Some philosophers are bold; they defend strong positions with few hedges or caveats. Others are cautious; they defend weak positions with many hedges and caveats. Which of these two approaches, bold or cautious, is better?
Price gouging seems like a rotten thing to do. There isn't much written about it from a philosophic perspective, but most philosophers I've talked to think it's a fairly nasty practice. President Bush thinks it's morally analagous to looting. And it's illegal in most states. Here in California, for instance, if in the wake of an earthquake I were to sell bags of ice which I normally sold for $2.00 per bag for $2.20 per bag or more, I would be guilty of a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a $10,000 fine. Yikes.
Many of you will likely recall my post last fall on esoteric normative theories. That was a wonderfully provocative discussion, one I'd like to pursue further. In particular, I'd like to get a handle on the history of esotericism as an objection to normative theories, in the hope that I can distill out whether there is a single objection here or many; whether the objection is logically independent of other objections that can be made to normative theories; what force, if any, such an objection has; etc.
It seems the following is nowadays a popular view:
Wide scope view: sentences of the form "If p, then it ought to be the case that q" have the logical form
O(p -> q)
where O is an "ought" operator and -> denotes a material conditional.
The operator O has wide scope; it "governs" the whole conditional, not just the consequent (as in p -> Oq). Although less faithful to surface grammar, the wide-scope reading is thought to have other advantages over the more natural narrow-scope reading. But I won't go into those advantages here. Instead I want to raise some worries about the wide scope view.
Suppose that what ultimately matters is the objective goodness of what you do –
where the objective goodness of an action is determined by the action’s actual outcome, not merely by the expected outcome. But suppose that you
usually don’t know for certain what degree of objective goodness any of the
available options will have. You must make your choices by following a rule
that determines which options are eligible purely on the basis of the probabilities that you assign to various
hypotheses about the degree of objective goodness that each of these available options will have. What
reason could there be for you to have a policy of always choosing an option
that has a maximal expected degree of
Classical decision theory is built around a central "representation theorem": so long as an agent's preferences meet certain basic conditions of coherence, we can construct a function that represents the agent's preferences -- in the sense that the agent prefers one prospect X over a second prospect Y if and only if the value that this function assigns to X is greater than the value that the function assigns to Y; and moreover, this function has a fundamentally expectational structure, in the sense that the value that this function assigns to an uncertain prospect is the weighted sum of the values that the function assigns to all the possible outcomes of that prospect -- where the value of each of these possible outcomes is weighted by the probability that that prospect will have that outcome.
So for classical decision theory, everything flows from these basic conditions on coherent preferences. In turn, these coherence conditions are typically defended by means of "Dutch book" arguments, which seek to show that someone whose preferences violate these conditions of coherence would be willing to take out a set of bets that would guarantee a certain loss, no matter what happened.
My problem is, I like the general idea that when we're not certain what situation we're in, we should be guided by probabilities. (As Joseph Butler, one of my philosophical heroes, put it, "To us, probability is the very guide of life.") And intuitively, the most rational way of being guided by probabilities in making our choices or decisions is by making choices that have maximal expected value (using probabilities to define the concept of the "expected" value of a function in the normal way). But for various reasons, I can't accept the classical decision theorist's explanation of why we should maximize expected value.
Practical conditionals are a problem.We all use conditionals like, “If you want a great steak, you ought to go to Manny’s Steak House.”But suppose I do want a great steak; does it follow that I ought to go to Manny’s?No—maybe my doctor has told me to lay off the red meat.Then is the conditional false?That doesn’t seem right either, if Manny’s really is the best place for a great steak.
We can put a sharper point on this problem.Suppose your best friend’s wife is very attractive, attractive enough to put ideas in your head.(Readers of other persuasions will have to generate their own example.)But suppose also that you think sleeping with one’s best friend’s wife is morally repugnant.Consider the two claims, both plausible in their own way:
(A) If you want to seduce your best friend’s wife, you ought to spend a lot of time alone with her.
(B) If you want to seduce your best friend’s wife, you ought not spend a lot of time alone with her.*
Add the premise that you want to seduce your best friend’s wife, and we have two parallel modus ponens arguments, one of which concludes that you ought, and the other that you ought not, spend a lot of time alone with her.