Upon Reflection Podcast, Ep. 3: Not All Who Ponder Count Costs – Reflection & Moral Dilemmas

Welcome to the third episode of Upon Reflection, a podcast about what we think as well as how and why we think it.

A screen shot of Nick Byrd and Paul Conway's 2019 paper "Not All Who Ponder Count Costs"

In this podcast, I’ll be reading my paper about moral dilemmas entitled, “Not all who ponder count costs: Arithmetic reflection predicts utilitarian tendencies, but logical reflection predicts both deontological and utilitarian tendencies“. In this paper we find that—contrary to some dual process theories’ claims—consequentialist responses to moral dilemmas may not be more reflective per se, but rather more influenced by mathematical information. As with all of my papers, the free preprint of the paper can be found on my CV at byrdnick.com/cv under “Publications“.

If this sounds like the kind of research that you want to hear more about, you can subscribe to Upon Reflection wherever you find podcasts. You can also find out more about me and my research on Twitter via @byrd_nick, or on Facebook via @byrdnick. If you end up enjoying the Upon Reflection podcast, then feel free to tell people about it, online, in person, or in your ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review.

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Introduction to Philosophy: A Free Course

Below are the syllabus and materials for my Introduction to Philosophy course. You are welcome to use any of the material as a student or as an instructor. The usual creative commons license applies to my portion of this—i.e., only the stuff to which I would have a copyright. (If you are my student, remember that you can be quizzed on the contents of the syllabus.)

I. Introduction to Philosophy

Did you know that people who study philosophy make significantly fewer reasoning errors than others? (See Livengood et al 2010 and Byrd 2014). And did you know that philosophy majors outperform basically everyone else on the GRE? And did you know that the median mid-career salary for people who major in philosophy is $81,000? And did you know that philosophy majors were projected to be the top-paid humanities major in 2016? Find out more about philosophy majors here. And if you’ve never taken a philosophy class, you might want to read this 3-4 page intro. Continue reading Introduction to Philosophy: A Free Course

3 Obstacles For Research About Cheating & Morality

What if traveling abroad were somehow bad for you? Well, a series of studies seem to find that “[traveling abroad] can lead to [lying and cheating] by increasing moral relativism” (Lu et al 2017, 1, 3). This finding has just the right combination of intuitive plausibility and surprise for us to want to share it uncritically. So, instead, let’s take a look at the methods, measures, and philosophical nuances of the topic. As usual, a bit of reflection makes the finding a bit less exciting and it reveals a need for follow-up research.

Continue reading 3 Obstacles For Research About Cheating & Morality

The Moral Argument Against Footnotes and PDF

Once upon a time, I loved footnotes and PDF documents. Now I don’t. I prefer eBook format and endnotes. I admit that footnotes are handy sometimes. For example, when I read visually, it’s nice to have the notes on the same page as the body text. However, footnotes are not so handy for auditory reading. Neither are PDF documents. For instance, footnotes wreak havoc on auditory reading. They interrupt the audio stream of the main body of text — sometimes mid-sentence. And since many people have to rely on auditory reading to consume academic research, this means that PDF documents and footnotes decrease the accessibility of research. That’s bad. If we can avoid this bad, we should. And we can avoid it. So we should.

1.  Books vs. Articles

Sometimes academic books are available in an eBook version that is amenable to auditory reading — e.g., Amazon’s Kindle format and Apple’s iBook format. And some academic books have a proper audiobook version — e..g, Amazon’s audiobooks. This is great, but… Continue reading The Moral Argument Against Footnotes and PDF

Does Ethics Rest On A Mistake? Three Arguments That It Does 

There are at least three philosophy papers whose titles ask this question. They all argue that ethics does rest on a mistake. However, they disagree about the mistake and, therefore, about the solution. Below I’ll give a very brief overview of each paper.

Prichard, H. A. (1912). Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake? Mind, 21(81), 21–37. [HTML, open access]

  • Answer: yes.
  • The mistake: thinking that philosophical reasoning confers the motivating force of moral obligation.
  • Solution: intuitionism — in the same way that we “know” or “have access” to the deductive force of logical entailment or mathematical proof, we have the ability to “know” or “have access” to motivational force of moral obligation.

Gettner, Alan. (1976). “Does moral philosophy rest on a mistake?” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 10(4), 241–252. [Online, behind paywall] 

  • Answer: yes.
  • The mistake: the method of trying to find moral laws (or treating ethics as a science).
  • The solution: challenge and supplant this method.

Jones, William Thomas. (1988, March). Does moral philosophy rest on a mistake? Humanities Working Paper, 132. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA [Online, open access]

  • Answer: yes.
  • The mistake: thinking that ethics is not fundamentally different from psychology, economics, and anthropology. (Error theory: our philosophical vocabulary led us to make this mistake.)
  • Solution: treat ethics as co-extensive with psychology, economics, and anthropology.
What Do you think?
  1. Does ethics rest on a mistake? If not, then where did these papers go wrong?
  2. If ethics rests on a mistake, what is the mistake?
  3. Is there a solution? If so, what is it?

Quote: Why consequentialists probably care about virtue and character.

… people who knowingly delight in the product of abject misery are worse people. People who can take no pleasure in such things are clearly better people. To the extent that we must partake in necessary evils (if it’s true that we must) then we are clearly better people when we emphasize their necessity, rather than rejoicing in their benefits to us. For example, if I really did have to murder two people to spare a thousand, it would certainly be the right thing to do. But if I rejoiced in the act, anticipated and looked forward to it, licked my lips and drooled at the thought of it, I would be worse than if I bore the deed in unwilling, solemn discontent. Whatever is left of ethics by denying this bears so little resemblance to our moral intuitions, we may as well abandon it all together.

Joseph Fraley

Do reflective people agree about ethics?

You might think that most people will share some big-picture beliefs about morality (a lacommon morality“). And you might think that this agreement is the result of reflective reasoning about ethics. For example, most people might think about ethics for awhile and accept a consequentialist principle like this: we should try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Well, it turns out that people don’t agree about such ethical principles — not even people who often reflect on such matters. Before I get to the evidence for that claim, take a look at someone who thought that reflective people do agree about ethics.

1.  Will Reflective People To Agree About Ethics?

Here’s Henry Sidgwick:

“The Utilitarian principle […that there is a] connexion between right action and happiness […] has always been to a large extent recognised by all reflective persons.” (The Methods of Ethics, Book I, Chapter 6, Section 3)

Sidgwick is claiming that…

  1. there is a connection between happiness and right conduct (and)
  2. all reflective people recognize this connection.

What do you think? Do these claims sound right?

2.  The Evidence

Notice that 2 requires evidence. Alas, 2 is not well-supported by evidence: reflective people do not seem to agree that there is an important ethical connection between happiness and right conduct.

Common Morality

Consider that there is widespread disagreement about 1 among philosophers. To quantify this disagreement a bit, let us look at some data. Of about 1000 philosophers surveyed in 2009, 25.9% of leaned toward or accepted deontology, 18.2% leaned toward or accepted virtue ethics, and 23.6% leaned toward or accepted consequentialism (Bourget and Chalmers 2013). Consequentialism is the view most associated with 1 — the idea that there is a connection between happiness and right conduct — and yet fewer than a quarter of philosophers are partial to it. So, contrary to Sidgwick’s claim, the consequentialist’s connection between happiness and right conduct does not seem to be recognized by all reflective people. Indeed, it does even seem to be recognized be even most reflective people.


In situations like this, an intuitionist like Sidgwick might want to press on the notion of ’reflective’. After all, the finding (above) is only a problem for Sidgwick if — among other things — philosophers count as ‘reflective.’ If they do, then Sidgwick’s hypothesis is falsified. If they do not, then Sidgwick’s hypothesis might still be intact.

So if you want to defend Sidgwick’s hypothesis 2 from the evidence (above), then you need to argue that philosophers do not count as reflective — and do not thereby pose a counterexample to 2. One cannot, of course, merely stipulate that philosophers do not count as reflective. That would be ad hoc. In order to defend Sidgwick’s 2 from the aforementioned data, you will need to appeal to independent evidence. Fortunately there is independent evidence about the relative reflectiveness of philosophers and non-philosophers.

Alas, the evidence does not support Sidgwick’s hypothesis (2). Rather, the evidence suggests that philosophers are significantly more reflective than non-philosophers. In a sample of 4000 participants, those with training in philosophy performed up to three times better on tests of reflection — e.g., the Cognitive Reflection Test (Frederick 2005) — than those without such training (Livengood et al 2010). This result has been replicated and expanded. For example, those with (or a candidate for) a PhD in philosophy also performed significantly better than others — F(1, 558) = 15.41, p < 0.001, d = 0.32 (Byrd 2014). And these findings are not new. Over 20 years ago, Deanna Kuhn found that philosophers demonstrated “perfect” and domain-general reasoning competence (Kuhn 1991, 258-262).

So it seems that if any group of people should count as reflective, it is philosophers. And these reflective people do not — contrary to Sidgwick’s hypothesis 2 — unanimously recognize a connection between happiness and rightness.

3. So what now?

The idea that people share a “common morality” via “reflective equilibrium” might fly in the face of evidence. It certainly does for Sidgwick. After all, it seems like reflective people (e.g., philosophers) simply don’t agree about the alleged connection between happiness and right conduct. And if you try to respond to this evidence by denying that philosophers are reflective, then you run into another problem: that claim also flies in the face of evidence. So those objections won’t work.

A better strategy might be to reject my claims about the association between Sidgwick’s claims and consequentialism. That is, you might say that non-consequentialist approaches to ethics acknowledge the connection between happiness and right conduct just as much as consequentialist approaches — sort of like Andy Hallman does in the comments. If that claim is right, then Sidgwick might have been on to something. I leave it to you to decide if that kind of objection is promising.



Featured image: “Extermination of Evil Sendan Kendatsuba” via Wikipedia Commons (in the public domain).