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Philosophical Landmines

I used to occasionally remark that consequentialism is a slam-dunk as far as practical every-day rationality goes; if you care about what happens, you think about what will happen as a result of possible actions. Duh.

The predictable consequence of this sort of statement is that someone starts going off about hospitals and terrorists ?and organs and moral philosophy and consent and rights and so on. This may be controversial, but I would say that causing this tangent constitutes a failure to communicate the point. Instead of prompting someone to think, you invoked some irrelevant philosophical cruft. The discussion is now about Consequentialism, the Capitalized Moral Theory, instead of the simple idea of thinking through consequences as an everyday heuristic.

I don't think I understand the problem. You say that "consequentialism is a slam-dunk as far as practical rationality goes," this comment is interpreted as the claim that "The moral theory called Consequentialism is true," and the person you're talking to asks you what you think about some common and relevant objections to that moral theory.

What's gone wrong? "Consequentialism" is used in philosophy as a term for the view that the morality of an action depends only on the consequences of that action. So I don't think you can blame your interlocutor for interpreting the term this way and raising relevant objections to this view. You seem to be using the term in an idiosyncratic way—as referring to the view that we should think about the consequences of our actions before performing them (or something like that).

The lesson of your story seems not to be that we should avoid using terms like "consequentialism," but that we should be careful to explain exactly what we mean by a term if we're going to be using it in an idiosyncratic way.

Rationality quotes: August 2010

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

-H.P. Lovecraft

Less Wrong Q&A with Eliezer Yudkowsky: Ask Your Questions


I think I agree with everything you say in response to my original post.

It seems like you basically agree with me that facts about the opinions of philosophers who work in some area (where this group is suitibly defined to avoid the difficulties you point out) should be important to us if we are trying to figure out what to believe in that area.

Why aren't studies being carried out to find out what these facts are? Do you think most philosophers would not agree that they are important?

Less Wrong Q&A with Eliezer Yudkowsky: Ask Your Questions

It seems like, if I'm trying to make up my mind about philosophical questions (like whether moral realism is true, or whether free will is an illusion) I should try to find out what professional philosophers think the answers to these questions are.

If I found out that 80% of professional philosophers who think about metaethical questions think that moral realism is true, and I happen to be an anti-realist, then I should be far less certain of my belief that anti-realism is true.

But surveys like this aren't done in philosophy (I don't think). Do you think that the results of surveys like this (if there were any) should be important to the person trying to make a decision about whether or not to believe in free will, or be an moral realist, or whatever?