Monday, August 13, 2007


I can't resist sharing this new LOLphil that Daniel and I prepared earlier.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Flirting Again

This post comes to you from Seattle, where I'm mostly on holiday, but have also have just given my performance on the latest episode of Philosophy Talk, all about the philosophy of flirting. A couple of blog posts on the topic (by Ken Taylor and myself) can be read on the Philosophy Talk blog.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Maximizing, Satisficing and Gradability

Greetings from the BSPC, now complete apart from Recreation Day. Soon to follow: BSPC participants sorted into their Harry Potter houses, and lots of photos. But first, some philosophy.

This is actually unrelated to anything that happened during the sessions, and is instead something I have been chatting about with Daniel Nolan (who, incidentally, should get a joint-authorship credit on this post for helping me write up the idea and improve my examples, though I do not have evidence that he is committed to the view itself, nor should any errors herein be attributed to him, etc.).

The idea is that gradability can help accommodate the apparently conflicting intuitions of Maximizing and Satisficing consequentialists.

Maximizers think that only the action(s) with the best consequences are right; all others are wrong (though perhaps to greater or lesser degrees). Satisficers think that all actions with good enough consequences are right, and that there may be several actions, with consequences of differing values, which have good enough consequences. (It need not be assumed that to be good enough a state of affairs has to be good simpliciter; the least worst option may count as good enough even if it is not very good at all.)

My basic thought is that ‘right’ appears to be a gradable adjective like ‘tall’ or ‘flat’. Familiarly, in some contexts, such as when we are talking about basketball players, ‘tall’ is used in a very demanding way, so that someone has to be at least 6’5’’ to fall within its extension. In other contexts, such as when we are talking about children, it is used in a less demanding way, so that someone who is only 3’5’’ falls within its extension.

Another example of gradability may be helpful on the way to the gradability of ‘right’. Consider ‘at the front of the line’. (I’m in the US so it’s a line rather than a queue.) Sometimes, we use that phrase in such a way that only the one person at the very front of the line counts as ‘at the front of the line’. For instance, if we ask ‘Who is at the front of the line?’ because we want to award a prize to the person who is next to be served, we are using it in this demanding way. On other occasions, we use it in such a way that the first few people count as ‘at the front of the line’. For instance, if you and I join a queue of 50 people and I then notice that Ross is in fourth in line, I might say to you ‘It’s OK, we can queue-jump: I know someone at the front of the line’.

The idea about ‘right’, then, is that in some contexts, ‘right’ is used in a very demanding way, so that only the action with the best consequences will be in its extension. On other occasions of use, ‘right’ is used in a less demanding way, so that any action with good enough consequences is in its extension. This is a common phenomenon in natural language; there are other gradable phrases, like ‘at the front of the line’, which are also sometimes used in such a way that only the first thing in some ordering falls within their extension, and on other occasions used in such a way that the first n things in that ordering fall within their extension (for some n>1).

The Maximizers and the Satisficers are therefore both half right; they are each offering a good account of how ‘right’ works on certain occasions of use. Both are motivated by good intuitions, which I think we can accommodate with this gradability point. Comments welcome (including especially, since I don’t know this literature well, comments of the form “wasn’t this said by X at t only better?”).