The beautiful thing about philosophy is that it identifies the truly great problems, ones where arguments can be made for each side with equal validity. The website, an online repository of philosophy articles and books, recently conducted a very interesting survey about some of these grand debates.

It consisted of 30 questions, all current issues with well established alternative positions in philosophy under intense discussion. They surveyed 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students, and then tabulated the results. I also went through and gave each question a “controversy” score – the lower the score, the lower the consensus in the answers (for the curious, via mean square error).

Is this the real life – or is it just fantasy?

The least controversial issue was Question 6, “External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?“. This dealt with the structure of the external world, where and how it exists, and what we can know about it.

4.2% of respondents believed that the external world was best described by idealism, that reality is totally dependent on the mind. Plugged into the Matrix? Your “reality” could be described by an idealist perspective.

4.8% chose the viewpoint of skepticism, that the external world can never really be known in its true form.

9.2% reinforced some stereotypes of philosophers and gave an answer best described as “other”.

81.6% of respondents agreed in the clearest consensus of the survey that the external world was best described by a perspective of non-skeptical realism. This means that “reality” exists independent of the mind (the realist part, we aren’t making it all up in our heads) and that we can draw reasonable and consistent conclusions from it (the non-skeptical part).

Life may not be a waking dream after all. Now, onto controversy!

Kill one to save a thousand?


You are a superhero. The love of your life dangles from a fraying rope above a pit of spikes, while nearby a speeding train full of orphans rushes toward the edge of a cliff. You only have enough time to save one of the two – what do you do?

Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions like these – how “should” you act in a certain situation? Is there certain approach one should use? This was the subject of one of the most controversial issues, Question 20 – “Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?“.

18.1% chose the perspective of virtue ethics, first advocated for in a significant sense by Aristotle. Virtue ethics emphasizes the character of the person who is faced with a difficult decision. Do you save the children in the train or your dangling love? It doesn’t matter – what matters is your character and your intent in making the decision.

23.6% argued for consequentialism, the philosophy that spawned the approach of “the ends justify the means”. Whether an action is right or wrong depends on the outcome of the situation, not the specific actions you chose. There are a number of different variants of this which would “score” the final situations according to whether it maximized happiness, economic benefit, liberty, love, or any number of possible ideals to yourself or to others. If you were an egoist you would send the orphans over the cliff and save your love to maximize your own happiness. If you were a utilitarianist, you would save the orphans because it would benefit the largest number of people.

25.8% of respondents chose deontology, where it is the actions you take that are judged rather than the results of those actions. Deontologists are concerned with rules and duties, and an action following these duties can be considered morally correct even if it produces dire consequences. If you were a married superhero who had sworn a vow to protect his love – orphans be damned, there is a duty to perform.

32.3% of philosophers, presumably not wanting to commit to paper their rationale as to whether they’d kill orphans or their love, chose “Other”.

What about the rest?

Here’s a table ranking the “consensus” on each issue, from least to most controversial. The lower the mean square error, the less disparity there is in the magnitude of responses – and so less consensus is reached. I think this is a pretty decent metric, if you have any better suggestions, feel free to leave a comment.

Consensus Rank Question Number Question Text Mean Sq. Err.
1 6 External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism? 0.1073
2 25 Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism? 0.0870
3 8 God: theism or atheism? 0.0781
4 1 A priori knowledge: yes or no? 0.0725
5 28 Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch? 0.0654
6 4 Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? 0.0557
7 17 Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism? 0.0526
8 7 Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will? 0.0387
9 27 Time: A-theory or B-theory? 0.0330
10 11 Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean? 0.0290
11 14 Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism? 0.0289
12 16 Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism? 0.0286
13 29 Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic? 0.0263
14 12 Logic: classical or non-classical? 0.0218
15 21 Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory? 0.0210
16 9 Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism? 0.0188
17 23 Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism? 0.0175
18 13 Mental content: internalism or externalism? 0.0172
19 15 Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism? 0.0137
20 19 Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes? 0.0115
21 22 Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view? 0.0113
22 2 Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? 0.0055
23 30 Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible? 0.0049
24 5 Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? 0.0047
25 3 Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? 0.0047
26 20 Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics? 0.0026
27 10 Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism? 0.0016
28 24 Proper names: Fregean or Millian? 0.0012
29 18 Moral motivation: internalism or externalism? 0.0007
30 26 Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death? 0.0004


Now you can go to fancy cocktail parties and hold your own in philisophical debates – or at least have the confidence that you’re stating a position that cannot be proven wrong.

2 thoughts on “Reality, Morality, Controversy and Consensus in Philosophy

  1. If you change the settings from coarse to fine, you can see that responses labeled “other” are actually a collection of several disparate answers.

    In the case of the A theory vs. B theory of time, for example, “Other” was the apparent top response with a consensus of 58%. But when you change the settings to “fine” you see that the top response was actually “Insufficiently familiar with the issue” at 30%.

    So you might want to go back and correct your information. Also, it might help to post what stance it was that the philosophers agreed on. It’s one thing to know that philosophers have a high level of agreement regarding empiricism vs. rationalism, for example, that that doesn’t tell you whether they agreed on empiricism or rationalism.

    • Hi Tony –

      You are correct, this is definitely preliminary analysis. I wanted to get a rough picture of the rankings. Interestingly enough I found that there was a fairly clear relationship between “controversy” and increasing percentage of “Other” responses, which to me makes sense. You bring up an interesting quandary – should a consensus of “Other” be defined as consensus at all?

      I’m currently working on the finer data sets and breaking it up by faculty/etc. My only concern with posting “agreed upon” stances is that I have to define a cutoff where “agreement” no longer occurs. Perhaps I’ll highlight for the top five questions.

      Thanks for the comments!

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