? One possibility is to say that there are only reasons of one type, say the moral. I find that attractive. Then benefits to yourself also give you moral reason to act, and so you simply have a moral reason to spin the spinner. Another possibility is to say that in addition to moral and prudential reasons there is some third class of “mixed” or “combination” reasons.

Objection: The chance p of the spinner landing on red is a prudential reason and the chance 1 − p of its landing on green is a moral reason. So you have two reasons, one moral and one prudential.

Response: That may be right in the simple case. But now imagine that the “red” set is a saturated nonmeasurable subset of the spinner edge, and the “green” set is also such. A saturated nonmeasurable subset has no reasonable probability assignment, not even a non-trivial range of probabilities like from 1/3 to 1/2 (at best we can assign it the full range from 0 to 1). Now the reason-giving strength of a chancy outcome is proportionate to the probability. But in the saturated nonmeasurable case, there is no probability, and hence no meaningful strength for the red-based reason or for the green-based reason. But there is a meaningful strength for the red-or-green moral-cum-prudential reason. The red-or-green-based reason hence does not reduce to two separate reasons, one moral and one prudential.

Now, one might have technical worries about saturated nonmeasurable sets figuring in decisions. I do. (E.g., see the Axiom of Choice chapter in my infinity book.) But now instead of supposing saturated nonmeasurable sets, suppose a case where an agent subjectively has literally no idea whether some event E will happen—has no probability assignment for E whatsoever, not even a ranged one (except for the full range from 0 to 1). The spinner landing on a set believed to be saturated nonmeasurable might be an example of such a case, but the case could be more humdrum—it’s just a case of extreme agnosticism. And now suppose that the agent is told that if they so opt, then they will get something nice on E and a deserving stranger will get something nice otherwise.

Final remark: The argument applies to any exclusive and exhaustive division of reasons into “simple” (i.e., non-combination) types.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Greek mathematics

I think it is sometimes said that it is anachronistic to attribute to the ancient Greeks the discovery that the square root of two is irrational, because what they discovered was a properly geometrical fact, that the side and diagonal of a square are incommensurable, rather than a fact about real numbers.

It is correct to say that the Greeks discovered an incommensurability fact. But it is, I think, worth noting that this incommensurability fact is not really geometric fact: it is a geometric-cum-arithmetical fact. Here is why. The claim that two line segments are commensurable says that there are positive integers m and n such that m copies of the first segment have the same length as n copies of the second. This claim is essentially arithmetical in that it quantifies over positive integers.

And because pure (Tarskian) geometry is decidable, while the theory of the positive integers is not decidable, the positive integers are not definable in terms of pure geometry, so we cannot eliminate the quantification over positive integers. In fact, it is known that the rational numbers are not definable in terms of pure geometry either, so neither the incommensurability formulation nor theory irrationality formulation is a purely geometric claim.

I think. All this decidability and definability stuff confuses me often.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

A new (but uncertified) world record

And now for something not very philosophical. Today, in front of two witnesses and two timekeepers and with the help of Levi Durham doing an amazing feat of belaying me for an hour, I beat the Guinness World Record in greatest vertical distance climbed in one hour on an indoor climbing wall. The previous record was 928.5m and I did 1013.7m (with about half a minute to spare). On Baylor's climbing wall, this involved 67 climbs divided into sets of 10 (the last was 7), with about a minute of rest between sets (the clock kept on running during the rest).

Technical notes:
  • The top of the wall is 15.13 meters vertically from the ground (as measured by a geology grad student), at 3.5 degree slab.
  • I trained for about three months, not very heavily. In training did two unofficial full-length practice runs, and in each I beat the previous record: in the first one I got 947.1 meters and in the second I got 1004.5, so I was pretty confident I could beat the 928.5 meters on the official attempt (though I was still pretty nervous). I also trained by doing a small number of approximately 1/2 or 1/3 sized practices (maybe three or so), and more regular shorter runs (1-10 climbs) at fast pace. 
  • The route was a standard 5.7 grade for most of my training (including when I unofficially beat the records), with Rock management kindly agreeing to keep the route up for several months for me. For the final attempt, we added holds to make the finish at the top of the wall, and changed three other holds to easier ones. (Guinness has no route grade requirements.) 
  • A Kindle Fire running a pre-release version of my Giant Stopwatch app provided unofficial timing for audience to see and for my pacing. I had to modify the app to have a periodic beep to meet Guinness's requirements of an audible stop signal.
  • I climbed in sets of 10. The planned pace was 8:18 per set and a 44-45 second rest between sets (clock runs during rests,), averaging at 49.8 seconds per climb including descent. I was always ahead of pace, and I occasionally took a mini break at the mid-point time if I was too far ahead.
  • On the ground there was a sheet of paper with the start and end times of each break printed in large letters (calculated by this script), as well as the mid-point time for each set of 10 to keep me better on pace. 
  • I wore moderately worn (one small hole) and comfortable 5.10 Anasazi shoes, a Camp USA Energy harness, shorts and a T-shirt. (I have not received any sponsorship.) My belayer used a tube-style device and wore belay gloves.
  • In the morning I stress-baked pumpkin muffins for myself and the volunteers. I had the muffins, water and loose chalk on a table for use during breaks.
  • About half-way through, I ducked into the storage area inside the rock and changed to a dry shirt. 
  • Most of my practice was with an auto-belay, and at a shorter distance per climb (and hence greater number of climbs needed) since the auto-belay makes it impossible to get to the top of the wall. The auto-belay is also spring loaded so it effectively decreases body weight (by 7 lbs at the bottom according to my measurement). Then a couple of weeks ago the auto-belay was closed by management due to a maintenance issue, and I had a break in training until the Wednesday before the official attempt when I trained with a manual belay. 
  • Since Guinness requires video proof in addition to human witnesses, in the interests of redundancy, I had three cameras pointed at the attempt. The best footage (above) is from a Sony A7R2 with a zoom lens at 16mm, producing 1080P at 59.94 fps. Video was processed with Adobe Premiere Rush. The processing consisted of trimming the start and end, and adding a timing video track I generated with a Python OpenCV2 script, synchronized with single-frame precision at the 1:00:00 point with the footage of Giant Stopwatch (barely visible under the table towards the end of the video; early in the video, glare hides it). For the unofficial version I link above, I accelerated the middle climbs 10X in Premiere Rush.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Moderately pacifist war

I’ve been wondering whether it is possible for a country to count as pacifist and yet wage a defensive war. I think the answer is positive, as long as one has a moderate pacifism that is opposed to lethal violence but not to all violence. I think that a prohibition of all violence is untenable. It seems obvious that if you see someone about to shoot an innocent person, and you can give the shooter a shove to make them miss, you presumptively should.

Here’s what could be done by a moderately pacifist country.

First, we have “officially” non-lethal weapons: tasers, gas, etc. Some of these might violate current international law, but it seems that a pacifist country could modify its commitment to some accords.

Second, “lethal” weapons can be used less than lethally. For instance, with modern medicine, abdominal gunshot wounds are only 10% fatal, yet they are no doubt very effective at stopping an attacker. While it may seem weird to imagine a pacifist shooting someone in the stomach, when the chance of survival is 90%, it does not seem unreasonable to say that the pacifist could be aiming to stop the attacker non-lethally. After all, tasers sometimes kill, too. They do so less than 0.25% of the time, but that’s a difference of degree rather than of principle.

Third, we might subdivide moderate pacifists based on whether they prohibit all violence that foreseeably leads to death or just violence that intentionally leads to death. If it is only intentionally lethal violence that is forbidden, then quite a bit of modern warfare can stand. If the enemy is attacking with tanks or planes, one can intentionally destroy the tank or plane as a weapon, while only foreseeing, without intending, the death of the crew. (I don’t know how far one can take this line without sophistry. Can one drop a bomb on an infantry unit intending to smash up their rifles without intending to kill the soldiers?) Similarly, one can bomb enemy weapons factories.

Whether such a limited way of waging war could be successful probably depends on the case. If one combined the non-lethal (or not intentionally lethal) means with technological and numerical superiority, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if one could win.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Against a moderate pacifism

Imagine a moderate pacifist who rejects lethal self-defense, but allows non-lethal self-defense when appropriate, say by use of tasers.

Now, imagine that one person is attacking you and nine other innocents, with the intent of killing the ten of you, and you can stop them with a taser. Surely you should, and surely the moderate pacifist will say that this is an appropriate use case for the taser.

Very well. Now consider this on a national level. Suppose there are a million enemy soldiers ordered to commit genocide against ten million, and you have two ways to stop them:

  1. Tase the million soldiers.

  2. Kill the general.

If you can tase one person to stop the murder of ten, then (1) should be permissible if it’s the only option. But tasers occasionally kill people. We don’t know how often. Apparently it’s less than 1 in 400 uses. Suppose it’s 1 in 4000. Then option (1) results in 250 enemy deaths.

So maybe our choice is between tasing a million, thereby non-intentionally killing 250 soldiers, and intentionally killing one general. It seems to me that (2) is morally preferable, even though our moderate pacifist has to allow (1) and forbid (2).

Note that a version of this argument goes through even if the moderate pacifist backs up and says that tasers are too lethal. For suppose instead of tasers we have drones that destroy the dominant hand of an enemy soldier while guaranteeing survival (with science fictional medical technology). It’s clearly right to release such a drone on a soldier who is about to kill ten innocents. But now compare:

  1. Destroy the dominant hand of a million soldiers.

  2. Kill the general.

I think (4) is still morally preferable to causing the kind of disruption to the lives of a million people that plan (3) would involve.

These may seem to be consequentialist arguments. I don't think so. I don't have the same intuitions if we replace the general by the general's innocent child in (2) and (4), even if killing the child were to stop the war (e.g., by making the general afraid that their other children would be murdered).

Normative powers

A normative power is a power to change a normative condition. Raz says the change is not produced “causally” but “normatively”.

Here is a picture on which this is correct. We exercise a normative power by exercising a natural power in such a context that the successful exercise of the natural power is partly constitutive of a normative fact. For instance, we utter a promise, thereby exercising a natural power to engage in a certain kind of speech act, and our exercise of that speech act is partly constitutive of, rather than causal of, the state of affairs of our being obligated to carry out the promised action.

There are two versions of the above model. On one version, there is an underlying fundamental conditional normative fact C, such as that if I have promised something then I should do it, and my exercise of normative power supplies the antecedent A of that conditional, and then the normative consequent of C comes to be grounded in C and A. On another version, there there are some natural acts that are directly constitutive of a normative state of affairs, not merely by supplying the antecedent of a conditional normative fact. I think the first version of the model is the more plausible in paradigmatic cases.

But why not allow for a causal model? Why not suppose that a normative power is a causal power to make an irreducible normative property come to be instantiated in someone? Thus, my power to promise is the power to cause myself to be obligated to do what I have promised.

I think the difficulty with a causal model is the fact that in paradigm cases of normative power, there is a natural power that is being exercised, and we have the intuition that the exercise of the natural power is necessary and sufficient for the normative effect. But on a causal model, why couldn’t I cause a promissory-type obligation without promising, simply causing the relevant property of being obligated to come to be instantiated in me? And why couldn’t I engage in the speech act while yet remaining normatively unbound, because my normative power wasn’t exercised in parallel with the natural power?

Maybe the answer to both questions is that I could, but only metaphysically and not causally. In other words, it could be that the laws of nature, or of human nature, make it impossible for me to exercise one of the powers without the other, just as I cannot wiggle my ring finger without wiggling my middle finger as well. On this view, if there is a God, he could cause me to acquire promissory-type obligations without my promising, and he could let me engage in the natural act of promising while blocking the exercise of normative power and leaving me normatively unbound. This doesn’t seem particularly problematic.

Perhaps the real problem for a lot of people with a causal view of normative powers is that it tends to lead to a violation of supervenience. For if it is metaphysically possble to have the exercise of the normative power without the exercise of the natural power, or vice versa, then it seems we don’t have supervenience of the normative on the non-normative. But supervenience does not seem to me to be inescapable.