What would it really mean to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow?

Banks-Salwowski-Wraparound-Cover.jpgPictured: job of tomorrow?

PressProgress has published a skeptical view about the Liberals’ plans for the economy of the future, pointing out significant gaps in a strategy based largely on training and skills development. I’m skeptical about some of the proposals in the CLC document they link to, but I agree with the basic idea. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing a high-flexibility approach (including a lot of “job churn”) to economic development. This approach comes with certain hazards for workers’ prospects, but so does the opposite approach. In both cases, the hazards can be managed with the help of government policy. In my view, the problem is not that the government wants to follow a high-flexibility approach, it’s that they’re failing to pursue policies that would effectively manage the hazards that come with that approach. In addition to job training programs, such policies would include expanding the scope of public insurance programs into areas normally covered by employer-linked benefit packages, an income security program that protects against income shocks following transition between jobs (not just during unemployment), enhanced wage subsidies, a higher minimum wage, providing low-cost public housing to ease the difficulty of relocation, accessible childcare, and guaranteed employment on the government payroll. Without measures like these, the government’s claim to be preparing workers for the jobs of tomorrow is not credible.

Panpsychism and theoretical virtue in philosophy of mind

pee-wees-playhouse.jpgDespite what you might have heard, this is not quite what panpsychists believe

A few weeks ago, Aeon published a short piece by Philip Goff laying out what he calls the simplicity argument for panpsychism. According to panpsychism, consciousness is a fundamental natural property that is ubiquitous in nature. On this view, the complex consciousness of creatures like human beings is explained by reference to the simple consciousness of fundamental physical entities (usually — but not necessarily — very small things like electrons, quarks or strings). Panpsychism thus stands in contrast to most kinds of physicalism, according to which complex consciousness is to be explained by reference to (if not reduced to) the kinds of properties that fundamental physics is concerned with, and to substance dualism, according to which complex consciousness is explained by reference to properties of an entirely nonphysical (and in some cases non-natural) substance.

As I understand it, Goff’s simplicity argument for panpsychism is roughly as follows. Physics is concerned with the behaviour of physical things, but beyond this, it provides no insight into what physical things really are — it is silent regarding the intrinsic (non-behavioural) nature of the physical. But we’re not completely ignorant about the intrinsic nature of the physical, because we know from direct experience that some matter (healthy human brains) possesses consciousness. Consciousness must be an intrinsic property of the physical object that is the brain, because it is not necessary to invoke consciousness to explain the physics of the brain. So knowledge of our own consciousness gives us the knowledge that consciousness is an intrinsic property of some physical things. If we deny that consciousness is an intrinsic property of all (fundamental) physical things, we have to posit some unknown non-conscious intrinsic property. But all things being equal, we ought to prefer simpler theories over more complicated ones. There is no explanatory advantage to positing two kinds of intrinsic properties for the physical, one of them conscious and directly accessible and the other one non-conscious and totally mysterious. If all fundamental physical things have the same conscious intrinsic nature, physics will have the same content as if some things have a conscious intrinsic nature and other things have a non-conscious intrinsic nature. Considerations of simplicity therefore dictate that we suppose all matter has the same intrinsic nature, which involves consciousness.

I’m mostly on board with panpsychism (especially the cosmopsychist variety which I described in this post) but I’m not so sure about this argument. My main worry is that simplicity is a virtue of scientific theories by methodological stipulation. There’s an infinite number of theories that can account for the data; selecting the simplest theory with equivalent explanatory and predictive power narrows down the alternatives and yields theories that are easier to learn, use, test, etc. That’s a good enough reason to apply the simplicity criterion to scientific theories. But I’m not sure that the simplicity criterion yields (or is more likely to yield) true theories, and philosophy of mind aims for truth, not utility. So I’m not sure it’s appropriate to treat considerations of simplicity as dispositive in the context of philosophy of mind the way we would in the context of scientific theorizing.

For further reading, see Goff’s response to some critics of his article: https://conscienceandconsciousness.com/2017/03/18/the-simplicity-argument-for-panpsychism-2/

Bad employers and Anderson’s pluralist theory of value

thelastoutpost_hd_332.jpgSay what you will about the Ferengi, at least they don’t question your motives when you ask about wages

National Observer has an interesting article about a woman, Taylor Byrnes, whose job interview with a food delivery company was cancelled because she asked a basic question about compensation. The company, which runs a food delivery service called “Skip the Dishes”,  explained that the question showed that Byrnes’s “priorities are not in sync” with theirs. In a followup email intended to clarify their position, a company representative wrote that prospective employees are expected to be “proven self-starters” with “intrinsic motivation” to pursue the company’s goals without regard for compensation.

Philosophers like Karl Polanyi and Michael Sandel have written about the norms of the market economy encroaching on other areas of social life and leading to a market society. But this story shows the spillover going in the other direction, with equally troubling results. The prospective employee was disqualified because she was acting under market norms, approaching the company in the manner of a worker selling her labour in a market economy. Under these norms, simple questions about the terms of the exchange between employer and employee are routine. However, the company unreasonably expects its engagement with the labour market to be conducted under some set of non-market norms — norms that are appropriate in a voluntary association, for example, or an athletic club, or a group of friends.

This example helps to clarify what’s bad about the encroachment of market values on the rest of society, because it shows that these norms are not bad in themselves; in fact the company wronged Byrnes precisely because it refused to apply market norms in its interaction with a prospective employee. As Elizabeth Anderson has argued:

To argue that the market has limits is to acknowledge that is also has its proper place in human life. A wide range of goods are properly regarded as pure commodities…. It is beneficial not only to have these goods, but to be able to procure them freely through the anonymous, unencumbered channels the market provides. The difficult task for modern societies is to reap the advantages of the market while keeping its activities confined to the goods proper to it.*

The illegitimate encroachment of market norms and the illegitimate encroachment of non-market norms are two sides of a more general problem. Neither set of norms is globally valid, for all spheres of relations. The realization of different important values requires the observance of different norms, and applying a set of norms beyond the sphere of relations in which it is valid threatens those values.

*The quotation is from pages 166-167 of Value in Ethics and Economics, at the end of a chapter adapted from her paper “The Ethical Limitations of the Market”, which concludes with a slightly different version of this quotation.

What’s the timeline for the political fundraising panel?

CBC reports:

The B.C. Liberal government is poised to announce the formation of a special panel to look into the province’s political fundraising rules, following heavy criticism of the governing party’s own practices.

Premier Christy Clark’s office has confirmed that the government plans to form an independent panel of non-partisan experts to investigate political campaign financing.

According to a spokesman in the premier’s office the new panel may consider setting donation limits and banning corporate donations.

The panel will reported to the legislative assembly, but it is unlikely that any changes the panel recommends will come into practice before the May 9 provincial election.

I’m curious about the panel’s terms of reference. The article says it will be an independent body reporting to the Legislative Assembly. But the current legislature will be dissolved in less than a month. If the panel’s work is not complete before the legislature dissolves, its report cannot be released until the new legislature convenes following the election (remember the kerfuffle around Sheila Fraser’s leaked draft report on summit expenses during the 2011 federal election). So this may be one way the Liberals intend to defuse the issue as far as possible, rather than trying to defend the indefensible status quo or caving in completely and running on fundraising reform commitments mirroring those of the opposition parties. Instead, during the campaign Clark can respond to Horgan and co. on the fundraising issue by just telling them to wait for the expert independent panel’s report, casting the opposition as impatient hotheads looking to score cheap points while the governing party pretends to handle the issue in a “professional” manner.

Stating the obvious about Republicans and health care


Congressional Republicans are still talking like they don’t know the difference between health insurance and bulk purchase of medical goods and services. Either they know the difference or they don’t. If they really don’t know the difference, they are not qualified to legislate on health care. If they really do know the difference, they are not to be trusted to legislate on health care. It’s implausible that anyone elected to the US Congress would not know what insurance is, so Congressional Republicans must not be worthy of trust to legislate on health care. If for this reason Congressional Republicans should not be trusted to legislate on health care, it’s because their true aims and motives cannot be justified by reference to the general welfare. If their aims and motives cannot be justified by reference to the general welfare, they must be explained by reference to personal or factional advantage. Access to health care is of paramount importance to the general welfare. It follows that Congressional Republicans are putting considerations of personal or factional advantage ahead of the general welfare on a matter of paramount importance. No person who puts personal or factional advantage before any profoundly important matter of public interest is fit for public office. So Republicans who talk like they don’t know the difference between insurance and bulk purchase are not fit for public office.

This is all obvious, I think, but writing it down in a form that makes the chain of reasoning clear helps blow off a little steam. Also, I want to keep this as a reminder to myself not to talk as though Congressional Republicans are stupid rather than malicious.

Ethics for time travellers: what does it mean to change the future?


In the classic Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever”, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock must travel back in time to reverse changes to the timeline that have wiped out the Federation, and with it the USS Enterprise. In Terminator 2, the heroes try to prevent the creation of an artificial intelligence that will be responsible the deaths of more than 3 billion people in a future nuclear war. And in X-men: Days of Future Past, Wolverine is psychically projected decades into the past to disrupt a chain of events that will ultimately result in the enslavement of humanity and the genocide of superpowered mutants.

What is the ontological status of the bad futures the heroes are striving to avert in these stories? In each case, at least some of the heroes have experienced the bad future first hand. In Days of Future Past, one characters even experienced multiple bad futures first hand, all of which involved of his comrades dying horribly at the hands of mutant-hunting robots. Even when these futures are in some sense averted, it seems there must be some other sense in which the events of those futures are still real, even if they can no longer be related temporally to the world of the present in the familiar way. To express this idea in another way, if God were to list every event, the list would include events from the bad future, even though these events could not truly be said to be in the future (or past) of any other events. We might say that the events of the bad future are absolutely real (i.e. real in an absolute sense) but relatively unreal (i.e. unreal relative to some set of events). Absolute reality is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for relative reality. When Kirk and Spock, or the T-800, or Wolverine travel into the past to prevent the bad future from coming about, the most they can hope to do is render the events of the bad future relatively unreal. An event that is absolutely real cannot be made absolutely unreal.

If bad futures cannot be made absolutely unreal, then our picture of the stakes in stories like Terminator 2 changes dramatically. Sarah, John and “Uncle Bob” can’t really be trying to prevent the nuclear war, at least not in the same sense that I might prevent a ball from rolling into the street by reaching down to pick it up before it reaches the curb. No matter what they do, the list of all events will still include events of suffering and death on an apocalyptic scale. But nor are they only rendering the events of the bad future relatively unreal. They are, in Sarah Connor’s words, “making up history” — bringing new events into absolute reality.

The upshot is that stories of this type only make sense within a consequentialist framework. Nothing can truly prevent or ameliorate the horrors of the bad future. The inhabitants of those worlds are lost beyond all possibility of help; between us there can be no moral relationship founded on virtue or duty. The most a time traveler can do is try to make the world better, and the only way to make the world better is to bring a better future into existence. Only this way can there be more good events than bad. And in all of these stories, bringing about a better feature is treated as having the exact same kind of urgency (morally and prudentially) as preventing bad events from ever coming about.

It does not follow from this that consequentialist reasoning has global validity — that it provides the appropriate framework for dealing with all kinds of moral situations. Virtue ethical and deontological frameworks can offer no practical guidance for time travellers from bad futures, but consequentialism faces equally serious problems dealing with normally more pressing ethical challenges like divided loyalties. It’s also not clear that time travel of the kind depicted in any of these stories is even logically possible, let alone permitted by the laws of physics. If the argument is sound, I think the most interesting thing about it is that it shows how the content of a final theory of normative ethics might depend on facts about what the laws of physics allow; if the laws of physics allow time travel, then a final theory of normative ethics must be consistent with the validity of consequentialism in at least some situations.

t2end.jpgOur hero giving the official salute of consequentialism