Defensible positions

by Chris Leong1 min read26th Oct 2020No comments

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A useful concept when discussing philosophy is the concept of defensible positions or alternatively "hills to die on". In philosophy, some positions are more defensible than others or at least appear that way at first glance. Take for example discussions on morality.

Utilitarianism and absolute deontology (deontology where moral rules cannot be overridden by any amount of utility) tend to more naturally draw the philosophically inclined than any of the intermediate positions (I will concede that immediate positions are a more natural draw to those who are less philosophically inclined). However, let's suppose we take a deontologist who is willing to endorse absolute deontology in the abstract, but when presented with a concrete situation where they can punch an innocent person to save the world, concedes that their principles really aren't workable.

In this case, we've managed to explode their current defensible position and they have to find a new one to seek shelter at. Some philosophical refugees might then head over to utilitarianism, but this isn't necessarily the only option. Maybe there's another defensible position they can find in the giant intermediate zone, even if they can't name it at this time (we're ignoring alternatives like virtue ethics at the moment). Of course, often this is very difficult to rule out as it is hard to prove a negative. While sometimes you can make a general argument against intermediate positions, at other times the variety of them makes this extremely challenging and it turns into a game of whack-a-mole.

I guess the reason why I consider this a useful concept is because it allows me to more easily articulate my reasons for particular philosophical positions. For example, I lean towards utilitarianism over deontology. Strong deontology does not seem viable to me at all and it's a struggle to find an intermediate position that doesn't end up with the weakness of both utilitarianism and deontology. Similarly, I support paying in Counterfactual Mugging as the Counterfactual Prisoner's Dilemma explodes the position that we can just always ignore counterfactuals and while that doesn't prove that we should shift over to taking the expected value over counterfactuals, it seems hard to find a viable intermediate position.

In the past before I had the concept of defensible positions I would have been more likely to say that these arguments demonstrated either deontology or paying in the Counterfactual Mugging, but with concept it is easier for me to explain how it pushes us towards these positions while not being completely conclusive.

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