2022 in Review
A good first year for Good Thoughts!
I started this substack in May 2022, after 18 years of blogging at philosophyetc.net, with the hope that the new platform would boost my reach and prompt more reader engagement (e.g. comments). So far, it seems to be working! I’ve enjoyed many interesting discussions (thank you, commenters!), and was delighted to surpass 2000 subscribers in early November, after the welcome surprise of being featured on the Substack main page for a couple of days.
In this post, I’ll flag some of the year’s highlights, and bold a handful of posts that I especially recommend (for anyone who missed them the first time around).
Off the blog
Last spring/summer I was awarded tenure (and promoted to Associate Professor) at the University of Miami. I received a grant from Longview Philanthropy, allowing me to take this academic year off from my faculty position, work full time on a mix of research and outreach projects (including utilitarianism.net and this blog), and visit Oxford’s outstanding Global Priorities Institute for this past autumn term. My paper ‘Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk’ (summarized here) was published in Public Health Ethics. And, a few days before Christmas, I was interviewed live on NPR about the ideas behind effective altruism.
New pages I wrote this year for utilitarianism.net include:
The chapter on ‘Near-Utilitarian Alternatives’
Four new objections pages:
There are always more things I want to work on than I’m actually able to get around to. But once you add these 50-odd substack posts into the mix, and new academic papers currently under review and in draft, I’m overall pretty happy with my productivity. I’m also excited about my plans for next year—and will be happy if I manage to complete at least half of what I have in mind.
Posts on Effective Altruism & Applied Ethics
A major theme of this blog is that it’s good to do good things (and even better to do better)! Some relevant posts include:
Effective Altruism FAQ - what I wish everyone knew about EA
Beneficentrism - how the moral foundations of EA are much broader (and less controversial/disputable) than full-blown utilitarianism
The Nietzschean Challenge to Effective Altruism - here’s a foundational challenge one doesn’t often hear: maybe well-being is overrated? At least, it may be worth giving weight to things like achievement and not just things like comfort.
Ethics as Solutions vs Constraints - contrasting beneficence-first vs purity-first ways of thinking about ethics
The Strange Shortage of Moral Optimizers - Why doesn’t EA have more competition? It’s weird that more people aren’t even trying to “promote the general good in a serious, scope-sensitive, goal-directed kind of way.”
Billionaire Philanthropy - would you prefer they spend it on luxury consumption? Or donate to the US treasury? Seriously?
Review of What We Owe the Future - an important book, well-targeted at introducing longtermism to a general audience, but in many respects too uncontroversial for philosophical audiences. Expect academic critics to exaggerate the core thesis (or even conflate it with total utilitarianism) to give them more of a target.
Utilitarianism and Abortion - there’s no particular reason for longtermist pro-natalists to focus specifically on abortion (rather than other non-procreative choices), and there’s no utilitarian excuse to force people to do good things (like procreate) when you could instead incentivize them. (Cf. kidney donations.)
On Utilitarianism and Ethical Theory
I think most people—including most academic philosophers—have a pretty terrible understanding of utilitarian ethics, relying on misleading and oversimplified caricatures. Some of the below posts try to correct those misunderstandings. Others more positively explore what we should think about tricky issues in ethical theory.
Introducing utilitarianism.net - an overview of the new website and its main features. (N.B. more updates coming soon!)
Utilitarianism and Reflective Equilibrium - why utilitarianism is (contrary to common perception) actually the most intuitive moral theory: its conflicts with intuitive verdicts are shallow and easy to accommodate, whereas deontology’s conflicts with intuitive principles are deep and utterly irresolvable.
Utilitarianism debate with Michael Huemer - expanding on the above point, and on the inferential role of wrongness
(Im)permissibility is Overrated - distinguishing right and wrong is less important than settling what’s worth caring about.
Theses on Mattering - addressing common misconceptions about what it takes to truly value people equally
A New Paradox of Deontology - how only consequentialism combines normative authority, guidance, and adequate concern for rescuable victims
Constraints and Candy - both appeal to our lizard-brains, but neglect less salient interests
Deontic Pluralism - How to reconcile Maximizing, Satisficing, and Scalar Consequentialisms
Consequentialism Beyond Action - and why we need two dimensions of moral evaluation: the fitting and the fortunate. (Too many consequentialists neglect the former!)
Caplan’s Conscience Objection to Utilitarianism - why the demandingness objection is confused, and utilitarianism does not in fact imply that we're all bad people
Emergency ethics - and why I think there’s no special duty of easy rescue, just general reasons of beneficence
Level-Up Impartiality - non-utilitarians sometimes imagine that impartiality means treating everyone as badly as they treat strangers, rather than as well as they treat their friends and loved ones. But I think there’s independent reason to think we’re more likely right about the latter.
Ethically Alien Thought Experiments - don’t let alien cases masquerade as real-world ones (transparently alien thought experiments are fine, though!)
Consequentialism and Cluelessness - why I'm skeptical of Lenman's Epistemic Objection
A Multiplicative Model of Value Pluralism - how do distinct kinds of value combine?
Double or Nothing Existence Gambles - seem like a bad deal! But what’s the best theoretical explanation of this?
Killing vs Failing to Create - addressing the replaceability objection by allowing both impersonal and person-directed reasons
Puzzles for Everyone - Some of the deepest puzzles in ethics concern how to coherently extend ordinary beneficence and decision theory to extreme cases. Too often, people mistakenly believe that these are only puzzles for utilitarians, as though other theories needn’t care at all about beneficence or decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. I explain why this is a mistake, and especially explain why appealing to “neutrality” about adding happy lives is not an adequate solution to the problems of population ethics.
On the link between Theory and Practice
Theory-Driven Applied Ethics - how utilitarianism may inspire mid-level “beneficentric” principles that can command wider assent, and still suffice for all practical purposes.
Is Non-Consequentialism Self-effacing? - turning Bernard Williams on his head: even non-consequentialists should probably want others to be more beneficent, which is a goal that may be better served by promoting utilitarian ethics.
How Useful is Utilitarianism? - some early thinking about what a ‘Beneficence Project’ for utilitarian-leaning academics might look like (with an invitation for potential collaborators to get in touch).
Naïve vs Prudent Utilitarianism - careless pursuit of the good is bad in expectation (but of course nothing in utilitarianism justifies such carelessness).
Ethical Theory and Practice - stipulated thought experiments are not a good guide to how to behave in real life, with its ineliminable uncertainties. As a result, it turns out that utilitarianism and moderate deontology are surprisingly difficult to differentiate in terms of their real-world implications.
The Fine-Tuning God Problem - without an explanation of why (moderately) life-friendly creator gods are a priori more likely than others, deism doesn’t seem to give us an explanation of fine-tuning after all.
When Metaethics Matters - and how it might affect our practical commitments
Metaethics and Unconditional Mattering - we should oppose gratuitous suffering, no matter what's true
Parfit in Seven Parts - “In Parfit’s Ethics, I critically introduce Parfit’s central insights and arguments... But even this very short book is still, you know… a book… and so unlikely to be as widely read as random blog posts on the internet. Solution: turn the book into a series of blog posts!”
My Top Three
For any new readers, I’d especially encourage you to check out my following “top three” most-liked posts:
Any suggestions for the blog, or topics you’d especially like to see me cover in the coming year? Let me know in the comments!