Thanks Robin. Again, “high impact” in is meant to be a logically attributive adjective, not a logically predicative adjective. Being a big mouse doesn’t mean that you’re a mouse and you’re big, and, as I meant it, being a high impact philosopher doesn’t mean that you’re a philosopher and you’re high impact. It might be that no philosophers are high impact. (But Nick’s right: Note how influential folks like Singer, Bostrom and Ord have been on altruistically motivated people. They’re the working model.)
To keep you all in the loop, I’m planning to write 3 follow-on blog posts:
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Thanks for the comments! Responding just to some.
Carl: thanks for letting me know about the LW discussion - I hadn’t seen that. In terms of the list being consequentialist in its assumptions - actually, I don’t think that’s true. It’s perfectly compatible with thinking that people have both rights - things you may not do to people even though it would be better, impartially considered, if you did them - and options - things that it’s permissible to do, even though they aren’t the best options, impartially considered, available to you. You can think that X is more important than Y even if you think that it would be impermissible to violate someone’s rights in order to achieve X over Y. And you can think that X is more important than Y even if you think that it would be permissible to choose either X or Y if nothing else was at stake. How ‘important’ solving a question is is an evaluative question - like saying “how good would it be to solve it?”. But it’s not only consequentialists that are interested in evaluative questions.
What would be typically non-consequentialist (or non-utilitarian) issues that arise on these lists? Whether equality is of value? But almost all views agree in practice that equality is of value - they just disagree on why that’s so (whether it’s valuable in and of itself, or merely for instrumental reasons). Whether there are side-constrants on action? But again, almost all views agree in practice that you shouldn’t go around killing people, or stealing - they just disagree on why that’s so. The question Adriano mentions: “should the numbers count?” is a good one which could plausibly be added - perhaps I’d state it as “is it even possible to aggregate wellbeing?”. If it weren’t, that would have pretty radical consequences - and there are quite a lot of non-consequentialist philosophers who are at least somewhat sympathetic to that idea.
Over on LW, Daniel Burfoot suggests: “Is it ethical to pay taxes? Is it ethical to send your children to school? Is it ethical to associate with governments?” Other commentators suggest that something like “is egoism true?” should be added to the list. But these aren’t really open questions within moral philosophy. And, even if they were, would failing to know these be catastrophic, in the way that failing to know some of the things I’ve listed above would be? If non-human animals and humans have equal moral standing, then factory farming is probably the most horrific wrong ever caused by man. But if it’s wrong to pay taxes, then is the fact that governments tax people an atrocity of the same scale? No moral philosopher (not even Nozick, who raises the slavery analogy) would think that.
Finally, you might say that my list is consequentialist because it’s concerned with what, if solved taken seriously, would make the greatest difference to the way the world is currently run (rather than say, the solving of which would have the greatest intrinsic value). But that’s how I defined ‘importance’ before stating the lists.
Michael: it’s fair to criticise me for leaving meta-ethics out. My thought was that the importance of meta-ethics (as I defined importance), was in how it impacts upon normative ethics. In which case it’s highly relevant to (6), though not mentioned there.
David: I’m actually sympathetic to something similar that you say in (1). But it’s got some really bad problems. It would be too lengthy a discussion to go into here, but it’s discussed in Bostrom’s paper (linked to above), in section 4.2 onwards. Your second suggestion, in the paragraph after (2) - which I think is quite different from the first - is also discussed in that paper.
Hey, awesome! So many good responses! Two important questions to distinguish are:
My post was really meant to be just about the former, but - as Jake, Brian, Martin and Zander have noticed! - the latter is really the more important question (though they are to an extent related - if there aren’t any extremely important questions to solve, then philosophy is a no-hoper). Now that I think about it, it makes sense for me to write a post on the latter question too, given the amount I’ve thought about the issue!!
I’ve also got much more to say on what I think are the most important unsolved problems in philosophy (a question I’ve worked on with Nick Beckstead), which Zander and Brian (and I’m sure Luke) wanted to add to. Would people like to see a post on that too?
Great post Jess! I think the attribute substitution heuristic occurs in charity evaluation, too. Percentage administration costs, or the salary of the highest-pad employee of a charity, are very easy to measure and compare across charities. Actual impact, in contrast, is very difficult. So most charity evaluators focus on the former rather than the latter.
I was surprised, though, that you didn’t mention a couple of very common heuristics for career choice: “What am I passionate about?” and “What am I best at?”. In my view, these are the equivalents of percentage administration costs and employee’s salaries - when I think about my own career choice, I find myself thinking in terms of these two heuristics. They are much more tractable than actual impact, and by using them I can console myself by thinking that, all other things being equal, I should do what I’m passionate about or what I’m good at. Unfortunately for an easy decision, all other things are almost never equal - some careers by their nature vary dramatically in their impact.
So, far from being useful, these two heuristics can end up distracting one from the real issue - namely, impact. Just like percentage administration costs!