About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ian's Picks

by Ian Pollock

* The admirably lucid Scott Siskind on why consequentialism is correct.

* Will Crouch of Practical Ethics on “moral uncertainty;” i.e., how to act when you’re not quite sure you’ve got the right ethical theory. This was also discussed by Toby Ord on Luke Muehlhauser’s podcast.

* A delightful sequence of videos on the Fibonacci series in nature, by Vihart on YouTube (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

* Hal Finney of LessWrong, on his ALS diagnosis.

* Brian Earp, also of Practical Ethics, on the red herring of “choice” in debates about homosexuality.


  1. Ian, that piece on consequentialism is anything but "admirably lucid". Its author appears to be almost willfully ignorant of the most important objections to consequentialism that have been raised in the past 50 years. In the academic philosophical world, people tend to engage with the existing literature. This is not a bad idea.

    1. Nick, I agree that he hasn't engaged with all the objections, but that would make for a completely different article for a completely different audience. This is not a piece of academic philosophy, this is a polemic designed to get people to think like consequentialists, which is something I would really like to see happen.

      Also keep in mind we don't always exhaustively & comprehensively agree with everything we post to "Picks."

    2. Interesting. Suppose I distributed a long creationist polemic in which I argued that the earth is 10,000 years old and that we should all just accept that we are God's creatures and not the products of natural selection. Suppose the article was not aimed at an "academic" audience, and so I refused to engage with detailed scientific objections to my position. I'm assuming that you would have no problem with such a piece, given that it was appropriate for its audience?

    3. Obviously, the extent to which you see that as a good analogy will mirror the extent to which you think consequentialism is as crazy as creationism. I could also take a biology textbook to task for failing to engage with my objection that no monkey ever gave birth to a human, and call that analogous.

      Why don't we get away from analogies and just start talking object level ethics. What are the objections to consequentialism Siskind glossed over that you think are most powerful?

    4. We are dealing with the rational acceptability of the doctrines in question. Calling the analogy into question because one has assumed *in advance* that consequentialism is more acceptable than creationism is therefore not legitimate. Creationists are not allowed to ignore "academic" evidence or argumentation because it's not familiar to their audience, and neither are consequentialists.

      To repeat: Siskind did not "gloss over" the objections in question. He does not even seem to be aware of them. Off the top of my head: It has been said, in the last 50 years or so, that consequentialism (1) Cannot distinguish between acts and omissions (Philippa Foot), (2) Cannot respect the "seperateness" of persons (Claudia Card), (3a) Cannot make sense of integrity, insofar as my life project is only to be counted as one amongst many, (3b) is far too "demanding" of individuals (Bernard Williams), (4) cannot avoid creating a "schizophrenic" relation within persons between their motives and their reasons for action, (Michael Stocker), (5) leads necessarily to "cluelessness" about important decisions, because the causal ramifications of many important decisions (for example, having children) are incalculably vast (James Lenman), (6) cannot make sense of superogation (Susan Wolf), and (7) must rely on the commensurability of different values (Isaiah Berlin).

      I genuinely do not mean to "show off" in giving this list, it's what I do for a living. I mean only to communicate the extraordinary incompleteness of Siskind's piece. Perhaps there are answers to each of these problems, but to simply pretend that they don't exist seems irresonsible... Rationally Speaking, of course.

  2. Right, thanks for the reply. To move us away from unproductive speculation about whether Siskind is or isn't aware of the above objections, I've just e-mailed him to ask him if he's interested in addressing them here or in a follow up/addendum to his piece.

    So we can keep having an object-level discussion, which of these objections actually persuades you? I think (1), (3), (5) and (7) have fairly easy & satisfactory answers. Objections (4) & (6) are more interesting, but I have some ideas about how to solve them, and (2) is altogether new to me.

  3. > * Brian Earp, also of Practical Ethics, on the red herring of “choice” in debates about homosexuality.

    It's probably good that you said red herring, and not red snapper.

    But, yeah, the point of the article is solid, and one that finally seems to be getting a bit of traction. Not everybody is a sexual monopole.

  4. Hi. I'm Scott. I wrote the piece above.

    Including Part 0.5, which states very clearly: "This FAQ is not exhaustive. There are many concepts necessary in order to do consequentialism right - including game theory, decision theory, and some philosophy of law - that are barely touched upon or not even mentioned. All this FAQ claims to be useful for is to help get some basic intuitions right."

    I decided to cap the length of the FAQ at 25 pages on Word as the max I could expect anyone to read. That meant I had to delete a lot of more advanced material, including some of the questions you mention. The FAQ was aimed at the man on the street, and having talked some men on the street, none of them ever say "But that doesn't explain supererogation!" - when they do worry along those lines, they usually phrase it in the way I addressed in 7.10.

    That having been said, I do think I provide enough background to give anyone familiar with or troubled by Nick's objections above a framework for figuring them out. Here's a *very* quick summary of how I think of each (I may include some of these on the next version of the FAQ):

    1: Yes, for example our intuition that stealing $10 from a beggar is much worse than just not giving $10 to a beggar. I think David Friedman's "A Positive Account fo Property Rights" (http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Property/Property.html) correctly explains this in terms of Schelling points. I sketch out a small portion of the argument in Part 6, I linked to the Friedman article in 7.5, and I specifically recommended reading up on game theory in 8.4.

    2: Yes, it makes you feel icky inside not to think of separateness of persons while you're doing good deeds. But I discussed at length in Parts 2 and 3 how these sort of objections are either so metaphysical as to be meaningless, or fundamentally concerned with how *you* feel, rather than about other people.

    3/4. Pretttttty much the same. I count "wanting personal integrity and a fulfilling life project" as morally similar to "wanting a new Ferrari". Both are reasons to do something other than dedicate your entire life to being helping others, and I would have varying amounts of respect for both reasons, and I think there's some good philosophy to be done around that, but neither is a disproof of the idea that helping others is the right thing to do.

    5. Well, I did recommend Less Wrong in 8.5, and Eliezer Yudkowsky's introductory lessons on probability there demolish this objection thoroughly. But since it is the sort of thing the man on the street might say, I should probably include it for next time. In the meantime, http://lesswrong.com/lw/gs/i_dont_know/ is probably sufficient to construct the counterargument.

    6. Close enough to (1) that I think the same counterargument applies.

    7. I am not at all an expert on Berlin, but from what I understand his claims of incommensurability seem like literally nonsense: the equivalent of asserting that A can be greater than B, and B greater than A, at the same time. They don't pay me enough to address objections like “What if basic logic doesn't work?” As long as a kidnapper can threaten to kill your true love unless you pay a million dollar ransom, then love and money are commensurable on your utility function. See also Von Neumann-Morgenstern theory.

    So no, I did not put complete introductions to game theory, probability theory, and the von Neumann-Morgenstern axioms on a short introductory document aimed at non-philosophers, though I did direct people to them so they knew where they were if they needed them. Give me a little bit of a break here, maybe? Please?

    1. Wow. OK, it's fairly clear that you have neither read nor engaged with the actual texts in which these arguments have been given. Your essay does *not* deal with them in any way whatsoever, and you are clearly unwilling to try to understand the substance of each point.

      Really, I'd love to try to explain each one to someone who thinks that Berlin's argument is "what if basic logic doesn't work?", to someone that thinks that the Schizophrenia argument reduces to the claim that we feel "icky"... but I'm afraid that even a consequentialist would say that the utility gained by my efforts would be too small to justify the effort.

      I'll say this one last time: it is intellctually irresponsible (some would even say *irrational*) to fail to engage with the most important objections to your position that have been raised. It virtually guarantees that a non-consequentialist who has taken Ethics 101 will not be persuaded by your arguments.

    2. I make a rule of not getting into uncivil shouting matches on the Internet, and this looks likely to turn into one, so I'm out of here.

      For anyone who wants to ask me any questions, explain their interpretation of any arguments they think I've failed to understand, respond to anything I've said, or really do anything except engage in ad hominem attacks, make unsupported assertions that my arguments are totally wrong, or insist I am a bad person for only including ten pages worth of responses to common objections in an short introductory FAQ -- you can email me at scott[dot]siskind[at]gmail[dot]com.

    3. I should add that a critical point about personal projects is that they can be altruistic. So, when you say [I count "wanting personal integrity and a fulfilling life project" as morally similar to "wanting a new Ferrari"] you're missing a critical premise in the argument from integrity. Projects are not essentially egoistic or non-egoistic, nor are they equivalent to simple desires like wanting a Ferrari. Rather, they are the baseline, organizing principles of a person's life. Consequentialism, in its usual forms, can require a person to abandon such a project if the utility sums come out right, and the objection claims that this is absurd.

      Anyway, this is all in the classic analytic-philosophical text on utilitarianism: http://www.amazon.com/Utilitarianism-Against-J-C-Smart/dp/052109822X. I do hope that you find the time to engage with it, and perhaps with some other important papers, before deciding to offer a sustained defense of consequentialism.

    4. Nick
      Consequentialism is nothing more that an exercise in describing the multiple effects of any action versus another. It is empty of any moral content....without a foundational source of moral evaluation. Since that foundational source has no foundation, the whole discussion makes no sense except between two individuals that have stipulated the foundations or standards of evaluation. If one removes the temporal quality of "consequences"...one is left with weighing multiple, possibly infinite, effects against one another...but again, weighing with what scale?

    5. For my part, I can virtually guarantee that few if any people will be either persuaded or favorably impressed by the arguments of anybody who deviates from the "argument amongst friends" clause at this site by engaging in combative or derogatory behavior towards other participants. It tends to drive people away, in fact - and not just the target.

      Tone matters.

  5. I, too, totally agree with Brian, and have blogged about that myself. Gay activists are buying into religious-based discussion, still, including defensiveness, if the "it's in my gay genes" is talking point No. 1.


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