For a bunch of geeks like us who are interested in ethics and doing the right thing, I'm surprised to see so few mentions of T. M. Scanlon on the EA Forum[1]. Is there any particular reason for this, or is it just the general explanation of Scanlon not being heavily referenced by Toby Ord, Will MaCaskill, or Peter Singer, and therefore is not referenced much by EAs?

Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on contractualism, in case anyone wants to read some more. To be clear, I am no expert on Scanlon. I hadn't even heard of Scanlon and contractualism before reading How to Be Perfect, a playful book about ethics by the creator of the much-loved-by-EAs show The Good Place.

 - - - - 

EDIT: I've decided to track my changing thinking via edits. Here are some of my current best guesses as to contributing factors.

Factor 1: This is somewhat indicative of a characteristic of EAs: we dabble in ethics just enough to feel justified in our actions using utility and expected value, and then we move forward with a project/task/venture (with vague gestures toward cluelessness and uncertainty). 

Factor 2: Scanlon isn't nearly as influential as How to Be Perfect suggests. He doesn't show up on lists of the most influential moral philosophers.

Factor 3: EAs want something that feels more objective/rigorous than the fuzzy "reasonableness" that forms a core of Scanlon's ideas.

Factor 4: Scanlon's ideas don't provide much in regards to what we should do, and instead focus on what actions we should avoid.

  1. ^

    Actually, outside of the forum also. I haven't heard anyone mention T. M. Scanlon or contractualism at all.




New Answer
New Comment

6 Answers sorted by

The most obvious reason is probably aggregation. Scanlonians are among the philosophers most interested in developing non-aggregative theories of beneficence, and EA analyses tend to assume purely aggregative theories of beneficence as a starting point. More simply it could just be that Scanlon is still relatively obscure despite his moment in the sun on the Good Place.

Strongly agreed. For those who want exposition on this point, see Ashford's article on demandingness in contractualism vs. utilitarianism

Joseph Lemien
Thanks for sharing additional resources!
Devin Kalish
So long as we’re sharing recommendations, Parfit also has a good paper that’s relevant to this, which a good deal of the more recent partial aggregation debate is leap-frogging off of.

I did read some Scanlon a while back, and recall finding the theory a bit ungrounded compared to utilitarianism (lots of reasonable people being reasonable to one another without a reasonable explanation of "reasonable", which everything rests on).

I think Will named "What We Owe the Future" as a kind of retort to "What We Owe to Each Other" FWIW.

Yes, although I don't have any reference to piont to, I also suspected that the naming of "What We Owe the Future" was a bit of a reference to Scanlon.

I think the most basic answer is that Scanlon's philosophy doesn't really address the questions the EA community is most interested in, i.e., what are the best opportunities to have a positive impact on the world? What We Owe to Each Other offers a theory of wrongness, which is a very different framing. 

I'm a fan of Scanlon's work, but it has some pretty significant gaps, in my opinion. For example, it doesn't give great guidance on how to think of moral obligations to non-human animals or future generations.

I think you can make a pretty persuasive Scanlonian-style argument for some of the GWWC-style work, global health interventions, etc. But I'm not sure the Scanlonian argument adds all that much to these topics.

I think people could probably get a lot out of reading Scanlon, especially those who want to better understand non-consequentialist approaches to morality. But there are a lot of good and important books to read, and I'm not sure I'd prioritise recommending Scanlon out of all the many possibilities.

I would like to hear more about this. Want to write a post about it?

Actually, I'd love to read an overview of the most important/influential moral philosophers of the 20th century and their ideas. It is the kind of thing that someone who is knowledgeable about the area could throw together relatively easily, but someone who knows almost nothing about it (like me) would spend weeks or months learning the basics.

I'd love to read an overview of the most important/influential moral philosophers of the 20th century and their ideas

I think many introductions to moral philosophy will do this!

It is the kind of thing that someone who is knowledgeable about the area could throw together relatively easily

I think this is probably not the case! Writing succinctly about big ideas is very difficult.

Joseph Lemien
Hmmm. This gives me a small update toward thinking that I should just find a moral philosophy textbook and work my way through it.

I would if I knew more about it! Haha. But I think that my entire understanding of contractualism and Scanlon would only take up two or three sentences.

I am interested in learning more about ethics and moral philosophy, but I'm not interested in applying to a masters degree in philosophy, nor delving through a few dozen densely-written tomes.

Adopting an anthropologist's lens, I do find it curious that we EAs focus so much on a few small sections of the moral theories that exist, but I'm not sure if that is more due to "these ones are the best" or due to some type of oversight/bias/sloppy thinking.

There have been about 4 papers on future generations and contracualism, including the following and what it responds to:

I don't get the impression that EAs are particularly motivated by morality. Rather, they are motivated to produce things they see as good. Some moral theories, like contractualism, see producing a lot of good things (within the bounds of our other moral duties) as morally optional. You're not doing wrong by living a normal decent life. It seems perfectly aligned with EA to hold one of those theories and still personally aim to do as much good as possible.

A moral theory is more important in what it tells you you can't do in pursuit of the good. Generally what is practical to do if you're trying to effectively pursue the good and abiding by the standard moral rules of society (e.g. don't steal money to give to charity) go hand in hand, so I would expect to see less discussion of this on the forum. Where they come apart, it is probably a significant reputational risk to discuss them.

So this depends if you take EA to be more fundamentally interested in theories of beneficence (roughly what ought you do to positively help others) or in theories of axiology (roughly what makes a world better or worse). I’m suspicious of most theories that pull these apart, but importantly Scanlon’s work is really interested in trying to separate the two, and basically ditch the direct relevance of axiology altogether. Certainly he goes beyond telling people what they ought not to do. If EA is fundamentally about beneficence, Scanlon is very relevant, if it’s more about axiology, he’s more or less silent.