Climate Change

I’m about to go to Chicago for a conference on global warming and like environmental issues (part of the Chicago Festival of the Humanities). I’m appearing with Peter Singer and Chris Stone, with Dale Jamieson as chair. For me there will be some local cooling–going from Miami to Chicago. My thesis will be that the earth is intrinsically valuable, not merely valuable because it houses us. Therefore the earth can be harmed and its value compromised–say, by rendering it barren. I think the value of the earth depends upon three main factors: its physical beauty, seen from up close or from a distance; its ability to support life in all its forms; and its inherent interestingness (much more so than the moon, say). When we damage the earth we run the risk of destroying its value-conferring properties. So climate change is potentially bad not merely because it threatens the well-being of future humans but also because it right now offends against the earth’s intrinsic value.

Deontological Pluralism

I like W.D. Ross’s mixed deontology of irreducible prima facie duties, like keeping promises and repaying debts and exercising beneficence. Ross takes these duties to be self-evident and known with certainty, while he acknowledges that we can have no more than “probable opinion” about the rightness of a particular action. He also accepts that the several duties can conflict with each other and that we have no recourse except to use our “judgment” in such cases, with no overarching criterion of rightness to resolve such conflicts. Critics have found these to be weaknesses in his position. I, on the contrary, find them to be strengths. It really is true that the right act is often the fortunate act, and that ascriptions of absolute rightness are hostage to unforseen consequences. Also, it is a philosopher’s illusion to think that there can be any escape from conflicts of principle: moral directives don’t always harmonize and decisions will require the use of context-bound judgment. How can we weigh the wrongness of telling a lie against the potential benefits of lying? There’s no litmus test.

Dispositions and Reality

Dispositions don’t tie down meaning and reference (Quine, Kripke). Dispositions don’t tie down qualia (pace functionalism). And dispositions don’t tie down matter (Russell et al). Neither language nor mind nor matter can be explained in terms of dispositions. Dispositions are a superstructure suspended over these three realms, but not their essence. Reality is not subjunctive.

Forehand and Backhand

Lately I’ve found that as my backhand has improved my forehand has deteriorated. Now my backhand is my best shot, while in the past I struggled with it (as most players do). There seems to be what psychologists call negative transfer of training from one hand to the other. The forehand used to feel natural and the backhand unnatural, now it’s the other way round. I plan to use my ball machine to get my forehand back into shape. Will my backhand suffer a corresponding decline? (David, my instructor, thinks I’ve just got lazy and complacent about my forehand. “Move your feet!” he shouts at me, while drilling me mercilessly.)

The Raccoon

I’m putting a story about a raccoon and me on the site. It happened this summer, and every detail in my telling is factual–strange as some of it may sound. Make of it what you will.


I’ve just been teaching Kantian ethics. The idea is that a right action is one the guiding maxim of which can be universalized without contradiction, and a wrong action is one that cannot be so universalized. So it is wrong to break your promises because if everyone did so there would be no institution of promising. It is contradictory to will universal promise-breaking, since there can be promises only when there is trust in them–which requires that they generally be kept. It’s a very clever idea, but one that only a rationalist philosopher could approve–that it’s actually contradictory to act immorally. The fault of the bad person is thus purely intellectual: he can’t see that his actions are guided by contradictory principles. Immorality is a form of incoherence. If only!

Ball Machines

Last weekend I for the first time played tennis against a ball machine. It was quite an experience. I hit balls by myself on the court for a full three hours, working on my technique (half volley backhands, down the line side to side forehands). I’m sure I improved my game considerably. Then I played a couple of hours with lads of 17 and 13. All in all, I was on the court for six hours. At the end my right arm was killing me and my legs were shot. Excessive? Sure, but that’s the way to get good at tennis. You just keep doing it till you get it right.

Mastic Beach, Long Island

The first thing that confronted us on our return to Long Island, after eleven months away, was a rat in the sofa. More precisely, the nest, remnants, and droppings of what was most likely a rat (the squirrel hypothesis had a moment in the sun). The rat had obviously come into the house during the winter and made a nice little home for itself; much the same thing had happened five years earlier. We had even left a large supply of cat food for it to feed on—and its little ones too, in all probability. The home was a pocket sized hole in the cushioning, carefully constructed, quite cozy looking–with bits of stuffing torn out and mingling with the dried droppings behind the sofa. Cathy was highly displeased, not to say disgusted, and wanted to spend the night in the car, in case our guest felt like returning. But she relented, firmly closing the bedroom door instead. The next day I cleaned up the mess with brush and pan and lugged the heavy sofa outside, to be picked up by the town. You expect some animal inconvenience in Mastic—but rats in the sofa?