Note: this is me reflecting on my intellectual journey so far. I'm not trying to pitch a concrete argument and many of these thoughts might not be relatable, but if they are I'd love to read what you think in the comments section.
I’ve spent a good deal of my time as a philosophy student taking pride in having been raised a Kantian. And for good reasons (or so I believed); I thought that my Kantian upbringing made me a humanist with the most refined moral values available, a philosophically-minded thinker who could appeal to higher principles and ideals to resolve the difficult puzzles of ethics. Not only I was raised a Kantian, but I was taught to look down to utilitarianism, to reject it the way a theist rejects (and feels sorry for) atheists hoping that one day (Kant willing) they might understand…
I’ll try to refine my cognitive introspection as much as possible to figure out why I became prejudiced against a philosophical tradition (utilitarianism) while preaching at the same time about the need to be open-minded, mentally flexible, and a good skeptic when doing philosophy. My worry is that in doing so I may be confabulating, rationalizing and justifying myself and other important characters of the story, and thinking that all the confusion and messiness in my reasoning was worth the trouble if I have reached this point where I'm capable enough to diagnose the problem.
Despite this worry, I'm convinced that this cognitive introspection is worthy of my time as long as I can be honest with myself. Ideally, I'd want to not repeat the mistakes I made and so I'll try to flag them as clearly as possible.
The mistakes I made:
- The first mistake has to do with an attitude towards learning. I used to not mind feeling burnt out and intellectually drained and so I'd continue studying even when I was at a state where I couldn't have the minimum of clarity needed to genuinely think and reflect on a topic. There's no virtue in feeling horrible and yet continuing to do something that requires mental effort. Punishing yourself that way doesn't make you an intellectual saint and it certainly doesn't make you good at what you're trying to be good at. There's also no point in abstractly being good; it's better to "be good for something" (as H. D. Thoreau eloquently says too). This is relevant because if you'd like to be good let's say at philosophical reasoning, you should be able to charitably understand and interpret the positions you're engaging with before taking sides.
- I would get carried away by my admiration and respect towards certain figures (alive or dead). Sure you may think a philosopher is just brilliant but can you spell out their arguments and decide whether they're sound or not before fan-girling him? (is what I should have asked myself).
- I thought there's virtue in not getting what you want. This is a point more about consequentialism in general and not exclusively about utilitarianism. My familial and cultural background (which is a combination of Ancient Greek ideas about hubris and the tragedy of the human condition as well as Greek Orthodox Christianity) seems to endorse suffering for the sake of a greater moral good, settling for less than what you desire because that supposedly teaches you something of high value and that getting what you want usually means you're spoiled or committing hubris.
Some common misinterpretations I hadn't seriously questioned:
- Utilitarianism means not caring about individuals and not respecting their preferences.
- If you're a utilitarian, you don't mind letting the elderly die when you can help them.
- Utilitarians are mostly interested in measuring everything in terms of utils.
- Utilitarians only care about achieving ends, even if the means to these ends are evil.
- Utilitarianism is incompatible with humanitarian values.
- To be a utilitarian, you must be a hardcore capitalist.
- Utilitarianism necessarily promotes hedonistic behaviors.
The signs I began noticing my mistakes:
- The first sign was that I got into empiricism and read a lot of David Hume. (I used to be fascinated by transcendentalism and varieties of rationalism and a prioris of sorts). This was still in my mind compatible with being a “good Kantian” since Kant famously held a lot of respect for Hume. I started thinking carefully about skepticism, empiricism, and what they mean not only about our metaphysics but also about our ethics (i.e., how we live our lives).
- I was less worried about all the criticisms against logical positivism; I had to resist philosophically having been raised thinking that “positivist” is a pejorative.
- I went back to studying science, for real. After many years of philosophy of [insert scientific discipline] I bought textbooks and started watching videos for science students. This was a real wake-up call that I dub as my quarter-life crisis. It helped get serious about my preferences as well as become aware of my weaknesses.
- I visited a cognitive neuroscience lab to see how scientists actually work. Cognitive neuroscience was the science I wanted to study before going into philosophy, back when I was preparing to go to med school. My visits at the lab made me conclude that I had good reasons not to want to be a neuroscientist despite knowing that it's a path of higher impact than academic philosophy.
- I let go of my attachment to identity labels. I always felt uncomfortable with the "philosopher" label and never used it. This is why I'm reluctant to be attached to an EA identity at the moment. I've found that needing to identify as a [insert a professional label] doesn't add anything to my growth, both professional and personal. Instead of trying to latch on to an identity, I should throw myself into doing what I find valuable.
Where I am now:
At this point, I know that the questions I care about address real problems by which I mean problems that concern the present and future of sentient life. Pragmatism helped me get clear on this and I say it often: look for differences that make a difference. This post, despite its title, isn't meant to communicate how I became a utilitarian. Because I am not (and labels aren't important, anyway). If you push me, I'll probably say that my worldview is close to contract consequentialism and pragmatism. At the epistemic level, I'm putting effort into becoming a better rationalist thanks to Yudkowsky's Sequences. What I want this post to communicate is that in my attempt to explore and understand as many philosophical concepts as possible and revive the renaissance polymath exemplar, I lost my sense of direction. I don't mind wandering, as long as I don't get to feel like I'm lost.
*I'd like to thank David Udell who introduced me to Rationality and is always by my side as I'm trying to figure out what I really want to do with my time on this planet.
For better or worse, all the philosophical "heroes" in this story are men.