Disciplinary conventional wisdom can be slow to update
Long ago, I suggested a dozen “examples of solved philosophy”: things that many non-philosophers assume, but that philosophers had since refuted.1 But it’s also interesting to consider what mistakes philosophers commonly make, perhaps based on an outdated sense of the philosophical literature. Vanishingly few papers have been read by most philosophers, and most papers are read by vanishingly few philosophers. So it’s hard for new insights to permeate the discipline’s “conventional wisdom”. In this post, I’ll flag some of the persisting “myths” of moral philosophy that tend to bother me the most. Feel free to dispute these or add your own suggestions in the comments!
Myths of Mind and Metaphysics
Myth: Kripke undermined a priori conceivability arguments as a guide to metaphysical possibility.
Reality: No, as Jackson and Chalmers explain, Kripke showed that how we describe a conceived-of possible world depends on which world is actual. But his semantic arguments provide no reason to shrink the space of qualitative possibilities, or to insist that a conceived-of world fails to correspond to any genuine metaphysical possibility at all.
Myth: Epiphenomenalism is refuted by the paradox of phenomenal judgment (“how can you know you’re conscious, if qualia can’t cause this belief?”)
Reality: That objection rests upon incoherently combining a dualistic conception of qualia with a physicalistic conception of conscious subjects. See Helen’s ‘Dualism all the way down: why there is no paradox of phenomenal judgments’ for the decisive counterargument to this and a bunch of related objections.
Myth: Idealism denies the reality of the external world.
Reality: Idealism offers an unusual characterization of the nature of the external world (i.e. as being fundamentally phenomenal in nature). But phenomenal rocks and atoms are no less real than phenomenal pain (while being more apt to be perceived by multiple observers). And no-one accuses immaterialists of denying the reality of pain!
Misconceptions about Consequentialism
Myth: Utilitarianism is a crude view, solely motivated by simplicity.2
Reality: Depends who you read! I’m sympathetic to a lot of complaints about stereotypical utilitarian failure modes, and don’t think past utilitarians were adequately responsive to the objections raised against their view. But I’m an intuitionist as well as a utilitarian, and give literally zero weight to simplicity per se. I think traditional “philosophical utilitarianism” (in Scanlon’s sense) is a non-starter—a truly absurd view. I just think we substantively ought, in principle, to care more about others’ well-being than about anything else—while allowing that there are any number of other normative properties that could also be worth talking about for different purposes (without thereby mattering more than well-being). Many of my papers are dedicated to showing how utilitarianism is compatible with other normative claims that non-utilitarians are often concerned with. (For example, I think there’s lots to be said about fitting attitudes that can help to defang various objections.)
Myth: Consequentialists can’t talk about fitting attitudes.
Reality: Whyever not? The working title for my 2012 Fittingness paper was ‘Fitting Attitudes for Consequentialists’. A wise referee convinced me to broaden the title, since the paper is also of broader interest. But anyone who thinks consequentialism commits one to the conceptually handicapped3 view that value is the only normative primitive should read this paper. It argues that consequentialists—among others—would do better to characterize their view against a Fittingness framework instead. (If you’d prefer to read a simple blog post, try Consequentialism Beyond Action: two dimensions of moral assessment.)
Myth: Global consequentialism is the truest form of consequentialism.
Reality: As my above ‘Fittingness’ paper argues at length, what Global Consequentialism adds to Act Consequentialism is either vacuous or false. GC claims that “the right x” is “the best x”. What does “right” here mean? If it means “best”, then GC is what Parfit calls a concealed tautology: it’s vacuous to claim that the best x is the best x.4 If it means anything else (e.g. rationally warranted) then GC is false, in virtue of conflicting with the truths of (e.g.) epistemology. We should prefer welfare-promoting beliefs over ones that are epistemically warranted, but the latter beliefs are the ones that constitute rational belief. These are (again) two distinct dimensions of normative assessment.
(See also Brian McElwee’s (2020) ‘The Ambitions of Consequentialism’, which is excellent on this point.)
Myth: Satisficing consequentialism has been decisively refuted.
Reality: Traditional forms of satisficing consequentialism were refuted on the grounds that: (1) they licensed the gratuitous prevention of goodness, and (2) they lacked a principled basis for drawing a line, short of maximality, for what counts as morally “sufficient”. But neither objection applies to my (2019) ‘Willpower Satisficing’. So the latter remains a live option.
Myth: Maximizing, Satisficing, and Scalar Consequentialism are competing views.
Reality: As my (2020) ‘Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good’ explains (blog summary here), there is no shared conception of ‘ought’ on which these views are plausible competitors. Instead, they’re best understood as “talking past each other”, each focusing on different component of the overall normative terrain.
In particular, scalar theorists are plausibly right to reject primitive rightness. Maximization is only plausible regarding the “ought of most reason”, not the ordinary conception of obligation as tied to blameworthiness. And satisficing is only plausible as an account of the latter notion, not the former. (Obviously we always have more reason to do more good, all else equal; sensible satisficers won’t deny this.)
Myth: Utilitarianism doesn’t value individuals, or values them only instrumentally.
Reality: This is egregiously false. Utilitarianism allows the interests of some individuals to be weighed against those of other individuals. But (as I stress in ‘Value Receptacles’, 2015) commensurability is not the same thing as fungibility or instrumentality. For a simple corrective, read ‘Theses on Mattering’ (and perhaps ‘The Mere Means Objection’).
Myth: Worries about the (bad) consequences of naive attempts at unconstrained maximization give us reason to prefer Rule over Act consequentialism.
Reality: This is a common mistake. Act vs Rule Consequentialists disagree about the criterion of rightness (i.e., the correct moral goal). There’s not really any view that actually recommends attempting to follow an unreliable, “naive utilitarian” decision procedure. It’s certainly not an implication of Act Consequentialism, since the latter recommends using reliable heuristics, etc., to improve the quality of our chosen actions. (To highlight this point, it is sometimes called a “multi-level” view.)
Myth: So, utilitarianism tells us to totally abandon utilitarianism?
Reality: While that’s always a logical possibility, there’s no reason to think that’s the actual situation. More plausibly, as I suggest here, a plausible utilitarian decision-procedure might direct us to:
Pursue any “low-hanging fruit” for effectively helping others while avoiding harm,
Inculcate virtues for real-world utilitarians (including respect for commonsense moral norms), and
In a calm moment, reflect on how we could better prioritize and allocate our moral efforts, including by seeking out expert cost-benefit analyses and other evidence to better inform our overall judgments of expected value.5
Myth: Parfit is said to be the greatest ethicist of all time, but I just don’t have time to read all his work.
Reality: OK, the first half is true, and the second may be also. But the implicit conclusion, that you don’t have time to learn Parfit’s ethics, fortunately doesn’t follow. You could probably read my super-short booklet Parfit’s Ethics in just a few hours. Or, if you’re really lazy, try the blog series Parfit in Seven Parts.
Myths about Effective Altruism
Myth: EA is just “rebranded utilitarianism”.
Reality: No, it’s just “beneficentrism: utilitarianism minus the controversial bits”. There’s no assumption that the project must be totalizing (you can limit it to just 10% of your life, for example), or that it entails disregarding deontic constraints. Absolutely every reasonable view entails support for the core EA project.
Myth: Okay, so EA is trivial then!
Reality: If only people could be relied upon to do what every reasonable view entails is a good idea! But no, sadly, doing good effectively remains extremely unusual. Shockingly few people are interested in so abstract a moral goal.
Myth: Okay, well, maybe helping poor people isn’t so bad, but I hear those “longtermists” have really messed up values! Like, prioritizing hypothetical people over real ones, or something.
Reality: This is silly rhetoric. Of course we should care about future generations, even if they don’t exist yet. (And if extinction threatens to prevent their ever coming into existence, it is worth averting that threat.) Note that this is compatible with giving extra weight to the interests of those who antecedently exist.
Myth: Aren’t there decent philosophical grounds for denying that there’s anything (non-instrumentally) good about creating future lives?
Reality: Nope. The arguments are all terrible. See here, for example. (But I should stress that substantively terrible arguments can still be philosophically interesting. Just think of Anselm’s ontological argument.)
Myth: But denying value to future lives at least allows us to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion!
Reality: Not really; it still remains in intrapersonal form. A real solution requires some way of balancing quantity-quality tradeoffs, not denying value altogether.
Myth: But doesn’t attributing value to future people undermine reproductive rights?
Reality: Not any more than attributing value to dialysis patients undermines your right to your own kidneys. (But it does suggest that having kids, like donating a kidney, could be a good thing to do if you’re up for it!)
What common philosophical myths would you most like to dispel? Share the details below!
The examples were drawn from my undergraduate blogging, but I expect that most philosophers would nonetheless agree with most of my old suggestions.
A very prominent metaethicist once wrote a (now deleted) dismissive tweet along those lines—beginning “I think we all know…”—in response to my urging a nuanced distinction between “exceptions” and “counterexamples”. (I guess the first rule of anti-utilitarian philosophy club is that the ends justify the rhetorical means: given that utilitarianism is socially recognized as crude, truly sophisticated thinkers will prove their nuance by steadfastly refusing to so much as countenance any argument to the contrary.)
Not sure if there’s a better term for this, but I mean it in the sporting sense that one would be laboring under an artificial impediment: in this case a self-imposed conceptual limitation that makes it unnecessarily difficult to express non-axiological normative claims.
On the charitable reconstruction that I offer on utilitarianism.net, “global consequentialism” is not really a view so much as a reminder that we can apply our axiology to directly assess the value (including instrumental value) of any object of interest.
This might (but need not) include performing some “back of the envelope” calculations of expected value. Even then, to truly maximize expected value, these naive calculations must be tempered by constraints against ruthless scheming, given our prior judgment that the latter is most likely counterproductive. That is, if we calculate a slightly higher explicit “expected value” for one act than another, but the former involves egregious norm-breaking, we should probably conclude that the latter (safer) option is actually better in expectation.