Monday, February 20, 2012

Ethical and Political Philosophy


A while ago while reading Bryan Caplan’s blog EconLog, he alerted me to The Philpapers Surveys on philosophy. This survey asked some 3226 actual and potential philosophers their views on 30 philosophical questions. It also calculated correlations (for 931 philosophy professors) between the answers, and between the answers and their philosophical field and the philosophers they identified with. This is where I come in. I can’t resist the allure of a correlation, especially when applied to the results of serious thinking.

I decided to focus on a few questions of particular interest to me. These deal with ethical theory and political philosophy. I only looked at the question on normative ethics and the question on political philosophy. The normative ethics question asked which of the three main schools of normative ethics - deontological, consequentialist or virtue ethics - the philosopher found most convincing or compelling. The political philosophy question asked which of three main political philosophies – communitarian, equalitarian or libertarian – the philosopher found most convincing or compelling. I figured that a person’s preference for any of these views will tend to hang together with, or be conditioned by, a host of other philosophical positions. If so, the results may shed some light on why the chosen ethic, or political philosophy, tended to be more convincing than the others. All I did was note how each choice correlated with other philosophical preferences and then I summarize the results into a somewhat simplified picture.

Choice of Ethical Philosophy and philosophical fellow travelers.


I’ll start with normative ethics. Deontological ethics is about adherence to rules or principles. It is a ‘duty’, ‘obligation’ or ‘rule’ based ethics. The 10 Commandments are an example. An action is right or wrong in and of itself, and not because of the outcome it may lead to. Deontology is a moral absolutism in the sense that an act is wholly right or wrong in this philosophy. For example, it remains wrong to lie even if the lie were to result in the avoidance of much suffering. The notion of ‘rights’, especially natural rights, is part of this ethical philosophy.

Deontology has been criticized for failing to justify the authority of the rules, and because it is vulnerable to incoherence via contradictions and conflicts.

I found that a preference for deontology tends to go with a philosophical idealism or anti-materialism – the notion that minds are not physical, that complete free will exists, that value statements in general have a ‘truth’ value e.g. aesthetics is objective, and that the truth is ‘out there’ in a sort of world of PlatonicForms that can be accessed through pure reason or in the form of a priori knowledge. Empirical work is unnecessary as knowledge is directly available through pure thought. There is a greater tendency toward theism in those who chose this form of ethical philosophy. A good example of this outlook is their tendency to believe that zombies are metaphysically possible.

Deontologists tended to avoid philosophical fields that have a materialist bent e.g. philosophy of science, or probabilistic decision making e.g. decision theory, and had a greater tendency to focus on fields where rules could be prescribed e.g. political philosophy, philosophy of law, normative ethics, and philosophy of religion. They don’t however favor any particular political philosophy.

The appeal of rules of behavior that have pretensions toward absolute truth and authority, seems to be grounded in a more general tendency to believe in the reality of abstractions, and to consider these to be above mere the material.


Consequentialism is the view that the ultimate basis for any judgment of the rightness of an act is the consequences of the act. If the consequences are good then the act is moral. Morality in this view is not absolute but proportional to the good done or harm avoided. One of the better known consequentialist views is utilitarianism, where the aim of ethics is the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

It seems intuitively obvious that behavior that makes lives better is praiseworthy but consequentialism has been criticized. It is said to permit the unfair imposition of a cost on people who have done no wrong, if the overall consequences are thereby increased. The problem of measuring goodness of outcome has always plagued consequentialism. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find a common scale, and even there was one it’s very difficult to rule out contrary long term consequences. It has also been argued that consequentialism is too demanding intellectually and that it requires an attitude to be so impersonal as to be alienating.

Unsurprisingly, given that deontology and consequentialism are often contrasted, I found that favoring this form of normative ethic tends to be related to favoring a naturalistic view of the world, and a physical view of the mind. The will is not seen as completely free (if at all) but subject to material causes and effects. Consequentialists tend to believe that the contents of the mind are ‘pictures in the head’ and de-emphasize the ‘feel’ of mental experience. They tend to believe that although zombies are conceivable, they are metaphysically impossible. They are also more likely to be atheists. To them psychological continuity determines whether someone is the same person over time.

Consequentialists deny that values can have a ‘truth’ value, or that any a priori knowledge is possible. Naturally they are more inclined to see the need for empirical evidence and have less faith in arm chair rationalism, than deontologists. They are less likely to be worry about ‘how do you know that’ questions and to focus on the fit between belief and the real world.

Consequentialists tend to favor philosophical fields that have a materialist bent, or involve some kind of optimization problem e.g. decision theory, and they avoid conservative philosophical fields. Politically they tend to favor egalitarianism and reject communitarianism.

A preference for consequentialism seems to be part of a general tendency to believe in material cause and effect, and disbelieve in the reality of abstractions. With such a world view the calculus of material harm or welfare may seem to be the only meaningful option.

Virtue Ethics

Here the driving force of morality is not adherence to absolute principles, or the outcome (benefit or harm) of the conduct, but what it implies about the character of the person – the virtues or vices developed by the person. For example, saints are deemed especially moral individuals on the basis of their extreme exemplification of the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice/fairness, courage/fortitude and temperance/moderation, and the three religious virtues faith, hope and charity/love. Purity is another popular virtue. Some Buddhist virtues are compassion and discipline. Badness, on the other hand, is seen as the possession of certain vices e.g. wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.

This approach has been criticized because there is cross cultural and historical disagreement on what the virtues and vices are, and because the approach often doesn’t tell one what to do in any specific situations. For example, murder isn’t condemned as wrong. Rather the murderer is seen as lacking compassion or fairness. For Nietzsche however, this relativism and lack of focus on the act per se, are things to be sought rather than avoided.

I found that philosophers who favored virtue ethics tended to believe that the mind isn’t physical, emphasize the ‘feel’ of mental experience and don’t think mental experience is necessarily connected to sensory data, but they do think mental content is partly determined by outside influences. They also tend to believe in a completely free will.

Virtue ethicists tend to think knowledge or truth depends to some extent on context or perspective. They think of truth in terms of ‘how do you know that’ and have doubts about how much one can really know.

They tend to believe that whether a person remains the same person depends on more than psychological or bodily continuity, and in particular deny that psychological continuity is decisive.

Virtue ethicists are more likely to be theists and to focus on religious and political philosophy, particularly Ancient Greek or Medieval philosophy. They are less likely to be involved in science or critical approaches to ethics. Politically they tend to favor the communitarian perspective and reject the egalitarian perspective.

Virtue ethicists lack the deontologist’s belief in the reality of abstractions, see more organic connections around them, and look toward a personal, traditional and community based approach rather than to cold impersonal principle or brute scientific law.

Choice of Political Philosophy and philosophical fellow travelers.


Egalitarianism is a school of thought that favors some kind of equality between people (or even living things). The basic presumption is that people have the same fundamental worth e.g. in the eyes of God, or because we all have the same quality of being rational and therefore should be given the same consideration and respect. Politically this implies being treated as equals and having the same political, social, economic and civil rights. Social equalitarianism stresses greater equality of economic outcomes and/or political power – preferring decentralized power.

The basic presumption of equal worth has been questioned. For much of human history this presumption has been denied and even today people don’t really act as though they believe it. If an average egalitarian had to decide between whether a film star or a random working class stranger got a kidney, most wouldn’t be willing to make the decision by tossing a coin. Another criticism is that it is often anti-meritocratic.

I found that egalitarians tended to view the mind in physical terms and consider the will to have limited freedom from cause and effect. They de-emphasize the ‘feel’ of mental experience and emphasize the ‘picture in the head’ view. They believe psychological continuity determines whether someone remains the same person over time.

Egalitarians tend to believe that truth doesn’t depend much on context or perspective. They don’t think truth applies to moral statements. Although much religion is in principle egalitarian, in practice egalitarians are more likely than non-egalitarians to be atheists. Ethically, egalitarians think personal character is unimportant but good outcomes are important.

As philosophers they tend toward normative ethics and political and legal philosophy, and avoid philosophical history and religious philosophy.

It’s not at all clear from their other philosophical beliefs why egalitarians favor equality. Insofar as egalitarianism is part of progressivism the picture makes more sense. They are more likely than non-egalitarians to be secular humanists that stress material welfare.


Libertarianism is a group of philosophies that stress freedom, individual liberty and voluntary association. It generally favors limited to zero government. Some forms of libertarianism regard property rights as the basis of liberty (and favor capitalism), and other regard property as a threat to liberty (and favor socialism).

Libertarianism has been criticized for championing individual liberty to the exclusion of all other values and hold that it should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values and causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable - all are to take a back seat. Sometimes this bias leads to extreme positions e.g. the moral value of saving the lives of a multitude of poor people simply does not register when compared with minor infractions against the liberty of a rich person.

As befitting the origin of the term I found that libertarianism is strongly associated with a believe in free-will libertarianism i.e. the idea that free will is incompatible with determinism, and that since we have free will determinism is false. It endorses the notion that mental experience is fairly independent of external influence. The ‘feel’ of mental experience is emphasized and the ‘picture in the head’ view de-emphasized.

Libertarianism tends to go with the view that there is no necessary connection between moral convictions and moral motives.

As philosophers they prefer the hard sciences, and stay away from the philosophy of life or social issues. They also seem to favor religious philosophy or metaphysics and are more inclined than non-libertarian philosophers to be theists. Naturally they identify more with philosophers with an individualist focus and those that hold that the world we have is the best possible world. They disavow philosophers who wanted to apply the same rules to all, or argue for some kind of collectivism.

It seems that libertarian philosophers are very struck by the feeling that their thinking and choices are self-determined, and they obviously want to extend this liberty into the practice of their lives. If our minds are so free to make choices then it’s entirely appropriate to expect people to decide their life courses themselves, and to respect their choices.


Communitarianism is an ideology that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community. In their view ideologies are incoherent if they see communities as being voluntarily chosen by ‘pre-community’ individuals. Instead they emphasize the role of the community in forming and shaping individuals, and they believe this community role is insufficiently recognized in liberal (or individualist) theories of justice. Politically communitarians tend to be leftist on economic issues and conservative on social issues. In this sense they are the opposite of libertarians who believe in property.

Communitarianism has been criticized for leading to moral relativism, for being too defensive of the status quo (which may include many unsavory practices e.g. 2nd class status for women), for standing in the way of progress, and for considering the community or the state as foundational. It has also been accused of being authoritarian and promoting prejudice.

I found that philosophers who favored communitarianism tended to be similar to libertarians in having a strong belief in free-will libertarianism, and stressing the independence of mental life from outside causation and the ‘feel’ of mental experience.

They differed in having a more non-naturalist or non-physical perception of life. They tended to believe in the reality of abstractions and the truth value of moral statements. They believed that it required more than psychological and biological continuity to determine if a person was the same person over time.

Communitarians tended to be theists and are more likely to be attracted to religious or ancient philosophy, as well as philosophical history. They tended to avoid fields such as normative ethics or political philosophy.

Finally, they prefer a virtue ethics perspective and reject consequentialism.

Communitarian philosophers tend to believe in the reality and authority of some non-material, or non-natural, realm, and they seem to venerate the wisdom of the past and the building of character.


Philosophers are generally not fools. Philosophy is close to having the brightest practitioners among all the intellectually demanding professions. Furthermore philosophers comprehensively pick apart the grounding and implications of any view, and have spent years, if not decades, doing so. Chances are they really do understand the strengths and weaknesses of their views.

What does all this tell us about the relative virtues of different political ideologies? Not much really. A lot of questions were not asked e.g. existentialism, pragmatism, and those that were asked were too vague. They could have distinguished between left or right libertarianism, egalitarian communist or equal opportunity and rights liberal, etc. Still the questions and correlations do shed a little light on the reasons why these ideologies are compelling to those who adopt them, but not to those who don’t.

We can say that a strong secular materialist world view predisposes you toward an egalitarian/progressive political ideology and a consequentialist moral outlook, simply because material cause and effect is more salient and meaningful.

We can say that those who have a rather strong belief in free-will will be predisposed toward either a libertarian or communitarian/conservative political ideology, depending on how idealist or non-materialist they are. The more they lean toward materialism the more libertarian they tend to be. Since there tends to be a negative relationship between belief in free-will and a materialist outlook, one would suspect that libertarians have an almost supernatural belief in free-will.

A hypothesis occurs to me. It seems to me that the social liberal-conservative dimension lines up with a materialist-idealist dimension, and that the economic liberal-conservative dimension lines up with the degree to which free-will is believed in. So I’m thinking liberals/socialists will be high materialism low free-will believers, libertarians high materialism high free-will believers, conservatives low materialism high free-will believers, and true populists/communitarians low materialism low free-will believers.

Scientists are more likely to be in the high materialist low free-will quadrant. A Pew survey of scientists found that Democrats/liberals are highly over-represented and Republican/conservatives highly under-representative among them.

One would expect someone in the low materialism low free-will quadrant to believe that supernatural agencies play an active determinative role in everyday life. I think there is plenty of evidence that true populists/communitarians are among the most religious in a literal fundamentalist sense.

Libertarians I know (and have read about) do seem to maintain beliefs in both materialism and a strong form of free-will.

The conservative combination of belief in personal responsibility and less welfare in the economic realm with a less permissive attitude to social questions, would seem to match a belief in a will free enough to rise above circumstances while at the same time believing in the existence of a moral rules that go beyond mere material welfare.

Deontologists seem to be the moralizers across all ideological camps.

I suspect much of these belief patterns reflect one’s basic personality and temperament. Professional philosophers are by no means immune to this influence. Ben-Ami Sharfstein’s book The Philosophers details the close connection between the personal demons of various famous philosophers, and the philosophy they developed. It’s as though each philosopher’s philosophy was painted in such a way as to harmonize their own personal psychological dynamics and their relationship to how the world is. Each philosophy is an attempted solution to a personal problem. So to some extent you need to share that problem before the philosophy is likely gel with you.

It remains to be seen whether problem type is basically genetic, or whether they arise because of some childhood family dynamics and the like. If the latter it will be interesting to describe the etiology of the core problem leading to various political ideologies. On the other hand heritability estimates of the left-right dimension are fairly high, so genetically based temperament probably plays a fairly strong role. We will always have representatives of the full spectrum of ideologies, although the balance might change if certain camps start out breeding others. Right now conservatives/communitarians are out breeding liberals/libertarians.

It may seem like the world would be a better place if everyone had the same ideology, but I think that would be a mistake because each ideology acts in part as a corrective to the excesses of the others. For example, without some conservative to slow them down progressives may push change to absurd lengths – think grand social engineering, like communism. If there were no progressive to drive change a society of conservatives may never develop at all.

In the future I hope to explore what intelligence would have to say about all this. I can tell you that the Smart Vote is decidedly in favor of social liberalism and moderately in favor of economic free markets (see for example my post on economic freedom .) I don’t know what ethical philosophy will be seen as most in line with differences in intelligence.


  1. I think the degree of difference gets exaggerated. For most issues, the different philosophies end up in rough agreement. This makes sense if you think of them as analytical tools for probing and modeling an imagined moral reality rather than a method of constructing it. In the literature, it often seems treated that way with deontologists expanding and revising to encompass intuitions unearthed by consequentialists and so on. I don't recall seeing this plainly admitted very often, but it's an obvious enough process when you start a paragraph with "pace".

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