Friday, December 30, 2022

2022 in review

While new substantive posts go on the substack, I plan to keep (cross-)posting annual review posts here, for ease of archiving.

[Past annual reviews: 202120202019 & '182017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005, and 2004.]

Posts from before the move (that weren't cross-posted)

Cross-posted annual review from Good Thoughts

I started the new substack in May 2022, after 18 years of blogging at, with the hope that the new platform would boost my reach and prompt more reader engagement (e.g. comments). So far, it seems to be working! I’ve enjoyed many interesting discussions (thank you, commenters!), and was delighted to surpass 2000 subscribers in early November, after the welcome surprise of being featured on the Substack main page for a couple of days.

In this post, I’ll flag some of the year’s highlights, and bold a handful of posts that I especially recommend (for anyone who missed them the first time around).

Off the blog

Last spring/summer I was awarded tenure (and promoted to Associate Professor) at the University of Miami. I received a grant from Longview Philanthropy, allowing me to take this academic year off from my faculty position, work full time on a mix of research and outreach projects (including and this blog), and visit Oxford’s outstanding Global Priorities Institute for this past autumn term. My paper ‘Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk’ (summarized here) was published in Public Health Ethics. And, a few days before Christmas, I was interviewed live on NPR about the ideas behind effective altruism.

New pages I wrote this year for include:

There are always more things I want to work on than I’m actually able to get around to. But once you add these 50-odd substack posts into the mix, and new academic papers currently under review and in draft, I’m overall pretty happy with my productivity. I’m also excited about my plans for next year—and will be happy if I manage to complete at least half of what I have in mind.

Posts on Effective Altruism & Applied Ethics

A major theme of Good Thoughts is that it’s good to do good things (and even better to do better)! Some relevant posts include:

  • Effective Altruism FAQ - what I wish everyone knew about EA

  • Beneficentrism - how the moral foundations of EA are much broader (and less controversial/disputable) than full-blown utilitarianism

  • The Nietzschean Challenge to Effective Altruism - here’s a foundational challenge one doesn’t often hear: maybe well-being is overrated? At least, it may be worth giving weight to things like achievement and not just things like comfort.

  • Ethics as Solutions vs Constraints - contrasting beneficence-first vs purity-first ways of thinking about ethics

  • Pick some low-hanging fruit - while not quite as vivid as Singer’s pond, I quite like this alternative metaphor for (moderate) effective altruism in the face of seemingly limitless demands.

  • The Strange Shortage of Moral Optimizers - Why doesn’t EA have more competition? It’s weird that more people aren’t even trying to “promote the general good in a serious, scope-sensitive, goal-directed kind of way.”

  • Billionaire Philanthropy - would you prefer they spend it on luxury consumption? Or donate to the US treasury? Seriously?

  • Review of What We Owe the Future - an important book, well-targeted at introducing longtermism to a general audience, but in many respects too uncontroversial for philosophical audiences. Expect academic critics to exaggerate the core thesis (or even conflate it with total utilitarianism) to give them more of a target.

  • Utilitarianism and Abortion - there’s no particular reason for longtermist pro-natalists to focus specifically on abortion (rather than other non-procreative choices), and there’s no utilitarian excuse to force people to do good things (like procreate) when you could instead incentivize them. (Cf. kidney donations.)

On Utilitarianism and Ethical Theory

I think most people—including most academic philosophers—have a pretty terrible understanding of utilitarian ethics, relying on misleading and oversimplified caricatures. Some of the below posts try to correct those misunderstandings. Others more positively explore what we should think about tricky issues in ethical theory.

  • Introducing - an overview of the new website and its main features. (N.B. more updates coming soon!)

  • Utilitarianism and Reflective Equilibrium - why utilitarianism is (contrary to common perception) actually the most intuitive moral theory: its conflicts with intuitive verdicts are shallow and easy to accommodate, whereas deontology’s conflicts with intuitive principles are deep and utterly irresolvable.

  • Utilitarianism debate with Michael Huemer - expanding on the above point, and on the inferential role of wrongness

  • (Im)permissibility is Overrated - distinguishing right and wrong is less important than settling what’s worth caring about.

  • Theses on Mattering - addressing common misconceptions about what it takes to truly value people equally

  • A New Paradox of Deontology - how only consequentialism combines normative authority, guidance, and adequate concern for rescuable victims

  • Constraints and Candy - both appeal to our lizard-brains, but neglect less salient interests

  • Deontic Pluralism - How to reconcile Maximizing, Satisficing, and Scalar Consequentialisms

  • Consequentialism Beyond Action - and why we need two dimensions of moral evaluation: the fitting the and the fortunate. (Too many consequentialists neglect the former!)

  • Caplan’s Conscience Objection to Utilitarianism - why the demandingness objection is confused, and utilitarianism does not in fact imply that we're all bad people

  • Emergency ethics - and why I think there’s no special duty of easy rescue, just general reasons of beneficence

  • Level-Up Impartiality - non-utilitarians sometimes imagine that impartiality means treating everyone as badly as they treat strangers, rather than as well as they treat their friends and loved ones. But I think there’s independent reason to think we’re more likely right about the latter.

  • Ethically Alien Thought Experiments - don’t let alien cases masquerade as real-world ones (transparently alien thought experiments are fine, though!)

  • Consequentialism and Cluelessness - why I'm skeptical of Lenman's Epistemic Objection

  • A Multiplicative Model of Value Pluralism - how do distinct kinds of value combine?

  • Double or Nothing Existence Gambles - seem like a bad deal! But what’s the best theoretical explanation of this?

  • Killing vs Failing to Create - addressing the replaceability objection by allowing both impersonal and person-directed reasons

  • Puzzles for Everyone - Some of the deepest puzzles in ethics concern how to coherently extend ordinary beneficence and decision theory to extreme cases. Too often, people mistakenly believe that these are only puzzles for utilitarians, as though other theories needn’t care at all about beneficence or decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. I explain why this is a mistake, and especially explain why appealing to “neutrality” about adding happy lives is not an adequate solution to the problems of population ethics.

On the link between Theory and Practice

  • Theory-Driven Applied Ethics - how utilitarianism may inspire mid-level “beneficentric” principles that can command wider assent, and still suffice for all practical purposes.

  • Is Non-Consequentialism Self-effacing? - turning Bernard Williams on his head: even non-consequentialists should probably want others to be more beneficent, which is a goal that may be better served by promoting utilitarian ethics.

  • How Useful is Utilitarianism? - some early thinking about what a ‘Beneficence Project’ for utilitarian-leaning academics might look like (with an invitation for potential collaborators to get in touch).

  • Naïve vs Prudent Utilitarianism - careless pursuit of the good is bad in expectation (but of course nothing in utilitarianism justifies such carelessness).

  • Ethical Theory and Practice - stipulated thought experiments are not a good guide to how to behave in real life, with its ineliminable uncertainties. As a result, it turns out that utilitarianism and moderate deontology are surprisingly difficult to differentiate in terms of their real-world implications.

Other Posts

My Top Three

For any new readers, I’d especially encourage you to check out my following “top three” most-liked posts:

  1. Puzzles for Everyone
  2. Beneficentrism
  3. Theses on Mattering
Happy New Year!

Friday, May 06, 2022

Moving to Substack

I started this blog 18 years ago, as a second-year undergraduate philosophy major.  The first couple years were... very undergrad-y... but I think by 2006 or so I was doing some pretty interesting philosophy on here, much (but not all) of which I would still stand by.  The next few years (heading into early grad school) were probably the peak years for the blog in terms of audience engagement, commonly getting dozens of comments per post.

After the old blogosphere largely died off, and engagement moved to Facebook and Twitter, I've kept the blog going as a kind of "extended mind" for organizing my thoughts.  Sharing the posts on FB sometimes leads to some good discussion there.  And I get loads of random google hits through all the page-rank built up over the years. I've written over 2000 posts, received over 14K (non-spam) comments, and since 2010 have received over 5 million page views.  Still, the old Blogger software is no longer well-supported, so I'm curious to see if I can do better on a new platform.

I've heard good things about Substack, so have set up a new blog/newsletter there, called Good Thoughts. (The 'goodthoughts' substack url was already taken, alas, so I've gone with instead.)  Existing email subscribers should be carried over automatically.  Others can click through or use the following form to subscribe:

Whereas Philosophy, et cetera was always primarily a self-indulgent project, my aim with Good Thoughts is to be a little more thoughtful about writing for an audience, e.g. writing more self-contained posts, with less reliance on back-linking to previous posts to fill in essential background, etc. We'll see how it goes, but I hope it proves worthwhile.

Hope to see you there!

P.S. For a synoptic view of my past blogging, check out the annual review posts under my 'compendia' category.

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Utilitarianism Debate with Michael Huemer

Matthew Adelstein kindly invited me & Michael Huemer to hash out our disagreements about utilitarianism over on his YouTube channel.  The resulting discussion was fun and wide-ranging.  In this post, I just want to highlight a couple of major themes that seemed fairly central to our dispute: (1) which intuitions we place the most weight on, and (2) the inferential role of wrongness.

Writing Papers with Pandoc

At Daily Nous, there's a discussion of Tech Advice for a New Philosophy Grad Student.  There's some dispute about whether or not it's worth learning LaTeX.  I recommend pandoc instead for those who are on the fence.  You write in markdown, a simpler and more readable plain text syntax (compare *markdown italics* to \emph{LaTeX italics}, for example!). But it subsequently uses LaTeX to produce good-looking PDFs.  Or it can just as easily convert into other document formats, such as Word .docx, if needed.  It's very flexible.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Rescuing Maligned Views in Phil Mind [HYC]

Epiphenomenalism and Idealism are two of the most maligned views in philosophy of mind. So it's kind of funny that Helen defends both.  Something I really like about her papers is that they really bring out why these views are much more defensible -- or even appealing -- than others usually realize.  This comes through especially strongly in her two latest papers:

(1) 'Get Acquainted With Naïve Idealism' (forthcoming in The Roles of Representations in Visual Perception) argues that only idealists can truly secure the putative epistemic benefits of direct realism about perception, as the only well-developed conception of direct acquaintance on offer in phil mind involves the objects of direct acquaintance (i.e., phenomenal experiences) being literal constituents of our thoughts.  Helen shows how idealists can extend this account to make sense of direct acquaintance with "physical" objects (that are themselves ultimately made of phenomenology, and hence apt to enter our minds in the relevant way), while traditional materialist accounts of physical reality can't make sense of this.  The resulting theory of perception -- naive idealism -- is completely wild, but a lot of fun to think about! 

(2) 'Dualism All the Way Down: Why There is No Paradox of Phenomenal Judgment' (forthcoming in Synthese) should instantly become required reading for any class that covers epiphenomenalism.  In this paper, Helen expands upon Chalmers' classic defense of epiphenomenalism against the paradox of phenomenal judgment ("how can you know you're conscious, if qualia can't cause this belief?"), emphasizing that the paradox -- including Kirk's post-Chalmers development of it -- loses its force when one takes care to adopt a systematically dualistic conception of the mind, such that you are not your brain.  This putative "paradox" is usually taken to be the objection to epiphenomenalism, and this paper basically offers a knock-down refutation of it (and a half-dozen closely related variants of the objection).


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Objections to Rule Consequentialism

Those put-off by the putative counterexamples to Act Consequentialism may consider Rule Consequentialism a more appealing alternative. Michael Huemer goes so far as to suggest that it is "not a crazy view." In this post, I'll explain why I think Rule Consequentialism is not well-supported -- and, at least as standardly formulated, may even be crazy.

There are three main motivations for Rule Consequentialism (RC).  One -- most common amongst non-specialists -- stems from the sense that it would be better (in practice) for people to be guided by generally-reliable rules than to attempt to explicitly calculate expected utilities on a case-by-case basis.  But of course this is no reason to prefer RC as a criterion of right; this consideration instead pulls one towards multi-level act utilitarianism (on which the right decision procedure is something other than constant calculation).

A better argument for RC (and the one that seems to motivate Huemer) is that it better systematizes our moral intuitions about cases.  But I think this is bad moral methodology -- matching superficial intuitions about cases is much less important than conforming to our deeper understanding of what really matters.  And RC is notoriously difficult to reconcile with the idea that promoting well-being (rather than blindly following rules) is what matters.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Guest Post: Animal Population Ethics

Evan Dawson-Baglien wrote to me with some interesting thoughts on the challenge of incorporating non-persons into (non-total views of) population ethics. I asked him if he'd be willing to compose and share his thoughts as a guest post, and he generously agreed. Here's the result. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Utilitarianism and Reflective Equilibrium

In 'Why I Am Not a Utilitarian', Michael Huemer objects that "there are so many counter-examples, and the intuitions about these examples are strong and widespread, it’s hard to see how utilitarianism could be justified overall."  But I think it's actually much easier to bring utilitarianism (or something close to it) into reflective equilibrium with common sense intuitions than it would be for any competing deontological view.  That's because I think the clash between utilitarianism and intuition is shallow, whereas the intuitive problems with non-consequentialism are deep and irresolvable.

To fully make this case would probably require a book or three.  But let's see how far I can get sketching the rough case in a mere blog post.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Emergence and Incremental Probability

In 'Emergence and Incremental Impact', I argued (contra Kingston and Sinnott-Armstrong) that emergent properties do nothing to undermine the basic case for individual impact: they're just another kind of threshold case, and thresholds are compatible with difference-making increments.

In that old post, I assumed counterfactual determinacy to make the case for there being some precise increment(s) that make a difference whenever a collection of increments together does.  But while revising my paper on collective harm, it occurred to me that the case becomes much more clear-cut when made in terms of probabilities.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Longtermism Contra Schwitzgebel

In 'Against Longtermism', Eric Schwitzgebel writes: "I accept much of Ord's practical advice. I object only to justifying this caution by appeal to expectations about events a million years from now."  He offers four objections, which are interesting and well worth considering, but I think ultimately unpersuasive.  Let's consider them in turn.