Progress in Philosophy — IV

philosophy[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

Ethics: the utilitarian-consequentialist landscape

It should be clear at this point that we could multiply the examples in this chapter by orders of magnitude, and cover — I suspect — most areas of philosophical scholarship. Instead, let me simply add one more class of examples, from ethics, focusing in particular on utilitarianism and the broader class of ethical theories to which it belongs, consequentialism. [7] The history of utilitarianism is yet another good example of progress in philosophy, with specific regard to the subfield of moral philosophy — and I say this as someone who is not particularly sympathetic to utilitarianism. The approach is characterized by the idea that what matters in ethics are the consequences of actions (hence its tight connection with the broader framework of consequentialism). The idea can be found in embryonic forms even earlier than the classic contributions by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. For instance, Driver (2009) begins her survey with the theologically inclined 18th century British moralists, such as Richard Cumberland and John Gay, who linked the idea that promoting human happiness is the goal of ethics to the notion that God wants humans to be happy. This coincidence of our own desire for happiness and God’s plan for our happiness, however, provides a picture of utilitarianism that is too obviously and uncomfortably rooted in theology, and moreover where it is not at all clear what (philosophical) work God’s will actually does for the utilitarian.

The decisive move away from theological groundings and into natural philosophy was the result of the writings of people like Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson and David Hume. Shaftesbury proposed that we have an innate sense of moral judgment, although Hume did not interpret this in a realist sense (e.g., he did not think that moral right and wrong are objective features of the world, independent of human judgment). One can think of Shaftesbury as a “proto” utilitarian, since sometimes it is difficult to distinguish utilitarian from egoistic arguments in his writings, as argued by Driver (2009). The move to a more clearly utilitarian position is already found in Hutcheson’s An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil (1738), where he wrote: “so that that action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery” (R, 283-4). Even in Hutcheson, though, we still don’t see a completely formed utilitarian approach to ethics, as he mixes in foreign elements, for instance when he argues that the dignity or “moral importance” of certain individuals may outweigh simple numbers of people affected by a given moral judgment.

Following Driver’s capsule history, proto-utilitarians were succeeded by the major modern founders of this way of looking at ethics: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Interestingly — and although much discussion and progress on utilitarianism has focused on Mill — the contrast between he and Bentham also highlights the difference between two branches in conceptual space: egoistic utilitarianism (Bentham) and so-called altruistic utilitarianism (Mill).

Bentham was influenced by both Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. He got his theory of psychological egoism from the former and the idea of social utility from the latter, but the two were otherwise incompatible: it is hard to imagine an egoist who agrees to the notion of social utility above and beyond what is useful for himself. Hobbes was aware of this problem in his approach, though his attempts to deal with it were less than satisfactory. For instance, he thought that a reconciliation between the two perspectives could arrive by way of empirical investigation, if the latter showed a congruence between personal and social welfare. But that is no principled way to resolve the issue, as one still has to decide which branch of the fork to take in case the empirical evidence is not congruent. Probably as a result of this sort of difficulties, Bentham simply decided to abandon his commitment to psychological egoism and a fully Hobbesian view of human nature in favor of a more moderate, more Humean, take. Hume, in turn, was no utilitarian, as he thought that character was the salient focus when it comes to ethical judgment. But Hume also wrote about utility as the measure of virtue, and that is what Bentham adopted from him, particularly because Bentham was interested in distinguishing between good and bad legislation (respectively characterized by positive and negative consequences in terms of social utility).

Driver (2009) highlights Bentham’s discussion of homosexuality, in which he explains that having an antipathy for an act is simply not sufficient to justify legislation against it. The quote is remarkably modern, reminding me of recent social psychology results like those discussed by Jonathan Haidt (2012) to the effect that people have a tendency to confuse a sense of disgust for a well founded moral judgment: “The circumstances from which this antipathy may have taken its rise may be worth enquiring to … One is the physical antipathy to the offense … The act is to the highest degree odious and disgusting, that is, not to the man who does it, for he does it only because it gives him pleasure, but to one who thinks of it. Be it so, but what is that to him?” (Bentham 1978, 4, 94). The bottom line, for Bentham, is that actions are not intrinsically good or bad, but only good or bad in proportion to their consequences in terms of social utility. Not only this disqualifies obviously suspect candidates as sources of moral evaluation, like whether an act is natural or not; it also means that values such as personal autonomy and liberty are only instrumentally, not fundamentally, good (i.e., they can be overridden, if need be).

The first major move away from Bentham’s starting point in exploring the utilitarian landscape was Mill’s rejection of the idea that differences between pleasures are only quantitative, not qualitative. That position had opened Bentham to a number of objections, including that sentient animals would therefore acquire the same moral status as humans, and the observation that Bentham had no way to discriminate between what Mill eventually referred to as “lower” and “higher” pleasures: drinking a beer while watching the World Cup should, for Bentham, be the same as listening to Beethoven. [8] Mill’s famous defense of the distinction between higher and lower pleasures is itself open to criticism, hinging as it does on the problematic idea that people who are capable of enjoying both types of pleasure are best suited to make judgments about it. As he famously put it: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question” (1861, ch. 2).

As noted above, though, the major difference between Mill and Bentham lies in their respective views of human nature, where Mill’s is more positive, including the idea that a sense of justice, for instance, is a natural human impulse, which we can then refine and expand by way of reason — in this Mill was very much aligned with Hume (Gill 2000), and arguably influenced even by the ancient Stoics (Inwood 2003). However, Bentham’s and Mill’s ways of looking at utilitarianism also had quite a bit in common. For instance neither of them was intrinsically opposed to the idea of rights, although for a utilitarian any talk of rights has to be couched in terms of utility, as there is no such thing as a natural right (a concept that Bentham famously dismissed as “nonsense on stilts”).

The next majors leap in utilitarian conceptual landscape was made by Henry Sidgwick, with his The Methods of Ethics (1874). Sidgwick noticed a major ambiguity at the heart of early utilitarian philosophy: “if we foresee as possible that an increase in numbers will be accompanied by a decrease in average happiness or vice versa, a point arises which has not only never been formally noticed, but which seems to have been substantially overlooked by many Utilitarians. For if we take Utilitarianism to prescribe, as the ultimate end of action, happiness on the whole, and not any individual’s happiness, unless considered as an element of the whole, it would follow that, if the additional population enjoy on the whole positive happiness, we ought to weigh the amount of happiness gained by the extra number against the amount lost by the remainder” (1874, 415). In other words, utilitarians need to distinguish between the average degree of happiness in the population and the sheer number of individuals enjoying that degree of happiness. If the goal is to increase happiness tout court, then this can be accomplished either by increasing population size while keeping average happiness constant (logistical issues aside, of course), or by keeping the population constant and increasing the average happiness of individuals. So the quantity that utilitarians really need to focus on is the product of population size and average happiness.

By the turn of the 20th century yet another refinement in conceptual space was made to basic utilitarian doctrines, chiefly by G.E. Moore. Like Mill before, he realized that Bentham’s original views did not discriminate between types of pleasures, some of which ought to be regarded as positively unethical. Bentham had no principled way of discounting the pleasure felt by sadists, for instance, as long as it somehow outweighs the pain they inflict on their victims. Moore then developed a pluralist (as opposed to a monist) doctrine of intrinsic value. The good cannot be reduced simply to pleasure, as it comes in a variety of forms. For Moore, beauty is also an intrinsic good, a position that led him to excuse on ethical grounds cases in which artists pursue their muse while at the same time abandoning their duties to their family (e.g., Gauguin), as long as the result of such tradeoff is more beauty in the world.

Moore’s (admittedly a bit vague) idea of the “organic unity” of value also helped utilitarians improve their framework by pre-empting a number of objections that had been raised in the meantime. The concept of organic unity is drawn from an analogy with the human body, where it makes little sense to talk about the value of individual organs, adding them up to get the total value of the whole body. Rather, one needs to take into account how the parts fit into the whole. Similarly, according to Moore, experiencing beauty has value in itself, and that value is augmented if the beautiful object actually exists. But the combination of these two elements is much more than the simple addition of the two parts, a position that allows Moore and fellow utilitarians to conclude that happiness based on knowledge is much better than happiness based on delusions. Again, notice the struggle to recover Mill’s intuition that not all pleasures are created equal, and to arrive at a rationally defensible view of why, exactly, that is the case.

Once we get firmly into the 20th century the history (and progress in conceptual space) of utilitarianism coincides with the broader history of consequentialism (Sinnott-Armstrong 2006). From this perspective, classic utilitarianism can be seen as a type of act consequentialism, where the focus is on the rightness of acts in terms of increasing the good (say, happiness), as their consequence. Modern consequentialism is also an improvement on classic utilitarianism because it parses out a number of positions more or less implicitly accepted by early utilitarians, positions that carry distinct implications for one’s general ethical framework. For example, there is a difference between actual and direct consequentialism — in the first case what matters are the actual consequences of a given action (not the foreseeable ones), while in the second case what counts are the consequences of the focal act itself (not one’s motives for carrying out the action). Or take the distinctions among maximizing, total and universal consequentialism, where the moral good of an action depends respectively on the best consequences, on their total net effect, or on their effect on all sentient beings. The issue is not that these (and other) utilitarian positions are necessarily contradictory, but that each needed to be unpacked and explored independently of the others, to arrive at a more fine grained picture of the consequentialist landscape as a whole.

One specific example of improvement on a thorny issue for early utilitarians is the problem posed by hedonism. [9] I have mentioned that Bentham could not discriminate between what most people would recognize as morally good pleasures and those of a sadist, and both Mill’s and Moore’s attempts to improve on the problem only went so far. Nozick (1974) took a further step forward with his experience machine thought experiment (famously re-imagined in the movie The Matrix). The idea is to consider a hypothetical machine that is capable of mimicking the feeling of real experiences in all respects, so that one could live as “happy” and “successful” a life as conceivable. Yet one would not be living a real life as commonly understood. Nozick’s contention was that it does not seem at all irrational for someone to refuse to be hooked to the experience machine, thus creating a significant problem for a purely hedonistic view of utilitarianism, necessitating its abandonment or radical rethinking. One way modern consequentialists (e.g., Chang 1997; Railton 2003) have attempted to tackle this issue is through the recognition of the incommensurability of certain moral values, and hence the in principle impossibility to resolve certain ethical dilemmas, which in turns leads to a (non-arbitrary) type of utilitarian pluralism.

Another standard problem for utilitarianism, suitable to illustrate how philosophers recognize and tackle issues, is of an epistemic nature: when we focus on the consequences of morally salient actions, are we considering actual or expected consequences? The obvious limitation plaguing classic utilitarianism — as was noted by Mill himself — is that it seems to require an epistemically prohibitive task, that of calculating all possible ramifications of a given action before arriving at a consequentialist judgment. One option here is to say that the utility principle is a criterion to decide what is right, but that it does not amount to a decision making algorithm. While this may make it sound like utilitarians cornered themselves into a self-refuting, or at the least, morally skeptical position, this is not necessarily the case. Consider an analogy with an engineer deploying the laws of physics to draw and then build a bridge. In order to accomplish the task, the engineer needs to know enough about the laws of physics and the properties of the materials she is about to use, but it would be unreasonable to pretend omniscience about all outcomes of all potential physical interactions, however rare, between the bridge and its surrounding environment — some of which interactions may actually cause the obviously unintended consequence of the collapse of the bridge. Similarly, the utilitarian can say that under most circumstances we have sufficient knowledge of human affairs to be able to predict the likely consequences of certain courses of action, and therefore to engage in the same sense of approximate, and certainly not perfect, calculation that the engineer engages in. We have good guiding principles (the laws of physics for the engineer, the utility principle for the moral person), but we face a given degree of uncertainty concerning the actual outcome.

Even so, the consequentialist is not home free yet, since a critic may make another move that manages to raise additional issues. If we shift our focus to the sort of consequences that can reasonably be contemplated by the limited epistemic means available to human beings, are we then talking about foreseen or foreseeable consequences? There is a distinction there, but it isn’t clear the extent to which it is sharp enough to be morally salient. Generally speaking the range of foreseeable consequences of a given action is broader — sometimes much broader — than the range of consequences actually foreseen by any given agent. Consider an analogy with chess playing: the gap between foreseen and foreseeable may be narrow in the case of a Grand Master, but huge in the case of a novice. The analogy, however, points toward the fact that — rather than being a problem for consequentialism per se — the distinction between foreseen and foreseeable consequences suggests that we as a society should engage in better ethical training of our citizens, just like better training is at least part of what makes the difference between a Grand Master (or even a half decent player) and a novice.

As I mentioned before, although Mill talked about rights, the concept poses significant and well known issues for consequentialists, as illustrated by the famous problem of the emergency room. The human body has five vital organs (brain, heart, kidneys, liver, and lungs). Imagine you are a doctor in an emergency room and you are brought four patients, respectively whose heart, kidneys, liver and lungs are all failing (there would be nothing you could do about a patient with a failing brain, so we won’t consider that situation). On utilitarian grounds, why would it not be acceptable for you to go outside, pluck a healthy person at random from the sidewalk, and extract four of his vital organs to distribute among your patients? Prima facie you are saving four lives and losing one, so the utility calculus is on your side. [10]

Utilitarians here have a number of options available as countermoves in logical space. The simplest one is to bite the bullet and acknowledge that it would, in fact, be right to cut up the innocent bystander in order to gain access to his vital organs. A rational defense of this position, while at the same time acknowledging that most people would recoil in horror from considering that course of action, is that the concocted example is extreme, and that our moral intuitions have evolved (biologically or culturally) to deal with common occurrences, not with diabolical thought experiments. Few utilitarians, however, have the stomach to go that route, thankfully. An alternative move is to agree that the doctor ought not to go around hunting for vital organs by drawing a distinction between killing and dying, where the first is morally worse than the second. The doctor would be killing an innocent person by engaging in his quest, while the four (also innocent) patients would die — but not be killed — by his inaction, forced upon him by the lack of acceptable alternatives. A third available move is to introduce the concept of the agent-relativity of moral judgment. The idea is that we can see things either from the point of view of a dispassionate observer or from that of the moral agent (here, the doctor), and the two don’t need to agree. In the specific case, the observer may determine that a world in which the doctor cuts up an innocent to extract his vital organs is better — utility-wise — than a world in which the doctor does not act and lets his patients die. But the doctor may justifiably say that he also has to take into account the consequences for him of whatever course of action, for instance the fact that he will have to live with the guilt of having killed a bystander if he goes through with the nasty business. The world would therefore be better or worse depending on which perspective, the observer’s or the agent’s, one is considering, without this implying a death blow — so to speak — to the whole idea of consequentialism.

One more significant branching in conceptual space for consequentialism is represented by the distinction between direct and indirect varieties of it, where a direct consequentialist thinks that the morality of X depends on the consequences of X, while an indirect consequentialist thinks that it depends on consequences of something removed from X. There are several sub-types of both positions. Considering indirect consequentialism, for instance, this can be about motives, rules, or virtues. Indirect rule consequentialism is probably one of the most common stances, holding that the moral salience of an act depends on the consequences of whatever rule from the implementation of which the act originated. At this point, though, if you suspect that at the least some types of indirect consequentialism begin to look less like consequentialism and more like one of its major opponents in the arena of ethical frameworks (i.e., rules consequentialism approaches deontology, while virtue consequentialism approximates virtue ethics) you might be onto something.

Yet another popular criticism of generalized utilitarianism is that it seems to be excessively ethically demanding of moral agents. Peter Singer’s (1997) famous drowning child thought experiment (as you might have noticed by now, many thought experiments concerned with utilitarianism tend toward the gruesome) makes the situation very clear. Singer invites us to consider seeing a child who is about to drown when we have the ability to save him. To do so, however, we would have to get into the water without delay, thus ruining our brand new Italian leather shoes. Clearly, I would hope, most people would say damn the shoes and save the child. But if so, points out Singer, why don’t we do the analogous thing all the time? We could easily forgo our next pair of shoes (or movie tickets, or dinner out, or whatever) and instead donate money that would save a child’s life on the other side of the planet. Indeed, Singer himself is famous for putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak, and donate a substantial portion of his income to charitable causes (Singer 2013). The problem is that, at least for most of us, this utilitarian demand seems excessive, confusing what is morally required with what may be morally desirable but optional. Can utilitarians somehow avoid the seemingly unavoidable requirement of their doctrine to expand far beyond what seems like a reasonable call of duty for the typical moral agent? If not, they would essentially be saying that most of what we do everyday is, in terms of utility, downright morally wrong — not exactly the best way to win sympathizers for your ethical framework.

Once again, several alternatives are available in conceptual space, and we have already encountered a number of the necessary tools to pursue them. One goes back to Mill himself, who argued that it may be too costly to punish people who do not agree to Singer-style demands posed upon them, in which case utility would be maximized by not imposing that kind of burden on moral agents. Or one may invoke agent-relative consequentialism, granting that the agent’s and a neutral observer’s perspective are sufficiently different to allow the agent a way out of the most stringent constraints. My favorite among the available offerings is something called satisficing consequentialism, which maintains that utility cannot always be maximized, so that it is morally sufficient to generate “enough” utility. This may sound like an easy way out for the consequentialist, but it actually has a parallel with the process of natural selection in evolutionary biology. A common misconception of natural selection is that it is an optimizing process, i.e. that it always increases the fitness of the organism to its maximum possible value. But both empirical research and theoretical modeling (e.g., Ward 1992) actually show that natural selection is rather a satisficing mechanism: it produces organisms whose degree of adaptation to their environment is “good enough” for their survival and reproduction. The reason for this is analogous to the one that motivates satisficing consequentialism: to go beyond good enough would be too costly, and in fact would end up not maximizing fitness after all.

The sort of examples we have briefly examined in this section could easily be multiplied endlessly, even branching into other ethical frameworks (e.g., evolution of and progress in virtue ethics, or deontology), as well as to entirely different areas of philosophical inquiry (metaphysics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, and so forth). But I hope that the general point has been made sufficiently clearly. Even so, the reader may also suspect that some of this back-and-forth in conceptual space may, in the end, be rather pointless (I discussed this briefly in the Introduction, in the specific case of “Gettierology”). And some (maybe even a good amount) of it probably is. But let me explain and expand on this a bit, by way of concluding this chapter with a commentary on Dan Dennett’s (2014) distinction between chess and chmess, and why it pertains to the subject matter of this entire book.


[7] For a general framework comparing the major ethical theories, thus better situating utilitarianism, see here (accessed on 19 November 2015).

[8] Of course, one could simply bite the bullet on this one. But I’m more sympathetic to Mill’s attempt, if not necessarily to the specific way he went about it.

[9] Note that I am not actually attempting to adjudicate the soundness of any of the above moves over any of their rivals. As I said, I do not actually buy into a consequentialist ethical framework (my preference goes to virtue ethics). The point is simply that modern utilitarianism is better (i.e., it has made progress) because of this ongoing back and forth with its critics, which has led utilitarians to constantly refine their positions, and in some cases to abandon some aspects of their doctrine.


Bartels, D.M. and Pizarro, D.A. (2011) The mismeasure of morals: antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas. Cognition 121:154-161.

Bentham, J. (1978). Offences Against Oneself. L. Compton (ed.), The Journal of Homosexuality 3:389-406 and 4:91-107.

Chang, R. (1997) Incommensurability, Incomparability, and Practical Reason. Harvard University Press.

Dennett, D. (2014) Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. W. W. Norton.

Driver, J. (2009) The history of utilitarianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 26 June 2012).

Gill, M. (2000) Hume’s Progressive View of Human Nature. Hume Studies 26:87-108.

Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon.

Hutcheson, F. (1738) An Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil (accessed on 7 May 2014).

Kahane, G., Everett, J.A.C., Earp, B.D., Farias, M. and Savulescu, J. (2015) ‘Utilitarian’ judgments in sacrificial moral dilemmas do not reflect impartial concern for the greater good. Cognition 134:193–209.

Inwood, B. (editor) (2003) The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Cambridge University Press.

Mill, J.S. (1861) Utilitarianism. R. Crisp (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1998.

Nozick, R. (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books.

Railton, P. (2003) Facts, Values, and Norms: Essays toward a Morality of Consequence. Cambridge University Press.

Sidgwick, H. (1874) The Methods of Ethics (accessed on 9 May 2014).

Singer, P. (1997) The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle. New Internationalist (accessed on 9 May 2014).

Singer, P. (2013) The why and how of effective altruism. TED Talk (accessed on 9 May 2014).

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2006) Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 13 January 2010).

Ward, D. (1992) The Role of Satisficing in Foraging Theory. Oikos 63:312-317.

104 thoughts on “Progress in Philosophy — IV

  1. garthdaisy

    “garth: I’ve been teaching ethics at the university for over 20 years… Not once has ev psych entered into the discussion.”

    Yes this is the problem I am pointing out. You know what else hasn’t happened in those 20 years? Moral philosophy hasn’t made any progress and their funding is being cut. Meanwhile ev-psych is actually figuring out why people do bad things and your beloved capitalism is the prime suspect. No surprised you’re not happy about it ev-psych. But as I said earlier, you win. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And if you don’t like ev-psych it will be gone as a field very soon. It is melting into those other social sciences you mentioned where it belongs. Psychology and ev-psych are basically the same thing now.


  2. synred

    Depends what you’re interested in!

    Personally, I’m very interested how we get from elementary particles to art. I do doubt we’ll ever figure it out…and, if we do, like thermodynamics, new concepts will need to be added to understand how it happens. Mere simulation is not particularly interesting (though it is a great tool).

    I’m also interested in how evolution gives rise to morality, religion, literature, etc. I doubt evo-psych will help with that soon, if ever. Game theory and, even, gasp, simulation may.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    I never made such a claim, Daniel. I merely said that I thought a well-done version of evolutionary-based psychological research, idea-generation, etc., could inform philosophy. FAR different than “hand it over.” Far different.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel Kaufman

    synred: You can be interested in whatever you like. I am talking about the professionals in the field. I mean, it’s not as if what *I’m* interested in, re: particle physics, means anything with regard to what’s *interesting* to the professionals working in that field.


  5. Daniel Kaufman

    garth: You don’t know what you are talking about. Ethics is the *least* endangered area of philosophy. It is being expanded, not contracted. Even in our small department, we’ve been able to hire additional faculty, in order to expand our ethics offerings.

    You can try to dismiss my expertise all you want. The fact is, I’ve taught in departments in NY and the Midwest. I’ve chaired departments. I’ve chaired faculty searches. I’ve been involved in university governance. I *know* something about the current situation. And no one has been tougher on philosophy than me.

    But you are simply wrong on Ethics. Dead wrong. Completely wrong. Totally wrong. Of all the areas in philosophy, Ethics is in by far the best shape, both in terms of its place in the university and its effect on the broader culture. All without ev-psych.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Discussion on this post gets back to Massimo’s early chapters of the book and posts on them, about the interaction between science in general and philosophy.

    There’s probably three main divisions (omnes philosophi tres partes divisa est, eh, Massimo?) here.

    One would be philosophers ready to semi-indiscriminately jump in bed with scientists, even to the point of risking the “scientism” label themselves.

    The second would be those who take a pragmatic approach to working with individual fields of science in individual fields of philosophy.

    The third would be, to riff on Steve Gould, the NOMA philosophers. (This is why I’m a writer, folks; allusions mixed with analogies! Don’t try this at home)

    I think this part, the Belgic Gaul of philosophy or whatever, has two subgroups (cis-Rhenian and trans-Rhenian?)

    One is those gunshy about scientific encroachment and poaching to the degree that they take an overreaction, not just a legitimate reaction. Whether or not they believe that there is a “metaphysical” NOMA or not, they’re going to establish a demarcation NOMA.

    The second subgroup would be those with a Platonic/romantic view of philosophy. To some degree, they believe in some degree of a “metaphysical” NOMA.

    Or, to go one further on analogy. The old American Boston Brahmin proverb says, “The Cabots speak only to the Lodges and the Lodges speak only to God.” This subgroup of philosophers might think that the proper statement is: “The scientists speak only to the philosophers, and the philosophers speak only when they deign.”


  7. Daniel Kaufman

    synred: ???? I was pretty clearly talking about *professionals in the field.* Explicitly, in fact. Ev psych and atomic physics are not of interest to professionals working in art history and criticism.

    Ev psych is of interest to *some* professionals working in Ethics, but not most. Atomic physics to none.


  8. garthdaisy


    Can you point to any contribution whatsoever field of moral philosophy has made to the world? Besides giving us mountains of moral philosophy to sift through? The only one I can think of is CBT. Beyond that it’s all just a bunch of dudes who disagree with each other about morality. There’s no consensus. No conclusions. There are as many theories as there are philosophers.

    And please don;t give me examples of contributions that other philosophers think are important. I’m talking about visible contributions to society that help real people.


  9. Daniel Kaufman

    garth: You are ignoring the entire field of applied ethics.

    Every single nursing student who gets a degree from my university is required to take ethics courses from us, including, but not limited to bioethics.

    Those are “real” people, making “visible” contributions that help “real” people. As opposed to those fake people in the university, who make no contributions to anyone … except, of course, to every single professional to whose credentialing degrees they contribute.


  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Oh, and “CBT” is a clinical methodology in psychology, not a moral philosophy. (Unless you mean something other than “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” by ‘CBT’.


  11. garthdaisy

    No I was being generous and giving Aristotle credit for CBT.But yes, science can really be credited for that one too.

    “Those are “real” people, making “visible” contributions that help “real” people.”

    How? I’m not going to just take your word for it. I’m not saying there aren’t any contributions from moral philosophy I just can’t think of any. You insisting and strongly asserting that there are is not enough. Examples?


  12. synred

    Dan: “Ev-psych and atomic physics are not of interest to professionals working in art history and criticism”

    Actually, not true of every one. The guy who organizes the Martin Perl Book club is an art historian. He’s very interested in and knowledgeable about science. The book club is dedicated to technology and science books.

    Tomorrow (maybe today your time) we meet to discuss:

    Crease, Robert. The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science . Random House Publishing Group.

    Crease is, in fact, a philosopher (Massimo knows him).

    I, also, don’t buy CP Snow’s two cultures. Scientist read, like music, history, art, etc. Some, e.g., my father-in-law, in the liberal arts to look down on science. My ultimate math nerd uncle Hartland could play the violin at almost the professional leve.

    I’m not interested in only particle physics, hence, PF.

    You seem to be defining your ‘professional interest’ rather narrowly. The biological basis of art and morality seems interesting to me [a] and I would guess there are philosophers who find it interesting too.

    Lots of interesting things can be studied about thermodynamics w/o reference to statistical mechanics and the underlying atoms. Volumes were written, experiments done, subtle theoretical issues understood and steam engines invented based on thermodynamics.

    Still I find it very interesting how thermodynamic behavior arises from atoms and statistics.

    [a] My evolution simulation program FINCHES shows how ‘female birds’ develop a ‘color’ preference driven by their higher cost of reproduction. It’s not, of course, directly applicable to people. However, preferences developed for one ‘purpose’ may be applied to something else (spandrels). For the moment how human preferences developed is just a story.


  13. Daniel Kaufman

    garth: I don’t know what to tell you, man. The people who are responsible for credentialing, mentoring, and employing nurses all think that it is essential as part of their education that they take ethics courses from us. That strikes me as significance for “real” people. And if you want an entirely different discipline, the Art and Design program at our university, has made my aesthetics course count towards BFA and MFA degree programs. I have served on senior show committees for painters, sculptors, photographers, metal workers, you name it. They thought my contributions valuable.

    Fortunately, I don’t really have to defend my discipline to you. Universities across the country — and the world — will continue to require their professionals — lawyers, doctors, businessmen, etc — to take ethics courses from us (and are, in fact, increasing the number of such requirements), regardless of what you think of them.

    I think we’ve had enough of this discussion, don’t you?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Daniel Kaufman

    Ok, Synred. Atomic physics and ev psych are involved in the day to day, common research of contemporary art historians and critical scholars. Right on. You got it.

    I’m remembering now, why I stopped having these conversations. Time to pull out again. See you later.


  15. synred


    Ok, Synred. Atomic physics and ev psych are involved in the day to day, common research of contemporary art historians and critical scholars. Right on. You got it.

    I don’t think I said that.


  16. garthdaisy


    Nurses do good work but how do the moral philosophy courses they have to take contribute to that. You seem to think a bunch of people getting credentialed is a contribution in itself. How is the moral philosophy helping them do their jobs? Make the connection.

    Or not. You’re right. You don’t have to defend the profession of moral philosophy to the likes of me. It actually has made some contributions to capitalism, I thought you might mention those. And in Texas, the prisons follow Kant and reschedule executions for death row inmates when they become deathly ill. They do their best to nurse them back to life so they can know that society killed them.


  17. synred

    Hi Dan,

    I think you confuse me and Garth. We are saying quite different things. I’m not saying ethics makes no contribution. I’m only saying the biological underpinnings are interesting.

    Like with thermodynamics many interesting and important things can be done w/o reference to the underpinnings.

    Different strokes for different folks – ethics, right? 🙂

    I’d rather you didn’t leave, but I follow you elsewhere.



  18. garthdaisy

    I’m not saying ethics make no contribution either. I’m challenging philosophers who attack evo-psych to tell me what those contributions are? Before you attack the thing that tells us what morality is, where it comes from, and why we even care about a right and wrong in the first place, you ought to be able to demonstrate how moral philosophy has contributed to moral understanding.


  19. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Robin,

    His point was that Descartes was going too far in referring to an “I”, that Descartes assumes [in] his conclusion that there is an “I” that is doing the thinking.

    Lichtenberg point is that all we can know is that there is some thinking happening.

    Ah, now I understand. The statement “I…” followed by anything at all, will be circular regarding existence because the “I” premise will mandate such existence. (“I walk,” for example, mandates that I exist.) Yes I do now agree that “I think therefore I am” is circular. My issue was that you chose to use the plural term “we,” when I can’t ultimately know of any “we,” but only of a “me.”

    Surely something might exist without thinking, though it shouldn’t thus have any awareness of its existence (pace definition). But if something does think, then it’s not logically possible that it doesn’t exist. Regardless, to me it’s simply not possible that I don’t exist, given that it’s indisputable to me that I’m thinking right now (again, pace definition for these terms). This would seem to be all I can ever be certain of about reality in an ultimate sense. If you exist as well as think, then you might say the same.


  20. Philosopher Eric

    I should also mention before retiring that even though my ideas may roughly be classified under the “utilitarian” family, that the theory which I’ve developed remains quite different from all brands of ethics that I’ve yet encountered. Given this particular difference, perhaps some would even deny it to exist as “ethics” or “philosophy.”

    Rather than help us better judge the behavior of ourselves and others, my theory seeks to describe what’s actually good/bad for any given subject. Thus my ideas don’t address the “ought” side of things, but rather the “is.” I won’t be discussing this here for now, since I’d much rather learn about standard philosophy from Massimo’s book (which I hope he finds successful) than challenge its premise.

    One other thing. If possible I would hope for us to remain somewhat gender neutral, at least until it becomes reasonably clear how a given person would like to be addressed. Yes I’m aware that this forum has been “a sausage fest,” though I for one would enjoy greater diversity.


  21. synred

    Hi Daniel,

    It occurs to me that ethics is one area (at least) of philosophy where consensus is not essential and maybe not even desirable.

    In such courses for nurses, doctors, lawyers [insert lawyer joke here] and bomb builders, it’s likely more important that people learn to think about the issues, and different perspectives are useful. Also, learning how to recognize the bogus arguments would be valuable.


  22. Robin Herbert

    Hi garthdaisy,

    “That seems like a dangerously uninformed view to me”

    Coincidentally that is just how your view appears to me.

    “You just explained it. This “purely descriptive role” is of extremely high value. All oughts are based on ises. Well informed ises generate the best oughts.”

    But how exactly would this information be of benefit? We already know that these feelings and disposition have their genesis because they once increased the probability that certain patterns among nucleotides predominated over others in a prehistoric and vanished landscape.

    I can’t see what the precise details of how this played out, even if we could know, would help me in making decisions about the kinds of rules I might adopt (if any) for my own behaviour in the present.

    Unless I had some accountable desire to ensure my behaviour is faithful to the way evolution conditioned me, which I don’t.


  23. Massimo Post author


    EvoPsych is not quite pseudoscience, but it isn’t far from it, which is why I continue to ignore it. As for what it can tell us about normative ethics: not much. If anything, it is the study of psychology that is informative because it can tells us what people value and how they change behavior, when they do.

    Certainly ethics has evolutionary roots, but to claim that that fact somehow informs modern ethical discourse is to confuse a question of origin with one of current practice. It would be like saying that since mathematics originated as the evolved ability to count and form mental abstractions, therefore mathematicians should heed to evolutionary biology. Nope.

    As for the contributions of ethics, others have answered you several times. Besides the practical ones of medical and business ethics, Singer’s book on animal liberation, for one, has been hugely influential in practice. So has Mill’s On Liberty. The founding fathers of the USA wrote the Constitution on the basis of their understanding of the philosophy (and ethics and social politics) of the Enlightenment. And so on and so forth.

    You mention the Stoics, and of course I think they got it right: the study of human reasoning (their “logic”) and of natural science and metaphysics (their “physics”) ought to inform ethics, understood as the study of how to live one’s life. But inform doesn’t mean determine, and the evolutionary bit is the least informative, in my opinion.


    No I don’t regard virtue ethics as a sub-type of consequentialism. It does have consequentialist aspects (it also has deontological ones, such as the duty to follow virtue), but it is a third, and quite distinct, approach to ethics — largely because, as just mentioned above, it defines ethics as much broader than the prevalent modern conception.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Coel

    Reading the OP and its account of the exploration of the conceptual landscape of utilitarianism I can’t help thinking that the “progress” that has been made amounts to the realisation that one cannot obtain a coherent, normative scheme of ethics from utilitarianist considerations, and that the quest should be abandoned as a dead-end.

    Rather off topic, but since Lawrence Krauss has been mentioned in earlier chapters, here’s a link to some remarks by Krauss on Jerry Coyne’s blog, which are pertinent to issues previously discussed here.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. brodix

    The essential desire is to grow. Some only see the material and hedonistic aspects and some see the social and empathetic aspects and some see the global and cosmic aspects, but while all these different layers might compete, they also inform each other. Growth itself can often be destructive of what might resist it.


  26. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, per the stance that I have taken, largely agreeing with you, and Dan, at least on the worst of Ev Psych, but, at the same time, noting the “can” of possibility, do you think a better-informed, better-practiced, less-scientistic psychology subfield of evolutionary biology CAN “inform” ethics, as I have stated?

    Dan seems to think ‘No” even to that, though it’s not 100 percent clear.

    As for your position on this angle, I’m not sure of, or aware of, it at all.


  27. SocraticGadfly

    With my previous statement, of course, that’s with noting we need a fresh start on whatever we call this field. Some parts of current Ev Psych, notably the EEA, simply aren’t scientific, and in a Popperian sense, not falsifiable today, and probably never.

    At the same time, Ev Psych isn’t the only evolution-related critter out there. There’s also ethology, for example.


  28. garthdaisy

    Hi Robin,

    “We already know that these feelings and disposition have their genesis because they once increased the probability that certain patterns among nucleotides predominated over others in a prehistoric and vanished landscape.”

    Good lord, Robin, most people in the world do not know that. That’s my point. Most people still think their emotions come from God’s love or from some other dualist notion of the self. The information you just cited makes a huge difference philosophically as to how we should view our moral emotions vs how we used to, like back in Kant’s day for example.

    “I can’t see what the precise details of how this played out, even if we could know, would help me in making decisions about the kinds of rules I might adopt (if any) for my own behaviour in the present.”

    You don’t need the precise details, you just need to know the generalities of how it all played out. And it seems quite clear from that how and why xenophobia evolved, and how that emotion was useful during hunter gatherer times but is not useful in today’s global society. It’s an anachronistic instinct. This is an extremely important piece of information for someone trying to sort out their feelings on race.

    “Unless I had some accountable desire to ensure my behaviour is faithful to the way evolution conditioned me, which I don’t.”

    Or unless you had some desire to understand the origins of an emotion in yourself and others that causes racist feelings and actions.

    It’s not “know your nature so you can follow it as you were conditioned.”
    It’s “know your nature so you can control it, instead of it controlling you.”

    Evo-psych informs us that today’s problematic tribalism, is due to anachronistic feelings and emotions, and it gives us a road map to redirecting those emotions for positive effect in today’s world. (eg. see all humans as one tribe) to fit into today’s world.

    But most people in this world still don’t know or believe that their emotions are evolved at all. And it sure doesn’t help that moral philosophers think this information is moot to moral philosophy.

    Liked by 2 people

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