The Small Improvement Argument, Epistemicism, and Incomparability

The Small Improvement Argument (SIA) is the leading argument for the proposition that the traditional trichotomy of comparative relations – Fer than, less F than, and as F as – sometimes fails to hold. Some SIAs merely exploit our contingent ignorance about the items we are comparing, but there are some hard cases which cannot be explained in the same way. In this paper, we assume
that such hard cases are borderline cases of vague predicates. All vagueness-based accounts have thus far assumed the truth of supervaluationism. However, supervaluationism has some well-known problems and does not command universal assent among philosophers of vagueness. Epistemicism is one of the leading rivals to supervaluationism. Here, for the first time we fully develop an epistemicist account of the SIA. We argue that if the vagueness-based account of the SIA is correct and if epistemicism is true, then options are comparable in small improvement cases. We also show that even if vagueness-based accounts of the SIA are mistaken, if epistemicism is true, then options cannot be on a par. Moreover, our epistemicist account of the SIA has an advantage over leading existing rival accounts of the SIA because it successfully accounts for higher-order hard cases.

Co-authored with Tweedy Flanigan

Forthcoming in Economics and Philosophy

Read the full paper here: The Small Improvement Argument

Effective Altruism: an elucidation and defence

Abstract: In this paper, we discuss Iason Gabriel’s recent piece on criticisms of effective altruism. Many of the criticisms rest on the notion that effective altruism can roughly be equated with utilitarianism applied to global poverty and health interventions which are supported by randomised control trials and disability-adjusted life year estimates. We reject this characterisation and argue that effective altruism is much broader from the point of view of ethics, cause areas, and methodology. We then enter into a detailed discussion of the specific criticisms Gabriel discusses. Our argumentation mirrors Gabriel’s, dealing with the objections that the effective altruist community neglects considerations of justice, uses a flawed methodology, and is less effective than its proponents suggest. Several of the criticisms do not succeed, but we also concede that others involve issues which require significant further study. Our conclusion is thus twofold: the critique is weaker than suggested, but it is useful insofar as it initiates a philosophical discussion about effective altruism and highlights the importance of more research on how to do the most good.

Co-authored with Stefan Schubert, Joseph Millum, Mark Engelbert, Hayden Wilkinson, and James Snowden

View the pdf here: Effective Altruism

The numbers always count

JOHN. G. HALSTEAD, The University of Oxford

In “How Should We Aggregate Competing Claims?” Alex Voorhoeve aims to provide a theory which reconciles intuitive judgments for and against aggregating claims in different situations. I argue that Voorhoeve fails to justify nonaggregation. Furthermore, the nonaggregative part of his theory has a number of unacceptable implications. Its failure is indicative for all nonaggregative theories. If I am right, then the full-blooded aggregative part of consequentialism is true. The numbers always count.

Read the full paper: The Numbers Always Count_Dr.J.G.Halstead

Published in Ethics.

The impotence of the Value Pump

JOHN G. HALSTEAD, St Anne’s College, The University of Oxford

Many philosophers have argued that agents must be irrational to lose out in a ‘value pump’ or ‘money pump’. A number of different conclusions have been drawn from this claim. The ‘Value Pump’ (VP) has been one of the main arguments offered for the axioms of expected utility theory; it has been used to show that options cannot be incomparable or on a par; and it has been used to show that our past choices have normative significance for our subsequent choices. In this paper, I argue that the fact that someone loses out in a value pump provides no reason to believe that they are irrational. The VP is impotent.

Read the full paper: Impotence of the value pump_Dr.J.G. Halstead

Published in Utilitas.