On giving up many small things

Last year I attended the annual Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology Conference hosted in Dallas and organized by Matt Brown.1

I got great feedback on my presentation, which ultimately grew into a paper. I hung out with old friends and made new ones.

So I submitted an abstract again this year. Today, I received an e-mail indicating that my paper was accepted along with an e-mail saying that the conference was canceled. The cancelation was inevitable, of course, but Matt had delayed officially canceling the conference until verdicts had been reached. This way would-be presenters can list the acceptance on their CV. It’s a classy move— I don’t need the line on my CV, but students and junior scholars might do.2

My missing the conference this year is not a terrible imposition, really, since I missed it for eight years before attending at all. It is a small sacrifice, in the grand scheme of things— but these accumulate like rain drops on the tin roof that is my inability to land a metaphor.

Anyway, here’s the abstract of the talk I would have given.

Values, taxonomy, vitamin C, and well-being

Nobody thinks that value-laden science should mean believing anything we want, but simply saying that the outcome of science depends on values leaves open questions of which values and what their influence is. It is uncontentious that any values might play a role in selecting the topics that scientists address. For theory choice, discussions of inductive risk have offered further answers; the values which play an ineliminable, indirect role are the possible benefits of a having a true belief or avoiding a false one and the possible costs of missing out on a true belief or adopting a false one.

For taxonomy, this answer is no help. A category scheme may be more or less apt, but it is strictly speaking neither true nor false. Marc Ereshefsky, Thomas Reydon, Sally Haslanger, and others have suggested that taxonomy is value-laden because natural kinds are the ones that satisfy the structuring values of a classificatory practice. Because these authors want to be pluralists about possible values, they leave us with few resources to rule out any practices as illegitimate. But if any values might constitute a taxonomic practice, then this might mean that the natural kinds could be whatever we want.

I argue that the relevant values are not the ones that set the principles of the taxonomic practice.

In some cases, the values are just the ones that select the domain of enquiry; that is, we end up with different natural kinds depending on our objects and phenomena of interest. Consider the example of vitamin C, an important category and a natural kind for nutrition. The relevant chemicals are only vitamins for humans and a few other animals. For veterinary nutrition, concerned with the diet of dogs, cats, horses, and cows, vitamin C is not a natural kind. This follows not because of a difference in the principles of taxonomy between human and veterinary nutrition, but because there are different objects of enquiry.

Of course, this kind of consideration will not do for so-called thick or mixed categories like well-being or harm, concepts which incorporate evaluative elements. Yet the adequacy of such concepts is not determined by the principles of the taxonomic practice, either. Instead, such concepts are acceptable precisely if the evaluative elements are themselves are ones we ought to endorse.

  1. I’d dismissed the idea of attending before, because I don’t work in philosophy of medicine. But I had a casual conversation with Matt at the PSA in which he urged me to attend anyway. I had misparsed the title— “It’s an inclusive and!” he explained— and it’s enough that I say things about values in science. I’m not really sure that there is such a thing as an inclusive and, but I knew what he meant.
  2. This is crucial time in which they need to assemble evidence of scholarly activity, but they’re stymied because the whole world is locked down.

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