The Philosophers’ Rubber Duck

Of all the things you might imagine you’d find in a professional philosopher’s toolkit, a rubber duck might not be the first to spring to mind. But they are there – and in some abundance.

One of the first scholars to hint at their utility was Frances Howard-Snyder, Professor of Ethics, Religion, Metaphysics departments at Western Washington University, US in her 1993 paper for American Philosophical Quarterly 30 (3):271 – 278. “Rule Consequentialism Is a Rubber Duck.” She pointed out that rubber ducks (along with clothes horses, drugstore cowboys, clay pigeons, stool pigeons, Bombay ducks and hot dogs) have something in common –  “They are not what their names suggest”. She then went on to argue that although the name given to the philosophical concept of ‘Rule Consequentialism’ strongly suggests, perhaps even insists, that it is a form of Consequentialism – “a closer look reveals that it is not”.
Just a year or so later, the rubber duck model surfaced again in another paper, this time from professor Brad Hooker of the Philosophy Department at the University of Reading, UK. His article for the journal Analysis (54 (2):92 – 97.) refloated the idea in the form of a question  ‘Is Rule-Consequentialism a Rubber Duck?’, and argued that even though rubber ducks are not (exactly) what they seem, “… we should hold on to a definition of consequentialism which recognises rule-consequentialism’s family membership”
And, as recently as 2001, it seems that the rubber duck as a philosophical metaphor is still holding water  – but.Glen Newey, professor of International Relations and Politics at Keele University, UK, this time steers the duck away from consequentialism and asks instead : ‘Is Democratic Toleration a Rubber Duck?’ (Res Publica, Volume 7, Number 3, 315-336)
Improbable invites readers to send us examples of other entities which have names that may not always be intended to be taken completely literally, and which could therefore find use in a philosopher’s toolkit.
Example :‘Is Deontological Empiricalism a Hot Potato?’






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