The most important unsolved problems in ethics (Or, How to be a high impact philosopher, part III)

In 1900 the mathematician David Hilbert published a list of 23 of the most important unsolved problems in mathematics. This list heavily influenced mathematical research over the 20th century: if you worked on one of Hilbert’s problems, then you were doing respectable mathematics.

There is no such list within moral philosophy. That’s a shame. Not all problems that are discussed in ethics are equally important. And often early graduate students have no idea what to write their thesis on – and so just pick something they’ve written on for coursework previously, or pick something that’s ‘hot’ at the time. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine the same is true of many other academic disciplines. 

What would the equivalent list look like for moral philosophy? Of course, it’s difficult to define ‘important’, but let’s say here that they are the potentially soluble problems that, if solved and taken seriously, would make the greatest difference to the way the world is currently run. I’ve briefly discussed this idea with Nick Beckstead, and also Carl Shulman and Nick Bostrom, and here’s a select list of what we came up with. For more explanation of why, see my previous two posts on high impact philosophy, here and here.

The Practical List

  1. What’s the optimal career choice? Professional philanthropy, influencing, research, or something more common-sensically virtuous?
  2. What’s the optimal donation area? Development charities? Animal welfare charities? Extinction risk mitigation charities? Meta-charities? Or investing the money and donating later?
  3. What are the highest leverage political policies? Libertarian paternalism? Prediction markets? Cruelty taxes, such as taxes on caged hens; luxury taxes?
  4. What are the highest value areas of research? Tropical medicine? Artificial intelligence? Economic cost-effectiveness analysis? Moral philosophy?
  5. Given our best ethical theories (or best credence distribution in ethical theories), what’s the biggest problem we currently face?

The Theoretical List

  1. What’s the correct population ethics? How should we value future people compared with present people? Do people have diminishing marginal value?
  2. Should we maximise expected value when it comes to small probabilities of huge amounts of value? If not, what should we do instead?
  3. How should we respond to the possibility of creating infinite value (or disvalue)? Should that consideration swamp all others? If not, why not?
  4. How should we respond to the possibility that the universe actually has infinite value? Does it mean that we have no reason to do any action (because we don’t increase the sum total of value in the world)? Or does this possibility refute aggregative consequentialism?
  5. How should we accommodate moral uncertainty? Should we apply expected utility theory? If so, how do we make intertheoretic value comparisons? Does this mean that some high-stakes theories should dominate our moral thinking, even if we assign them low credence?
  6. How should intuitions weigh against theoretical virtues in normative ethics? Is common-sense ethics roughly correct? Or should we prefer simpler moral theories?
  7. Should we prioritise the prevention of human wrongs over the alleviation of naturally caused suffering? If so, by how much?
  8. What sorts of entities have moral value? Humans, presumably. But what about non-human animals? Insects? The natural environment? Artificial intelligence?
  9. What additional items should be on these lists?
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5 Responses to The most important unsolved problems in ethics (Or, How to be a high impact philosopher, part III)

  • - says:

    Are we equal in how moral we can be?To give some very simple example: let say that person A, B and C have just agreed that eating meat is bad. Does it mean that they are all able to stop eating it right away, that none of them will touch some yummy piece any more or restrain from at least a little bit when there is nothing else to eat?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    You will find this paradoxical, Will, but we professional assassins are a notoriously idealistic bunch, and can’t understand why anybody who doesn’t know what subject to choose for his thesis should be doing advanced philosophy at all. Our idealism would also suggest that your list is fine for utilitarians, benefactors and altruists, but doesn’t have too much contact with what’s really important in ethics : beauty, love, death, how man constructs meaning and value, what is distinctive about the human condition….. (No, I won’t go up to 23).
    Obviously we’re not cut out to be philosophers.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Interesting post, Will! Though I kind of agree with Anthony (unsurprisingly, I guess) that I think your list might be improved if you spoke to more folks who weren’t already card-carrying, hardcore consequentialists.

    But I really like some of the questions, especially regarding T1: population ethics, T8: what stuff has moral value and the various Ts that are kind of about merging probabilistic reasoning and ethics (T2-T5). But I think I’d also want something in there about how to value social context vs how to value quick and dirty abstractions (such as per capita this and that).

    I think we depart quite a bit on the practical list. The question of to whom I donate doesn’t strike me as very interesting on a deep level. My career choice keeps me awake at night because bits of it are fun (thinking lots, working with clever people) but bits of it are incredibly irritating (dealing with the tediously predictable politics and twee ethical presuppositions of the kind of people who like talking about climate change). But my career choice does not keep me awake at night because I’m scared I’m doing something ethically wrong. From a public policy point of view P3 is interesting, I think, and a couple of questions on overarching fiscal policy would be good (what flavours/levels of taxes are best? What should the state spend those monies on?) Also, bigger structural questions which aren’t just about the state – what would be a mature ethics of (in)equality? (ie something more grown-up than equality good; inequality bad). etc.

    But on most practical ethical questions I’d lean towards where Anthony’s coming from. My ultimate utility function has, for a couple of decades, been: “on my deathbed will I think this was contributing to the overall awesomeness** of my experience of being alive?”

    **Flourishing, etc. There is an ethical component, but the awesome life, for me, is not dominated by the good.

  • Will C. van den Hoonaard says:

    Speaking as a researcher, I find there is a huge gap between research-ethics codes and research ethics “on the ground,” where research occurs. Perhaps normative ethics is what I am speaking about. How close do normative ethics resemble universal ethics? What makes them stand apart?
    Our conference, “The Ethics Rupture,” will deal with some of these issues. It will be held at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada, 25-28 Oct. 2012. It will be podcast and ready for viewing after the conference will have finished.

  • This is a very odd list–barely philosophical at all, certainly not as

    important as any of the Eternal Questions in Ethics or the questions

    for which Wittgensteinian Ethics would be a proper universal solvent. Perhaps this is because of a conviction that the word “Practical” insulates one against the metaphilosophical discussion of theory. There, then, is the first of my nominated questions for our Hilbert Programme: To what extent is practical ethics separate from decisions about theories?

    Some others:

    To what extent does Cartesian Dualism contribute to the problems in

    ethics? (and to what extent is C.D’ism a hindrance to non-

    individualistic ethics?)

    Why should I be good?

    What are the arguments for basing ethics on theories?

    How should one choose which ethical theory or theories to endorse or


    Does Meno’s paradox undermine ethical theory? ethical practices?

    Is ethics a distinguishable topic? Upon what basis, and is that basis


    How viable could ethics be without theory?

    In the _Euthyphro_, what other bases for ethics could be substituted

    for “the gods” in Socrates’ pivotal question?



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