Philosophers disagree about nearly everything. For every branch of philosophy you find, from the philosophy of mathematics to ethics and beyond, it seems that a large range of answers have been advocated as the correct one for each and every “big question” we humans face. All of these positions cannot be right. At best only one position is right. Therefore, most of these positions are wrong. How to tell the difference? All professional philosophers are skilled in the use of logic, and all of them use similar tools for finding the right answers to these questions: they check the logical consistency of an idea, they use their intuition, they check the idea against their ordinary observations about the world, and so on. Still, the use of such methods hasn’t weeded out too many philosophical ideas. There are still many philosophical positions that have at least a few advocates in spite of the fact that those advocates applied the same method to it as its detractors have.
What right do I have to advocate any particular philosophical position? I probably have an argument or three in favor of it. I like the position, I find it intuitive. As best I can tell, the idea is logically consistent. It fits in with my experience of the world and my other philosophical viewpoints.
But the same thing could be said by any and all people who hold to a different philosophical position. My detractors and I could hash out a long dialogue until one of us breaks and admits that the other is right. However, such dialogues are continually had in philosophy journals, formal debates, and so on, without final resolution. An error is more likely to be made by a minority than a majority, so maybe we ought to just defer to the position that has at least 51% agreement within philosophical circles.? Look at a recent poll of philosophers, you’ll find that about half of the thirty questions asked do not have an answer that recieved over 50% of the votes.
It looks like our options are exhausted; Maybe we ought to retreat. To hell with philosophy. We’ve seen that we have no practical way of getting at the right answer. The smart thing to do is withhold belief from all philosophical doctrines and get on with our lives. Right? Not so fast. A lot of decisions we have to make are heavily influenced by philosophical beliefs. How we ought to treat other people (ethics). How we decide what to believe (epistemology). And so on. We can’t just rely on intuition (or gut instinct) to provide us the answers to all of these questions (Even if we tried it, What would we do when other people disagreed with our intuitively-drawn conlusion? What if you run into a problem that your intuition just doesn’t know how to solve?). We can’t trust philosophy, but we must.
Or so it seems. Newtonian mechanics (from Isaac Newton) is now known to be false and it has been discarded in favor of Relativistic Mechanics (from Albert Einstein). However, Newtonian mechanics still works pretty well for predicting the outcomes of certain situations, and its equations are still used by Biologists. Newtonian mechanics, it seems, approximates the truth, or at least gives the right answer most of the time. And that makes it useful.
I used to hold to a utilitarian view of ethics, like Sam Harris (see The Moral Landscape). The basic viewpoint of all utilitarians is that whether an action is moral is determined by whether it maximizes happiness (or well-being, or pleasure, depending upon which version of the theory we’re talking about). As attractive as the viewpoint sounds, it has a number of well-known problems. For example, suppose that a surgeon is operating on an attractive woman under anaesthesia. Would it be morally acceptable for him to touch her breasts? According to utilitarianism, it shouldn’t be objectionable at all. Touching her breasts won’t decrease the woman’s current or future level of happiness, since she’s unconscious and will never know the difference. Paradoxes like this led me to discard utilitarianism in favor of Golden Rule ethics (see Gary Drescher’s Good and Real), which says that a good action is defined by whether you’d be okay with someone else taking the same action if you had to suffer the effects of that action, and a wrong action is one which doesn’t meet that standard. This position doesn’t prescribe any counter-intuitive ethical advice like utilitarianism does for the surgeon with the unconscious patient (The doctor wouldn’t want anyone to touch him inappropriately if he were under anaesthesia, so it would be wrong for him to do it to his patient).
Looking back on utilitarianism, I understand it to be like Newtonian mechanics: it was ultimately wrong, but it was a good and useful rule of thumb to live by (after all, actions that don’t maximize happiness or minimize harm as well as alternative choices usually don’t conform to the Golden Rule, there are only a handful of exceptions that do). Although we will frequently have to modify or abandon our philosophy, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that with each new attempt we are approximating the truth a little better, taking a few steps closer to the truth. In the meantime, the useful approximations to the truth that we’ve come up with will serve a useful purpose in guiding our decision when we have to make choices were the true answer just isn’t clear to us. Though our approximations of the truth might guide us to the wrong answer sometimes, their successes in a large number of other situations demonstrates that they will have a good chance of showing us the right way when we’re facing a moral dilemma.
Philosophy is needed for practical choices. Even though philosophical positions are frequently false, even the false positions can generate the right conclusion more often than not. Since a good practical decision only calls for the right conclusion to be reached (not for the underlying reasoning behind that conclusion to be correct), that means that we can place a good deal of trust in philosophy, even though it’ll be wrong most of the time. This situation isn’t really what we’d like, but it is very encouraging considering that we were just escaped the grips of philosophical nihilism.