Basic Phil

Before anything else, I think it’s necessary to point out this is opinionated guides. Philosophy involves looking at the world around us and asking ourselves ‘why’, then making arguments for how things should be different and what moral frameworks work best to come to conclusions that optimize for something like happiness or ‘goodness’ in the world. Given that both morals and ‘goodness’ are not absolutes, the best way for me to write this guide and actually be of service to you as a reader is to provide my opinion and talk about why I believe what believe both from a researched ‘here are the facts’ sense and from a ‘here is the moral framework that, with these facts, brought me to this conclusion’ sense. You don’t have to agree with my opinions, I’d rather you didn’t actually, as agreement means talking to you doesn’t expose me to new ideas.(1) Instead it’s my hope that reading my opinion, seeing how I present arguments, and seeing the research that goes into them will show you how to think about how to apply facts to moral frameworks.

I also want to toss up a content warning, for, like, everything. We’re gonna get messy. This means assisted suicide, abortion, religion, gun rights, war, labor rights, etc. Just look at the chapters on the left and it reads as a shopping list of topics not to bring up at a family gathering.

Finally, I will out right dismiss any argument or idea founded in religion. This is not because I can’t refute it. This is because I find it to be a complete and total waste of time. If you have a bit more than 3 hours to kill watch Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics, and I think you’ll understand why I won’t bother.

Basic Philosophy #

First, let’s start really simple- what is philosophy. Well, for one, Basically all pages on Wikipedia link back to it, so it’s obviously pretty fundamental. But, why would that be?

Here’s the head of the Wikipedia entry on Philosophy:

Philosophy (from Greek: φιλοσοφία, philosophia, ‘love of wisdom’) is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language

Alright, so it’s the study of knowledge? wouldn’t that make it pretty much the study of everything? Well, yeah. Pretty much. Before each branch of the sciencies had enough of a foundation in it’s own right to, well, branch off it was just called ‘Philosophy’.

This pretty much means that today Philosophy is what’s left- the questions for which there are no concrete or provable answers. This can often be incredibly frustrating. But, what Philosophy as a modern study really gives us is a framework to approach and talk about these tough problems. In general this gives the three big branches of philosophy today. Natural, Metaphysical, and Moral Philosophy. Honestly, I find the first two mostly consist of people trying to look smart and are mostly not applicable to anyone, unless you’re really into debating the existence of (a) God(s). (2)(3)

Alright, so, let's stick to (mostly) moral philosophy (often just called Ethics) then. What does that entail?

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that “involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior”.

To start with, most ethics arguments depend on an ethical framework, this is the set of ideals/rules/principals that establish how to make decisions. To get started, let’s look at some of these ethical frameworks:

Utilitarianism #

Utilitarianism is the most dead simple philosophical theory. Basically, do whatever you can that brings the most happiness to the world (or, if all options are a negative, do the the least-worst option).

The most common example for which utilitarianism is applied is the trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

The basic idea being, that, assuming there’s not some special circumstances or that you simply don’t have a way to know those circumstances, the moral option is to pull the switch, because it saves the most lives.

Utilitarianism is a neat idea that, in my opinion, fails almost immediately for three reasons:

Moral Calculus #

The felicific calculus is an algorithm formulated by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1747–1832) for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause. Bentham, an ethical hedonist, believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced.

The Wikipedia article goes on to explain this algorithm and the things that should be taken into account.

To cut to the chase, the problem is you need to take into consideration an absolutely crazy amount factors and it’s effectively impossible to confidently know that what you’re doing will actually bring about the most happiness.

For example, the Trolley problem makes a hell of a lot of assumptions. Not the least of which is ignoring the long term survivor guilt the more-populated side and conductor will feel. I’m being pedantic, of course, but still.

Trade offs #

Often we have to pick between good things that bring happiness. Unless you have a way to actually quantify happiness, which notably varies by activity for each person, how do you optimize. Further, how could you know how strong your feelings of happiness are to others? Do you feel more or less than others such that you should prioritize your happiness or others happiness in different ways?

Like above, this boils down to a knowledge problem

Justifying things it probably shouldn’t #

Say 90% of the population would be much happier if all of insert religion here suddenly died.

Or, the argument about Baby Farming:

A critic of utilitarianism, in Innocence and Consequentialism (1996), Jacqueline Laing argues that utilitarianism has insufficient conceptual apparatus to comprehend the very idea of innocence, a feature central to any comprehensive ethical theory. In particular, Peter Singer on her view, cannot without contradicting himself reject baby farming (a thought experiment that involves mass-producing deliberately brain-damaged children for live birth for the greater good of organ harvesting) and at the same time hold on to his “personism” a term coined by Jenny Teichman to describe his fluctuating (and Laing says, irrational and discriminatory) theory of human moral value. His explanation that baby farming undermines attitudes of care and concern for the very young, can be applied to babies and the unborn (both ‘non-persons’ who may be killed, on his view) and contradicts positions that he adopts elsewhere in his work.

So, uh, depending on how you look at it, it might justify genocide. Maybe not the best ¯\(ツ)

note, there are a lot of other arguments against Utilitarianism, but I think a lot of them misrepresent the idea, such as the one about Average vs. Instantaneous Happiness - like no shit optimizing for instantaneous happiness is bad

Consequentialism #

Rapid Fire Ideas that suck #

All quote blocks from

Egoism #

Egoism [is] the belief that the moral person is the self-interested person, holds that an action is right if it maximizes good for the self.

I shall kill my enemies and dispose of the bodies so that no one ever knows…

Intellectualism #

Intellectualism dictates that the best action is the one that best fosters and promotes knowledge.

Yeah, you don’t mind if I experiment on you, do you?

Role Ethics #

Role ethics is based on the concept of family roles.

The Daddy makes the money, the Mommy raises the kids, and the kids learn to worship God! Just as it should be!


Kantianism #

Moral Relativism #

Trolley Problem, common arguments

Political Compas #

Some other terms you might hear #


[TODO] Ask HN: Learning Philosophy (Hacker News)

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