↑ comment by Max_Daniel ·
2021-04-18T20:18:09.208Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
In general, I don't see how papers which say (little more than) "We agree with X" merit publication. What would be the point of a paper which said, e.g. "We, some utilitarian philosophers, do not think the usual objections to utilitarianism succeed because of the usual counter-objections"? We already know that philosophers believe a variety of things.
I have some sympathy to your general point. However, I think this case is relevantly different from utilitarian philosophers stating they agree with utilitarianism, for the following reasons:
- Many philosophers working in (non-applied) ethics seem to have an attitude of extreme reverence toward Derek Parfit. Parfit rejected the Repugnant Conclusion , and essentially founded  the field of population ethics on the premise that it's task was to find some 'Theory X' that would avoid the Repugnant Conclusion and other problems.
- My impression is that most academic work in population ethics has in fact sought to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, with papers such as Huemer's In Defence of Repugnance being the exception.
- The name 'Repugnant Conclusion' suggests that it is obviously unacceptable.
None of these claims have true analogs for utilitarianism. It's not the case that the field of normative ethics was conceived as a project to defeat utilitarianism; there is plenty of work arguing for utilitarianism; etc.
More broadly, I think analytic philosophy has a tendency to spawn 'industries' that produce ever more refined attempts and rebuttals of formal theories that try to provide a solution to some problem, the framing of which is usually taking for granted. Perhaps the most infamous examples are countless attempts to find some definition or 'analysis' of the concept of knowledge in terms of more primitive concepts such as justification, truth, and belief, in response to Edmund Gettier's examples allegedly showing that knowledge can't simply be justified true belief. (Indeed, philosophers have discussed the 'Gettier Problem problem', i.e. the philosophical problem of explaining why solving the original Gettier Problem is pointless or otherwise problematic.) Other examples might be the logical positivist project to reduce meaning to predictions of sense data, attempts at defusing van Inwagen's Consequence Argument for the incompatibility of free will and determinism by providing counterexamples to one of its premises, or the ever-growing zoo of Frankfurt-style examples aimed at showing that moral responsibility does not require a 'could have done otherwise' property.
To the extent that there is progress in philosophy, I think it often consists in disrupting such industries by reframing the problem they were built on or forcefully arguing against some desideratum that was thought to be necessary for a 'solution'. (A more cynical view would be that such work merely replaces one flawed industry with the next.) At the very least, such work has often become famous, e.g. Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Strawson's Freedom and Resentment, Frankfurt's Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility and Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, Kripke's Naming and Necessity, etc.
However, a comparison with such contributions also brings me back to where I agree with you: I think these philosophers provided value because they didn't merely state that they disagreed with, or disliked something about some 'industry'. And, crucially, they even went beyond arguing for or explaining their view. They also made a positive contribution by showing how different and more fruitful work could look like. So e.g., roughly speaking, Quine said "you can't 'reduce' the meaning of an individual proposition to anything, you need to look at the full web of beliefs", Strawson said "the basis for moral responsibility lies not in questions whether or not anyone could have done anything otherwise but in people's 'reactive attitudes' toward each others' behavior", Frankfurt regarding the same issue instead pointed to the internal structure of a moral agent's preferences, etc. Then other philosophers can and did make positive contributions by describing how meaning is a holistic property, what it is about the structure of an agent's internal preferences that makes them morally responsible for their actions, etc.
At least at first glance I couldn't find such a positive contribution in the paper we're discussing here. It's all well and good to say that one doesn't like the existing population ethics 'industry' - and I agree, in my view the field has been stale for a long time and has consisted mostly of footnotes to Parfit -, but then what else do you want people to do? Quine wouldn't have been nearly as influential had he said "perhaps one day the correct approach to meaning will be uncovered, but I don't know whether Carnap would agree with it". And I suspect the lack of a clear positive recommendation or other 'way out' may prevent this paper from having the effect it tries to have. Though perhaps only time will tell. (E.g. arguably semantic holism wasn't exactly well developed in Two Dogmas itself.)
 At least Parfit clearly rejected the Repugnant Conclusion in Reasons and Persons, Part IV of which seems close to a 'founding document' for population ethics. As the authors of the paper discussed here mention, Parfit seems to later have somewhat changed his stance, though my memory from one of his last papers was still that he was hoping to advance some view avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion (through some combination of lexicality and incomparability or vagueness - indeed the paper was titled Can We Avoid the Repugnant Conclusion?). However, I'm no expert on Parfit's late work and could easily be wrong; e.g. I don't know what if anything he says on population ethics in On What Matters.
 There are papers on what we'd today call population ethics that precede Parfit's work, and Reasons in Persons in particular. However, my impression is that Parfit's work, and Reasons and Persons in particular, have had a domineering influence over subsequent work in what became known as population ethics, at least among analytic philosophers in a broadly consequentialist tradition. Again, I'm no expert on the history of population ethics, and would welcome corrections.Replies from: RobBensinger
↑ comment by RobBensinger ·
2021-04-18T22:40:43.451Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
but then what else do you want people to do?
The paper doesn't provide a roadmap for this, but it does indicate what kinds of problems it thinks are more worthy of population ethicists' time: problems that help us make real-world moral decisions.
"Ethical arguments are widely used in public debate, everyday decision-making, and policy-making. For example, ethical arguments against social inequality and discrimination are common – although not universal, not always successful, and not always correct. Many public decisions affect the world's future population. Population ethics is therefore an essential foundation for making these decisions properly. It is not simply an academic exercise, and we should not let it be governed by undue attention to one consideration."Replies from: MichaelPlant
↑ comment by MichaelPlant ·
2021-04-19T11:49:34.484Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I suppose so. But if you don't think the article provides new reasons to care less about avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion, then it doesn't provide new reasons to focus on other moral problems more.