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Episode 134: Claire Kirwin discusses value realism

Ep. 134

This month, Josh Kaufman and I talk to Claire Kirwin about whether things are objectively good or bad, or whether it’s all in the eye of the beholder.


Professor Kirwin is a fan of peanut butter cup ice cream, and Josh and I are fans of mint chocolate chip. Is there an objective fact of the matter about whether either is good, or whether one is better than the other? Or are we all just expressing our preferences, i.e. doing nothing more than providing information about ourselves? Can goodness be ‘in’ ice cream, or is it just ‘in’ the person eating it? If we think peanut butter cup ice cream can be objectively good, is that somehow disrespectful to people who prefer something else? Does everyone have a moral right to have their ice cream preferences respected by others? The example may be somewhat frivolous, but it ties into lots of similar questions that many of us think of as more weighty, like whether classical music can be objectively great/terrible, or whether a given behavior can be morally objectively great/terrible.


Value realism is a catch-all expression for the belief that all of these things are objectively in the objects themselves. Peanut butter cup ice cream deliciousness is in the ice cream itself, not in the person experiencing it, and classical music greatness is in the music itself, not in the audience member listening to it at Carnegie Hall. Claire Kirwin espouses value realism across all of these cases, but we focus on ice cream in this episode because, uh, hopefully it’s a little less of a hot button thing than some other topics. We’d like to be able to talk about it without raising an undue amount of ire.


Kirwin’s two main ideas are as follows. First, you might wonder how the heck there could even be some sort of objective deliciousness in ice cream itself. Doesn’t everyone disagree about that? Her general line of response is that there can be experts in the flavor of ice cream, and if there can be experts in the flavor of ice cream, then there must be something about ice cream that they’re especially good at picking up. Maybe you’re a master chef, or maybe you’re a food critic, or maybe you’ve just eaten more ice cream than most people. Whatever. There are lots of different ways of being an expert. The point is that if you understand a lot about ice cream it can sensitize you to little details in its flavor that other people haven’t been trained to notice.


Her follow-up idea is quite interesting. She argues that when one person prefers mint chocolate chip ice cream and another prefers peanut butter cup ice cream, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two people disagree. It could very well be that peanut butter cup ice cream is objectively good, and mint chocolate chip ice cream is also objectively good. It’s just that one person only has the expertise required to discern the tastiness of the one flavor, and the other person only has the expertise required to discern the tastiness of the other flavor. So saying that some flavor you have expertise in is objectively good is actually potentially remaining neutral about other flavors—at least the ones you feel like you don’t have a good grip on.


Join the three of us as we entertain a peaceful solution to the ice cream wars!


Matt Teichman

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Episode 139: Jessica Tizzard discusses the philosophy of pregnancy

Ep. 139
This month,Jessica Tizzard(University of Tuebingen) makes hersecond appearanceon Elucidations to talk to Matt about pregnancy.Human pregnancy is weird. Try talking to a reproductive endochrinologist about it, and you’ll soon find that there’s a lot we don’t really understand about it even at the scientific level. But even when it comes to thinking about pregnancy at the commonsense reasoning level, puzzles begin popping up the second you start trying to think about it systematically. Like, consider the commonsense idea that a fetus is ‘inside’ the person who is pregant with it. They clearly are, in the sense that they aren’t out and about in the world the way a marsupial fetus is. But if you think abouthow containment and interiority are defined mathematically, there’s also a sense in which the fetuscan’tliterally be inside the womb, because in order for one thing to be inside another they have to be physically disconnected.In this episode, Jessica Tizzard argues that our commonsense thinking about pregnancy is dominated by ‘container’ metaphors: i.e. we think about a fetus inside a womb the way we think about a cookie inside a jar. However, she thinks that ‘parthood’ analogies are often an equally good fit for how a fetus relates to the person pregnant with it. That is, there are also biological analogies you could draw between a fetus and a body part: a body part is seamlessly physically connected to the body it’s a part of, and a body part is subject the same organism-level system of homeostatic regulation that the rest of the body is.The next step is to start thinking about how these observations ramify morally. Can acknowledging that the ‘parthood’ way of thinking is at least as biologically accurate as the ‘container’ way of thinking help shed light on what kinds of duties a pregnant person has to their as-yet unborn fetus? Join Matt and Jessica as they dive right into these thorny but important questions!Further ReadingOur distinguished guest recommends the following literature on pregnancy, which she draws on heavily in her own work:‘Lady Parts’, Elselijn Kingma‘Were You a Part of Your Mother?’, Elselijn Kingma‘9 Months’, Elselijn Kingma‘Neonatal Incubator or Artifical Womb?’, Elselijn Kingma and Suki Finn‘Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate’, Margaret Olivia LittleHappy reading!Matt Teichman
1/23/2022

Episode 138: Toby Buckle discusses Mill's liberty principle

Ep. 138
This month, Toby Buckle, host of the Political Philosophy Podcast, returns to talk about John Stuart Mill’s liberty principle! (Also sometimes called the ‘harm principle’.) The occasion for the episode is the recent release of Toby’s cool new book, What is Freedom?, which is out now from Oxford University Press. Get it while it’s hot!John Stuart Mill is probably one of the most influential intellectuals of the 19th century, having penned treatises on markets, logic, feminism, utilitarianism, and freedom of speech that people continue to pick up and read today. In this episode, we talk about how he had one foot in the free market-oriented tradition of liberalism and another in the more social justice-oriented type of liberalism, how he was raised under the world’s most ambitious parenting/education regime, and how he had a lifelong collaboration with Harriet Taylor. We also introduce what gets called his ‘liberty princple’.The idea behind the liberty principle is that we want as much freedom for each person as possible: they should have the ability to set their own agenda and carry it out. But we also need to limit it somewhat, because if everyone was completely unconstrained in how they set their agenda and carried it out, they’d interfere with each other. We’d have one person’s freedom detracting from other people’s freedom. So in order to achieve the perfect equilibrium we want, the thing to do is aim for sort of a greatest lower bound: every person should be allowed to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want, only stopping shy once they reach the point where doing whatever they want would harm another person. It might seem like an obvious principle to us now, but arguably that’s because we’re all living in the shadow of Mill!Part of the background context for this principle is a worry about paternalism. There’s a natural tendency for Person A to prevent Person B from doing what they want because Person A thinks it’s obvious that what Person B wants to do right now is harmful to them. The liberty principle tells us that that’s not a good reason to have laws prohibiting some course of action. We should only have a law prohibiting some course of action if allowing that course of action would interfere with other people’s freedom. That way, Mill argued, we keep the decision about whether to pass a law prohibiting something grounded in empirical facts about what would actually happen if it were passed. He also wanted to emphasize that each person has the right to be their own arbiter of what kinds of risk they will assume.I hope you enjoy our discussion! It was a fun one.Further ReadingIf you’d like to hear more along the lines of what Toby and I discuss in this episode, you can do no better than to take a look at Mill’s exquisiteOn Liberty, which you can get for free here:https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34901And if you missed the link up at the top, definitely check out Toby’s edited volume, which gathers together a number of the interviews from his own podcast. The overarching theme is what freedom is and what it can be.What is Freedom?: Conversations with Historians, Philosophers, and Activists, Toby BuckleHappy reading!Matt Teichman
1/2/2022

Episode 137: Bryan Caplan discusses open borders

Ep. 137
This month, I talk to Bryan Caplan (George Mason University) about what a world without immigration restrictions could look like. The work discussed in this episode comes out of Bryan’s incredible non-fiction graphic novel, Open Borders, which I highly recommend checking out. Don’t let the comic-book-iness of it fool you; it is 100% accessible and entertaining, but it is also written at the level of detail you’d normally expect to see in a peer-reviewed research paper.One basic fact about the world today is that it’s kind of a pain to move from country to country. You can maybe pull it off if you’ve already landed a fancy job where you want to move and if you’re coming from a first-world country, but even then, there are more complications than you might think: work visas, sponsorships, visa renewal, permanent residency, possible eventual citizenship. Basically just a ton of red tape. And if you’re coming from a third-world country, forget it: you typically either have to be a political refugee or enter a lottery that leaves you with a vanishingly small chance of getting in. So although it is technically possible to immigrate, assuming that planets are aligned, the fact remains that in most situations, there are strong legal pressures locking us into whatever country we live in right now. Bryan Caplan thinks that we should essentially just eliminate the bureaucratic machine that makes it so difficult to live wherever you please. Sure, there can still be customs, and nation states, and basic security checks—but other than that, make it as easy as possible for everyone to move around.Let’s take the US as an example. One obvious benefit of opening up our borders is humanitarian: anyone living in poverty would be able to come here and with no difficulty whatsoever be able to start earning ten times as much money as they could back home. But far beyond that, there is a growing body of research within economics which suggests that having a large influx of formerly poor, newly productive people will lead to a boost in our economy. So everybody wins. And it isn’t just any old boost; it’s a massive boost. If these models are correct, everybody wins big time.Tune in to hear our guest run through some of the empirical evidence for this prediction and find out why, according to him, the supposed dangers of an open boders policy are greatly exaggerated!Further ReadingIf you’re curious to learn more about the arguments discussed in this episode, you can do no better than to turn to the book:Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach WeinersmithYou might also enjoy Bryan’s blog post at Econlib running through the many topics the book covers.Finally, our distinguished guest recommends the following paper by Michael Clemens, which was part of the inspiration for his work on open borders:‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?', Michael A. ClemensHappy reading!