Allow default methods to override Object's methods

Brian Goetz brian.goetz at
Sun Mar 3 14:42:13 PST 2013

> However a couple of times I have wanted to override Object's methods, i.e.
> toString, equals, and hashCode. For example in a toy stream library I am
> playing with:
> ...
> Do you think the above is a genuine example or an outlying case?

The topic of whether default methods should be allowed to override 
Object methods was one that was discussed extensively in the EG.  While 
I can definitely sympathize with the desire for things to work this way, 
really what this boils down to is "I want default methods to be more 
like traits than they are."  And again, I can sympathize with that -- 
traits are useful.  (If we were designing Java from scratch today, we 
would have certainly come to something different than the current JDK 8 
design -- historical constraints do matter.)  But I believe the outcome, 
if we went this way, would be worse.

When evaluating a language feature, you need to examine both the cost 
and the benefit side of the proposal.

Benefit: how would having this feature enable me to write code that is 
better than what I can write today.

Cost: how would having this feature enable other people to write WORSE 
code than they might write today.

Most people, when proposing a language feature, focus exclusively on the 
former, but in reality, the second is often more important.  As an 
example, take as a proposed language feature "allow direct access to raw 
object pointers."  Clever people can come up with endless examples of 
what they could do with raw pointers, whether to improve performance or 
to simplify the writing of frameworks and libraries.  But, it should be 
obvious that allowing raw access to pointers would also do a tremendous 
amount of damage; programs would be less reliable, less secure, and for 
most programs (those not written by performance experts) less performant 
(because giving users access to raw pointers cripples many optimizations 
the VM could otherwise make.)

So, with that preamble, why did we decide to do it the way we did?

1.  Secondary scope.  The key goal of adding default methods to Java was 
"interface evolution", not "poor man's traits."  It is a significant 
dividend that they enabled many forms of trait-like behavior, and we 
were careful to support this where the costs were within bounds, but 
this proposed behavior was certainly not at all within the scope of 
"interface evolution."  So it is strictly a "nice to have" if we can get 
it cheaply enough, not a goal.

2.  Adds complexity.  Supporting this behavior had the cost of making 
the inheritance model more complicated.  This is definitely a negative; 
there is already a lot of fear that "multiple inheritance" (as if Java 
didn't already have multiple inheritance (of types) from day 1) will 
make Java a lot more complicated.  A great deal of effort went into 
coming up with the simplest possible rules for how implementation 
inheritance will work, which are:

Rule #1: Classes win over interfaces.  If a class in the superclass 
chain has a declaration for the method (concrete or abstract), you're 
done, and defaults are irrelevant.

Rule #2: More specific interfaces win over less specific ones (where 
specificity means "subtyping").  A default from List wins over a default 
from Collection, regardless of where or how or how many times List and 
Collection enter the inheritance graph.

Rule #3: There's no Rule #3.  If there is not a unique winner according 
to the above rules, concrete classes must disambiguate manually.

Allowing defaults to override Object methods would interfere with the 
simplicity of "Class wins".  And the obvious adjustments ("Class wins 
except Object") run into subtle complexities when you follow them 
through, which require further adjustments, the result being that this 
adds complexity to the inheritance model.  This did not seem like the 
best way to spend our limited complexity budget.

3.  Really only makes sense in toy examples.  When designing default 
methods, I talked to a number of folks like yourself who asked for this 
feature.  And I asked them to give me an example.  Invariably, the 
example was a type like List.  And invariably, after some digging, it 
would become clear that this feature only makes sense in situations 
where the type in question was exclusively single-inherited.  Giving 
people a feature that is essentially multiple inheritance of behavior, 
but which breaks if you actually *use* multiple inheritance, does not 
seem smart.

At root, the methods from Object -- such as toString, equals, and 
hashCode -- are all about the object's *state*.  But interfaces do not 
have state; classes have state.  These methods belong with the code that 
owns the object's state -- the class.

Further, it is even harder to ensure compliance with the contracts of 
equals and hashCode when they are provided in an interface.  The common 
equals/hashCode pitfalls outlined in Effective Java become even more 
likely to bite you if you try to do this -- as if this wasn't already 
hard enough.

4.  It's brittle.  Methods like equals are really fundamental; you don't 
want a classes equals() behavior changing out from under you when a 
library is rev'ed and someone adds an equals() implementation to some 
interface that you indirectly inherit from nine levels away.  But this 
is exactly what would happen if someone added an equals() method to an 
existing interface, if its subtypes didn't provide their own equals().

The decision about equals/hashCode behavior is so fundamental that it 
should belong to the writer of the class, at the time the class is first 
written, and changes to the supertype hierarchy should not change that 
decision.  If defaults were inherited in this way, it would totally push 
us in the wrong direction here.

So, bottom line -- this seems like an "obvious" feature at first, but 
when you start digging, the result is that it makes the language more 
complicated, invites lots of new corner cases, and doesn't really work 
all that well outside of the "obvious" examples.

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