Blame utilitarianism!

by John Holbo on November 3, 2013

For no strictly sufficient reason I’m reading Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock.

I grew up in the conviction that in a truly civilised society the sanctions of taste and manners would have a compelling force at least equal to those of law, religion and morals. By way of corollary I became convinced that expediency is the worst possible guide of life. Bentham’s doctrine of expediency, on which Michel Chevalier a century ago observed that American society was founded, seemed to me thoroughly false, corrupting and despicable; and in my opinion the present state of the society based on it affords the strongest evidence that it is so.

Obviously this stuff starts with Burke, if not earlier: “The age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

And Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, which lays considerable blame on utilitarianism, if I do not misread that author.

On a more contemporary note, I am pleased to see The American Conservative reviewing George Scialabba’s latest: good for them. But then this:

He also displays on occasion a too-generous view of some rather sinister figures. One can defend, for example, a humanitarian agenda on the part of the world’s great powers in favor of aiding poorer nations without relying on the musings of Peter Singer

I get it that it’s the abortion stuff. But do people really, seriously find Singer ‘a rather sinister figure’?

I don’t mind if people say they think utilitarianism has repugnant implications – it’s a major ethical theory, after all. But the demonisation, and the attribution of fundamental social influence seem so consistently disproportionate.

Why do so many people hate utilitarianism so much? No one hates Kant’s ethics this much, but it’s just as weird a theory, isn’t it? And quite influential. When was the last time that someone blamed Kant for damn near everything? (Fair is fair, surely.)

{ 271 comments }

1

SoU 11.03.13 at 4:11 am

I’ve heard Kant blamed for the Holocaust too many times to not quibble with your last statement, but I do agree that among some there is a visceral rejection of utilitarianism in all its instances. I am not sure why this is exactly, but I think the cold rationalism celebrating by most utilitarians is very off-putting for normal humans, and that same calculative logic of costs and benefits seems to be the very antithesis of moral thinking (to many).

2

Bruce Baugh 11.03.13 at 4:29 am

The archives at this very site have Michael Berube’s criticisms of, and exchanges with, Singer, which certainly made Singer seem pretty sinister to me.

3

ZM 11.03.13 at 4:37 am

Is Kant the one with the idea you should only do something if it would be sanctionable for everyone to do that thing? Like you ought not pick wildflowers because if everyone picked wildflowers… Or was that someone else? Kant like walking in a very routine way didn’t he?
Peter Singer is well mannered and polite face to face in my limited experience – he came to walk one of the old tracks through the bush here one time, although one of his party met with a small mishap on the trail and had to go to hospital. The ends of some of his logical paths are rather repugnant though insofar as I’m aware of them – although as far as I know it only goes to rhetoric with him, unlike a dramatic protagonist words don’t turn to deeds with him, so presumably he has some pause about this conclusions or else at least is restrained by law…

4

Donald Johnson 11.03.13 at 4:39 am

Since Peter Singer has defended infanticide, yes, some people do find him a rather sinister figure. Here’s someone writing in the NYT Sunday Magazine who seems a little creeped out by him, since he thinks that when she was a baby her parents should have had the right to kill her–

link

5

QS 11.03.13 at 4:44 am

I think utilitarianism largely operates as a euphemism for market rationality and as the latter expands to encompass human relations broadly speaking (that is, when extra-market relations become akin to market relations) people find the forms of behavior it engenders to be problematic.

6

Josh G. 11.03.13 at 5:05 am

No one hates Kant’s ethics this much, but it’s just as weird a theory, isn’t it? And quite influential. When was the last time that someone blamed Kant for damn near everything? (Fair is fair, surely.)

Ayn Rand thought Kant was the most evil person in history. Of course, Rand doesn’t really qualify as a philosopher, and there’s no evidence that she ever actually read his works (she was apparently going off of what she remembered hearing about him from her education in the USSR).

7

SoU 11.03.13 at 5:06 am

people find Peter Singer so damn sinister because his worldview is extremely unsettling for the vast majority of individuals. usually, the crucial tell which reveals that Prof. Singer is something akin to a certain Peter Seller’s character is the combination of the ‘infanticide should be legal’ stance, and the ‘don’t eat meat’ stance. even in the link provided above( @4 ) we see the interaction of these two positions to be the real stumbling block.

i mean, one could cite Singer’s opposition to any number of traditional cultural values as a source for this perception – his aversion to materialism (ie consumerism), or decrying the preference of friends and family over abstract human individuals, or the argument that the value of life is situationally and developmentally dependent. but at the end of the day, i really believe it is his rejection of anthropocentricism (real or perceived) which ruffles peoples’ feathers, so to speak.

8

Collin Street 11.03.13 at 5:08 am

I think… Utilitarianism to work requires understanding people’s utility functions, which we by-and-large don’t: this gives scope for people to declare that the proper utility function is whatever gives them the results they want and that the results they want are scientifically proven, as everyone [has utility function X]

This is of course obvious bullshit, both in process and result, in that everyone seeing it will know that it is bullshit. And bullshit artists can’t be reasoned with, a-priori.

9

Collin Street 11.03.13 at 5:11 am

I mean, does Peter Singer actually feel pain, anyway?

10

Brett 11.03.13 at 5:12 am

Rule Utilitarianism works for me, but it’s not the kind of moral theory that can ever really give you a truly absolute moral standing about whether something is right or wrong. I mostly like it because it tells you that the consequences matter, where nonconsequential moral systems tend to end up in knots when you get a situation where following the rule leads to some very negative consequences (like murder).

11

Bruce Baugh 11.03.13 at 6:06 am

SoU: Nice strawmanning, but the point for me is that Singer continues to advocate the desirability of killing people in various categories well after people like Berube have demonstrated that he simply doesn’t have the knowledge to make the judgments he does. He’s got the classic tyrant’s confidence in his own insightfulness, though he lacks the tyrant’s power to put those whims into practice. He’s not a practical threat to most people the way someone like GW Bush was, but he is an influential voice in some biomedical decision-making, and puts at risk categories of people that include people I like and care about, and people Berube cares about, and he shows no sign of feeling that he has anything to learn about the limits of his own mental grasp.

“Sinister” is a very convenient shorthand for all this.

12

Bruce Baugh 11.03.13 at 6:09 am

(I don’t only object to Singer because of Berube’s encounters. I’ve seen his interactions with people I’ve gotten to know in other contexts, and seen the same unshakeable polite but nonetheless arrogant and callously dismissive self-sureness at work in every case. Real people and their experiences just don’t matter to Singer when they contradict his reasoned conclusions.)

13

geo 11.03.13 at 6:11 am

Brett @10: consequences matter

What else matters?

14

geo 11.03.13 at 6:24 am

Bruce: Yes, Michael convinced me too that Singer’s discussion of infanticide was a botch. And you may well be right about his arrogance; I’ve never met or heard him. But The Life You Can Save is a noble, inspiring book. It will probably do more good, and prevent more unnecessary suffering, than all the rest of us here put together.

15

SoU 11.03.13 at 7:26 am

@11 –

Not sure how I was “strawmanning” – given that I wasn’t trying to argue against the purported views, merely trying to characterize the arguments of detractors, per my experience, in line with the OP. You seem to be itching for a debate over Singer as an ethicist or infanticide or something, but i don’t think that is the point of this thread.

16

Tiny Hermaphrodite, Esq. 11.03.13 at 7:52 am

Hey John you misspelled Scialabba. Tsk. Some more tsk.

17

Bruce Baugh 11.03.13 at 8:06 am

SoU, John H. asked a question I felt qualified to answer. Unlike most questions asked by posters here. :) So I answered it.

Geo, that’s a heck of an endorsement. I’ll take a look at it. Thank you, seriously.

18

Chris Bertram 11.03.13 at 8:09 am

Raymond Geuss was distributing some postcards in Cambridge a few years back, which featured Kant, Rawls and George W. Bush on some kind of timeline. I forget whether Hitler was also included.

19

Larry, the Barefoot Bum 11.03.13 at 8:50 am

People don’t like utilitarianism because it undermines their privilege.

20

Dan Butt 11.03.13 at 8:55 am

According to Alex Worsnip in Prospect, “Geuss allegedly sent a number of colleagues a postcard juxtaposing the pictures of Kant, Rawls, George W Bush and an Abu Ghraib prisoner)”
http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blog/philosophy/realism-idealism-political-philosophy-david-miller-justice-for-earthlings/

21

ZM 11.03.13 at 8:59 am

geo @13

“Brett @10: consequences matter

What else matters?”

Isn’t the problem that you don’t know what the ends will be of these sort of actions? I’m not sure what is supposed to count as a nonconsequentialist moral system exactly, but it seem to me that you have some kind of control over intentions and actions, but not so very much control over ultimate ends?.

22

Chris Brooke 11.03.13 at 9:27 am

The Geuss postcard was Kant — Rawls — Bush — and the iconic image of the Abu Ghraib prisoner. No Hitler. (I have a copy somewhere.)

23

Mao Cheng Ji 11.03.13 at 9:48 am

“The age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

Heh, yesterday I read “Rival Views of Market Society” by Hirschman (recommended by Henry in the post below), and, what a coincidence, that’s just what it talks about. He calls it the “feudal-blessing thesis”.

24

Adam Roberts 11.03.13 at 10:22 am

Since Burke? Since much earlier! Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merrie England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700 locates the perceived chivalric and quasi-utopian ‘Merry England’ between 1350 and 1520. People were complaining it had gone, to be replaced by merchants or sour-faced Puritans or what-you-like since the early 1600s onward.

25

Ronan(rf) 11.03.13 at 12:48 pm

It’s quite the jump from ‘the bloody history of the French Revolution’ to ‘proportional voting’, Mr Russello!

26

BenK 11.03.13 at 1:25 pm

Singer certainly seems sinister at best – his attitudes towards the ‘disabled’ whom he devalues are only humane in so much as humans can be base, evil and cruel.

As for Kant, in the public eye, he says things like ‘don’t use people solely as means to your own ends.’ That doesn’t seem so sinister.

Utilitarianism has certainly appears influential and it has an obvious, public, practical life of applications which people whom I know both consider while making decisions and then consider while pondering decisions that impact them in ways that are on their surface unjust, ugly, lacking in virtue and ultimately immoral – something like the worst of Ayn Rand mixed with the soul of a bureaucracy. Thus, its reputation.

27

John Holbo 11.03.13 at 1:35 pm

Spelling corrected.

28

Squarely Rooted 11.03.13 at 1:45 pm

I think utilitarianism really does have several problems:

-The assumption that utility is a thing one acquires, thus supposing our “default” or “baseline” state is one devoid of utility; as opposed to a theory that assumed our baseline state was contentedness and we accumulated problems, miseries, complications, challenges, impediments.
-The assumption that aggregating social utility makes sense. The implication that one person’s loss of some amount of utility is washed away by another’s gain of said utility.
-The inability to decide between average utility, utility distribution and weighting, or just aggregate utility. Each of these measures has some benefits and also some potentially-fatal flaws. This is when you start really getting into quandaries like utility monsters and repugnant conclusions.

Utilitarianism, I think, is best thought of as one of a bundle of heuristics one should apply to ethical dilemmas rather than the sole foundation of ethics. If one overly-relies on utility as an actual model for human behavior and thought and meaning, you get some of the intellectually and morally bankrupt conclusions of neoclassical economics.

29

Anarcissie 11.03.13 at 2:05 pm

I believe the alternative to consequentialism is the view that acts themselves, regardless of consequences, are to be evaluated according to their piety, aesthetics, pleasure, or for some other immediate or intrinsic reason.

If only consequences matter, then nothing matters, because every action and event has further consequences and metaconsequences which are all that matter, and can never come to ground anywhere; or have no consequences.

I have read only a small part of Peter Singer’s oeuvre — Animal Liberation and some articles — and I came away with the distinct impression that Singer was a kind of philosophical provocateur whose favored modus operandi is to take some set of things his targets generally believe and show how principles derived from that set can be extended to support things they find reprehensible, like vegetarianism or infanticide. Given that most people maintain contradictory ideas and principles, this seems to me to be a sort of shooting fish in a philosophical barrel, and could give people the feeling that they were being played. On the other hand, that sort of thing can be useful in (for example) political disputes as a form of polemic. And I have to acknowledge that, being a vegetarian, Singer’s work has helped me shut up people who objected gratuitously to my practice, for which I am thankful.

30

SusanC 11.03.13 at 2:06 pm

Peter Singer may be posing as someone sinister, as a philosphical argument. But the character he is posing as appears to me to be at least as sinister as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

My tentative conclusion is that out moral sentiments are seriously irrational, but nonetheless useful — and you apply reason to them at your peril (or possibly at your victims’ peril…)

31

Anon 11.03.13 at 3:02 pm

“Why do so many people hate utilitarianism so much? No one hates Kant’s ethics this much, but it’s just as weird a theory, isn’t it? And quite influential. When was the last time that someone blamed Kant for damn near everything?”

Like some others, I’d like to object to this: there are a lot of people who hate, hate, hate Kant. To start with, the majority of philosophy students I teach. But I also know a lot of philosophy professors who hate Kant. If you mean why do so many people *in the average population* hate utilitarianism, it’s a different matter. They don’t hate Kant or deontological ethics because they have no idea what it is. If you explain it to them (especially the “categorical imperative” part), many will hate it.

The general population hates utilitarianism because it’s used as a short-hand scapegoat for scary politics: in usage, it’s like “fascism”; it’s definition in the general populace is “justification of political views I don’t like.” I have a student this term who equates it with “the ends justifies the means” and he equates the latter with Stalinism. Both equations are bullshit, of course, but many think that way. 50 years ago, for Americans utilitarianism was equivalent with communism (caring more about the greater good than my hard earned money!). Remember the presumed inferiority of Spock’s consequentialism to Kirk’s, Bushian, from the gut, passionate Kierkegaardianism? Now it’s equated with Obamacare death panels, stem cell research, and vegetarianism. Of course, that’s all bullshit, since utilitarianism is the real logic of capitalism, not of the left, but oh well.

I do find Singer sinister. In part because of his overconfidence in his conclusions despite often very dubious reasoning, in part because of his moralistic self-righteous tone. And also because of arguments like this one, in which he endorse in principle (not in practice!) the systematic genocide of carnivorous species:
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/the-meat-eaters/

The worst part is that he is not willing to follow utilitarian logic to its most logical and only truly reasonable conclusion: end sentience in order to ensure the lowest absolute level of suffering: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/

Like truly rational people, I don’t accept the equation of suffering with evil or of pleasure with good. But if I did, at least I’d be freaking consistent about it. And I do think that many forms of suffering are sufficiently evil that it’s absolutely absurd that anyone can claim to be a utilitarian and endorse the active promotion of sentient life.

His argument is: “I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.” Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov has already answered that absurd argument. Putting aside that it’s utterly absurd to believe such a world will be achieved soon, permanently, or even frequently, it ignores the long history of quantitatively unmatchable animal and human suffering that got us their. If that’s the price of admission, on behalf of billions of years of torture, I respectfully return my ticket.

32

William Timberman 11.03.13 at 3:08 pm

I haven’t read Singer, but I have read Scialabba, including For the Republic. The deep concern Russello expresses in his review in The American Conservative over Scialabba’s supposedly too-narrow escape from the horrors of collectivism seems to me to be the usual conservative harrumphing, and not to be taken any more seriously than the bromides about liberty that we hear from them every day of the week.

Socialists are at a disadvantage here, in that the best of them are still dodging debris from the great Stalinist train wreck of the past century. The fact that it was none of their doing hasn’t proved much of a defense against conservative triumphalism, but they do the best they can, and lately they’ve been doing much better. I have a feeling, too, that this era in which conservative assumptions about human nature have gone largely unquestioned, in public policy matters at least, is coming to an end. So much the better for all of us.

What does puzzle me about Scialabba’s writing sometimes is his uncompromising, even fierce defense of consequentialism, probably because I’m a bit of a fence sitter myself in the debates between deontological and consequentialist ethics. If a knee-jerk version of Kant can lead to puritanism, surely a knee-jerk version of Bentham can lead to an administrative class which treats everyone else purely as means to an end. Yes, we bloody well can wind up branding people with scarlet letters, and cutting off their welfare payments on the one hand, or certifying anything from the Ville Radieuse to JSOC’s signature strikes in Pakistan on the other. We’ve already been guilty in both senses, and more than once at that.

What’s made me a fence-sitter in these debates, however, isn’t anything I’ve read, but rather my 20+ years of experience as a middle manager. Repeated directives to do unjust things to one’s colleagues can, over a period of years, result in an atrophied ethical sense, one that cringes at the slightest hint of something new afoot in Human Resources.

Is this just the price of admission to adulthood in a society which has long since surrendered completely to the division of labor? Maybe so, but even though I’ve been retired quite a few years now, I still remember an oft-repeated catechism from my former life as the sword of someone else’s justice:

1. For the good of Holy Mother Church. Yeah, okay, sure.
2. But this just ain’t right. No way is it right.
3. Can I really afford to quit my job over this?
4. Well, at least he/she isn’t ordering me to bayonet babies.

So when geo @ 13 asks what else besides consequences matters, I suppose I would answer that it depends on how those consequences are arrived at, especially when I’m asked to be part of the machinery that arrives at them.

33

John Holbo 11.03.13 at 3:22 pm

Thanks for that book rec. Adam Roberts. It looks interesting.

“If you mean why do so many people *in the average population* hate utilitarianism, it’s a different matter.”

I do mean this.

“I think utilitarianism really does have several problems:”

Per the post: every major ethical theory has several problems. That means, pretty much, that all major ethical theories imply awful, repugnant results – or at least they can plausibly be made out to do so. Welcome to ethical theory! But many people still seem to think there’s a special place in hell reserved for the utilitarians and I find that a bit strange. But the Singer case may be special. I haven’t read those old Berube posts about Singer, I’m slightly ashamed to admit. I should educate myself by studying the CT archives a bit more thoroughly.

34

geo 11.03.13 at 3:41 pm

ZM@21: Isn’t the problem that you don’t know what the ends will be of these sort of actions?

Yes, that’s a problem. So we devise rules and general principles, which we think will usually yield the best results overall, and which we revise when necessary. That’s how law and morality work, I’d say.

Anarcissie @29: every action and event has further consequences and metaconsequences which are all that matter, and can never come to ground anywhere; or have no consequences.

Ditto. Morality is always provisional.

Anarcissie: acts themselves, regardless of consequences, are to be evaluated according to their piety, aesthetics, pleasure, or for some other immediate or intrinsic reason

But how do you know an act is pious or beautiful or pleasant unless you know its effects? Giving money to someone who needs it may seem pious, but not if you’re giving it to him/her as payment for committing a crime on your behalf. A 20th-century Italian poet (D’Annunzio?) wrote a hymn to the beauty of bombs Italian poets were dropping on Ethiopia. And lots of pleasant acts (drinking, gossiping) can be wrong if they have baneful effects. Nothing has any intrinsic meaning or quality, wholly independent of context. In fact, nothing has any existence apart from context — the concept doesn’t compute.

Anon @31: utilitarianism is the real logic of capitalism

Yes, but also of socialism, feudalism, primitive communism, and every other morality. Doing what we think will have the best overall consequences is simply the logic of morality. Rank greed of the Enron/Wall Street variety, on the other hand, is not a moral strategy — well, the Randians think so, but even they claim that weeding out the weak and unfettering the strong will have better consequences than ordinary decency.

Anon @31: I respectfully return my ticket

An entirely plausible and honorable option.

35

geo 11.03.13 at 4:04 pm

Ha! While I was cavalierly tossing off another uncompromising defense of consequentialism, William was subtly probing the defenses.

“Treating everyone else purely as means to an end” is, I respectfully suggest, a straw person. If one asks (as you apparently have throughout your career) whether, in the long run, people learning, with many errors along the way, to make for themselves decisions about what affects them won’t have better consequences than making them passively accept directives from above and eventually wind up with an atrophied ethical sense, then I think one can make a strong consequentialist case for democratic socialism.

But you’re right to puzzle over my tone, and you’ve led me to puzzle over it. After all, if I really believe that consequentialism is a null hypothesis, that it’s simply a description of the way we inevitably make moral decisions (or any other kind), then why get all fierce about it? Much better to take Rorty’s good-natured, benignly neglectful approach: metaphysics is just a way of talking, which our culture is gradually outgrowing, so just let it happen, with occasionally a gentle nudge to help the process along.

36

Anon 11.03.13 at 4:44 pm

Geo @35

“consequentialism is a null hypothesis, that it’s simply a description of the way we inevitably make moral decisions (or any other kind)”

I like this way of putting it, and I think I agree. But I think the same of Kantian ethics: it’s simply a description of the meaning of “ought” statements to say they explicitly or implicitly appeal to a categorical ought–in consequentialism, that we categorically “ought” promote happiness or flourishing or whatever. (An in Kantian ethics, if the true good is moral worthiness as a state of will rather than happiness, then endorsing duty over consequence is, in effect, the consequentially best means to the greatest good. The real disagreement is not over intention vs consequence, but over what good is being “maximized”.)

So I’m tempted to conclude that both consequentialist and deontological ethics are trivial: to endorse any morality is to endorse them, and if one wishes to reject either one, one must reject morality as such.

I tend to hate Kantianism less than I hate consequentialism, because nobody finds Kantianism obvious or easy. So I’m less worried any group will come to a righteous, self-certain consensus about rational moral laws and enforce them at my throat’s expense. But every group imaginable is constantly coming to righteous, self-certain consensus about consequential goods, and they always seem willing to expend any number of throats. It’s easier to abuse.

Note: apologies for horrible spelling and other errors in the previous, too hastily composed post.

37

William Timberman 11.03.13 at 4:49 pm

…then I think one can make a strong consequentialist case for democratic socialism.

As it happens, I think so too, with emphasis on the democratic. Then again, one can make an equally strong case for democratic socialism on a deontological basis, in that what really makes us cringe, whether we admit it or not, are egregious offenses against human dignity. The trolley problem; Sophie’s choice — in one case circumstance imposes the dilemma, in the other human evil does. In both cases, the individual, without the leisure to query his justification database, is forced to make a choice (not choosing also being a choice) and accept the guilt which comes as a consequence, even though the consequence is most definitely not one of those which a consequentialist is usually tasked with justifying.

It doesn’t matter in such extremities that the individual isn’t really to blame for the outcome. The damage to his/her psyche is already done. Here we stop talking about ethics, and begin talking about tragedy. If we were really to take such moments seriously — not just the extreme examples, mind, but the everyday ones — I think we’d be much closer to a way forward which might pacify, if not resolve, all of our ethical dilemmas.

38

Anon 11.03.13 at 4:49 pm

Anarcissie @25:

“I believe the alternative to consequentialism is the view that acts themselves, regardless of consequences, are to be evaluated according to their piety, aesthetics, pleasure, or for some other immediate or intrinsic reason. If only consequences matter, then nothing matters…”

But for consequentialism, it’s not true that “only consequences matter,” certain conscious states–pleasure and pain–are intrinsically valuable and disvaluable for aesthetic reasons. So that’s similar to your view, provided you replace “acts themselves” with “states themselves.” So then it’s not true that “nothing matters.”

39

Matt 11.03.13 at 4:57 pm

As others have pointed out, Singer is actually kind of creepy. Also, unlike many ethical theorists, he thematizes the repugnant consequence, which makes him an easy target. On the other hand, JS Mill has got to be about the least-hated moral thinker ever.

40

Joshua W. Burton 11.03.13 at 5:12 pm

No, it’s not the abortion stuff. It’s this, mostly. (Ah, sorry. Hat-tip Donald Johnson @4; of course I’m not the only one haunted by that article.)

I am passionately pro-choice. But I personally find Peter Singer insufferable, and feel it’s up to him to do something about it.

41

js. 11.03.13 at 6:06 pm

Brett @10: consequences matter

What else matters?

The character and dispositions of the agent would be one obvious and not implausible answer.

42

geo 11.03.13 at 6:08 pm

Can you give an example, js?

43

not a utilitarian 11.03.13 at 6:13 pm

Some of the comments above seem to lack basic knowledge about the arguments and theory by utilitarians and by Singer. I’m sure you would like to see of yourself as people that base your claims, especially harsh and angry claims, on correct information about that you are making claims about. So here are two suggested readings:
Bykvist (2009) Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed
Singer (2011) Practical Ethics 3rd edition

44

js. 11.03.13 at 6:20 pm

Can you give an example, js?

Not one that would settle the question, no. But look, the question is something like: what is the appropriate unit of moral evaluation and what is the appropriate standard for in assessing that unit? According to one very influential answer, the basic units of evaluation are actions and we assess them according to their net aggregate utility. According to a second kind of view, we assess actions according to the intention of the agent in undertaking the action (or according to the principle the agent acts on). According to a third kind of view, rather than focusing on isolated actions, we should take as the basic unit of evaluation agents acting across time and the standard of evaluation should be the (more or less) stable dispositions—adding up to something we can call the agent’s “character”—that are displayed in the actions. (And these are not the only three options, of course.)

It’s extremely far from obvious that the first kind of view is superior to the other two.

45

Anarcissie 11.03.13 at 6:31 pm

geo 11.03.13 at 3:41 pm:

Anarcissie @29: every action and event has further consequences and metaconsequences which are all that matter, and can never come to ground anywhere; or have no consequences.

Ditto. Morality is always provisional.

Someone said, though, that only consequences matter. If this is the case, then nothing matters, because the succession of consequences never terminates. For things to matter, some of the consequential chains must terminate in something which can be evaluated without regard to its consequences.

Anarcissie: acts themselves, regardless of consequences, are to be evaluated according to their piety, aesthetics, pleasure, or for some other immediate or intrinsic reason

But how do you know an act is pious or beautiful or pleasant unless you know its effects?

Because the gods tell you; or because you think or feel that the act is pious or beautiful or pleasant in contemplating it beforehand, regardless of its effects.

46

Zb 11.03.13 at 6:37 pm

It’s not hard to figure out why people find Peter Singer creepy. (Should the Baby Live is a real book; I’ve held it in my hand; I washed my hands after.)

As for why ordinary people find utilitarianism creepy, I would suggest looking at popular depictions of utilitarians, starting with Mr. Gradgrind of Hard Times. Utilitarians are seen as mechanistic, inhuman, and quick to rationalize other people’s suffering. This may not be fair, but it is the explanation for why the theory is disliked.

47

Anon 11.03.13 at 6:37 pm

js.,

Isn’t the reason we value intention or principle and character because we primarily care about consequences? I want people to act on reasonable principles because they’re more likely to act with good consequences most of the time. I want to be around people of good character–generous, honest, courageous, etc.–because I expect them to more often act in ways that have good consequences.

Imagine a world where intentions and character were causally unrelated to action, so that better character and intentions never increased the chances of better actions. In such a world, why would I value intention or character?

48

geo 11.03.13 at 6:43 pm

But how do we assess the intentions or principles or characters of the agents, if not by reference to consequences? When we say, “X is a virtuous (honest, courageous, generous) action” or “Y is a virtuous (honest, courageous, generous) person,” isn’t it natural to ask next, “Well, why is it that we value honesty/courage/generosity?”? And isn’t the answer: because we believe that the consequences of practicing, and living among people who practice, those virtues are preferable to the consequences of not practicing them?

49

geo 11.03.13 at 6:47 pm

Oops. #47, which just restates Anon @46, was also meant as a reply to js.

50

novakant 11.03.13 at 7:02 pm

“Sinister” is not a valid philosophical judgement. You don’t have to agree with everything Singer says – and I certainly don’t – to acknowledge that his work poses some interesting challenges to the western liberal consensus. Most of us are pretty selfish beings who constantly value our own lives higher than those of many other humans and non-humans – we just don’t like to hear about it and get angry when it is being pointed out.

51

Sebastian H 11.03.13 at 7:08 pm

The problem with utilitarianism is that it works best as a tool for aiding analysis in a more comprehensive systems than it does as a system all on its own. In the framework of other values, it makes sense to take actions which increase the performance of those values. But utilitarianism doesn’t have good independent means of defining what has utility and what doesn’t. It isn’t good at defining what counts as the happiness we are trying to maximize, the suffering we should try to minimize, and the group of beings we are trying to do that with. It makes sense as a way to try to work with other moral systems, but it doesn’t really work as a moral system of its own.

Its popular problem exists because of the way it tends to be used in public discourse–it assumes we can understand and quantify all the utilities across all people, but since in practical reality we usually can’t, it overpromises. See for example the question posed to the disabled activist in Donald Johnson’s link above at #4.

“This doesn’t satisfy Singer. ”Let’s assume we can prove, absolutely, that the individual is totally unconscious and that we can know, absolutely, that the individual will never regain consciousness.””

And:

“A philosophy professor says, ”It appears that your objections to assisted suicide are essentially tactical.”

”Excuse me?”

”By that I mean they are grounded in current conditions of political, social and economic inequality. What if we assume that such conditions do not exist?”

”Why would we want to do that?”

”I want to get to the real basis for the position you take.””

It is like the ticking bomb torture hypotheticals. They are used more to shut down the person you are debating with, than to actually get to useful common ground. Utilitarianism gets a lot of popular hate because it uses those tactics as a core part of the philosophy, which people resist even if they can’t articulate why with less than ten years of philosophy training. At every turn you are presented with “assume things that have nothing to do with reality”. Philosophers may enjoy that game, but most people don’t.

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ZM 11.03.13 at 7:17 pm

geo
“ZM@21: Isn’t the problem that you don’t know what the ends will be of these sort of actions?

Yes, that’s a problem. So we devise rules and general principles, which we think will usually yield the best results overall, and which we revise when necessary. That’s how law and morality work, I’d say.”

But if that is the case, utilitarianism does not seem to have any greater claim on being to do with consequences than any other moral rubric.

For instance, back to Singer, I have never come across him argue about the positive changes that would accrue to a society once it started allowing infanticide – because something like that is not just going to affect the family in question, it would affect the whole culture ( to be fair, perhaps he does address this, I had to read him a long time ago now. And regardless of whether he does, I believe it would be wrong).

My former comment raised all I know of his behaviour because he actually didn’t seem as if he had interrupted his bush walk and was going to hospital with his companion out of utilitarian calculations, but simply because he was genuinely concerned like anyone would be. Of course, perhaps this was a facade, but it seems unlikely he would go to that trouble to disguise his motivations before strangers).

53

tenzing 11.03.13 at 7:18 pm

Donald Johnson @ 4 “he thinks that when she was a baby her parents should have had the right to kill her”

I think that when I was a fetus my parents should have had the right to kill me.

I’m not pro-infanticide, but treating speculation about the moral permissability of infanticide as abhorrent whereas believing that abortion is unobjectionable seems silly to me. I assume most here believe the latter (I do at least), and evidently the people opining on Singer believe the former. I don’t get it. Also, the Peter-Singer-wants-me-dead rhetoric of that NYT article was a bit much.

Should parents be allowed to abort fetuses because they are disabled?

54

Watson Ladd 11.03.13 at 7:22 pm

It might surprise everyone to know that Tay-Sachs disease has been eliminated by telling people who are carriers not to marry each other. Will no one defend the right of the hypothetical sufferer to exist?

Also, anencephaly exists. We know that things with the disease will never think, because they have no brains. Unlike Trolley problems questions about aborting unviable fetuses are made every day.

@Anon: Kant and Singer disagree on the Nazi at the door. Which choice is compatible with morality? Is it unrealistic? Well, some of our relatives faced these choices not so long ago. Morality is most valuable in conditions where society doesn’t exist to tell you what to do.

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geo 11.03.13 at 7:38 pm

Sebastian: But utilitarianism doesn’t have good independent means of defining what has utility and what doesn’t.

Yes, true. But then, there aren’t any independent means of defining utility or value, if by “independent” you mean “deductive” or “foundational” or “intersubjectively valid, apart from anyone’s context/preferences/temperament.”

At every turn you are presented with “assume things that have nothing to do with reality”. Philosophers may enjoy that game, but most people don’t.

Yes, again. That’s why Rorty gave up on philosophy. I incline to think he was right.

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Shatterface 11.03.13 at 7:46 pm

One of the reasons people dislike Bentham is that many percieve we are now living in his world rather than Kant’s; not only are all competing economic systems expressed in utilitarian terms but we also live in a panopticon were everything we do is potentially monitored.

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Shatterface 11.03.13 at 8:12 pm

It might surprise everyone to know that Tay-Sachs disease has been eliminated by telling people who are carriers not to marry each other. Will no one defend the right of the hypothetical sufferer to exist?

Maybe you should ask whether people with Downes Syndrome or autism should have the right to exist since many can answer that question for themselves.

And as a matter of fact Tay-Sachs disease has not been eliminated, nor, am I aware, that the State is empowered to tell carriers not to marry. States which have that kind of authority probably have a lot more for the population to worry about than the chance of having children with a rare disorder.

Should parents be allowed to abort fetuses because they are disabled?

Samuel Johnson’s description of Bentham quoted in The Riteous Mind suggests Bentham might have been on my end of the spectrum himself and a prospective candidate for abortion should there have been a pre-natal test for Aspergers in his parent’s day.

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Shatterface 11.03.13 at 8:23 pm

I’m not pro-infanticide, but treating speculation about the moral permissability of infanticide as abhorrent whereas believing that abortion is unobjectionable seems silly to me.

Arguing that there’s a legal and moral distinction between terminating a fetus and a baby sounds a lot more rational than me than arguing that there’s a legal and moral distinction between terminating a baby and a toddler. There has to be a cut off point somewhere and the viability of the child seems more natural than an entirely arbitrary post-natal one.

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Shatterface 11.03.13 at 8:35 pm

One problem I have with consequentialism as a moral code is that I can’t track backwards from consequences to distinguish between a causal action decided by the careful weighing up of potential outcomes and the same action decided upon by the flip of a coin.

Consequentially the actions are the same but one action is moral and the other is blind luck.

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js. 11.03.13 at 8:52 pm

Anon:

Isn’t the reason we value intention or principle and character because we primarily care about consequences? I want people to act on reasonable principles because they’re more likely to act with good consequences most of the time.

geo:

But how do we assess the intentions or principles or characters of the agents, if not by reference to consequences?

Suppose I grant you this. It doesn’t really show much. Utilitarianism isn’t the view that we care about consequences in some way or another. It is the view that an action is morally right (or is a good action, morally speaking) insofar as it maximizes net aggregate utility. (Or in some versions, it is the view that an action is right insofar as it is prescribed by a rule that, if followed consistently, would produce outcomes maximizing net aggregate utility.

Leaving aside the point that the honest or generous action in a given situation might not be the one that maximizes net aggregate utility, nor be the one that follows from a rule which if followed, etc.—even leaving this aside, it’s perfectly plausible for one to think that maximizing net aggregate utility is the wrong kind of thing to focus on in moral evaluation (e.g., because—as Rawls pointed out—it doesn’t properly respect the distinctness of persons. That is, it gives moral weight to factors that should not be given any moral weight at all—in Rawls’ famous example, the pleasure or profit a person may derive from enslaving another. And the point is that it doesn’t matter if the practice of slavery would be ruled out on utilitarian grounds because it would decrease aggregate utility—even so, you would give moral weight to something that should be given no moral weight).

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js. 11.03.13 at 8:56 pm

And re Holbo’s original question:

Maybe a lot of people hate utilitarianism because they sense this deeply awful consequence of it.

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SoU 11.03.13 at 8:57 pm

Does anyone here find Planned Parenthood types ‘sinister’ – because i would imagine that all of them, at one point, thought that your parents should have the option, both legally and morally, of terminating your life? My guess is ‘no’ – but i don’t see how the logic of the above is that different from the opening line of argument in that NYT piece, or some of the statements here re: Singer’s broader defense of child killing.

Is it the element of time? Is someone who advocates for abortion in only 2 trimesters less sinister than that person who thinks it should be an option during all of them?

this is not to defend his views, but instead to call attention to how much resistance there can be from simple deviations from moral common sense, even when that deviation is only in the lecture hall. and, not to stretch this point too far, but it suggests something about moral beliefs as social conventions, and helps makes clear why the utilitarian, who is willing (or worse, eager) to pursue the logic of their morality to the end, is easily painted as a monster.

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ZM 11.03.13 at 9:11 pm

Shatter face @58
“One problem I have with consequentialism as a moral code is that I can’t track backwards from consequences to distinguish between a causal action decided by the careful weighing up of potential outcomes and the same action decided upon by the flip of a coin.

Consequentially the actions are the same but one action is moral and the other is blind luck.”

I think this is going to the heart of the problem with utilitarianism. Consequentialism only makes sense anyway within an enclosed textual formal – a logical sum, a novel, a play – which is framed and has a beginning and conclusion.

Life doesn’t really have such frames, at least at the level in which actions matter (perhaps someone would argue the frames would be he beginning and the end of the universe or some such, so I make this exception).

But even within a framed narrative, most writers are not going to devise a protagonist who actually knows what is going on – the protagonist usually exists in the imagined time and space with the frames of the work. The philosophical protagonist on the other hand attempts to sit outside the frame of the text – which is easy of course, because it is a stand in for the author, who does sit outside the frame of the text. But this is odd – I’m sure there must be a name for this device – but I don’t know what it is – the omniscient protagonist perhaps?

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ZM 11.03.13 at 9:12 pm

Sorry, i didn’t realise auto correct put a space in your name

65

ZM 11.03.13 at 9:16 pm

geo
“But how do we assess the intentions or principles or characters of the agents, if not by reference to consequences?”
I probably would normally judge character by facial expressions, tone of voice, words chosen, ideas expressed, actions etc.

66

roy belmont 11.03.13 at 9:21 pm

Anarcissie :
“…only consequences matter. If this is the case, then nothing matters, because the succession of consequences never terminates”

geo:
“…Rorty’s good-natured, benignly neglectful approach: metaphysics is just a way of talking, which our culture is gradually outgrowing…”

Metaphysics was a way of talking about, and sometimes with, that endless chain of cause/consequence, which is where we live, and where the results of our actions resonate endlessly.
The 60’s alternative to received moral systems was situational morality – if it didn’t hurt anybody, no problem.
But the timeline of harm was abbreviated to a very narrow immediate now. With little acknowledgment of possible future harm beyond contemporary recognition.
Nothing like long term, ungrounded meta-consequence, because that won’t fit in our heads.
If it doesn’t hurt anyone until three hundred years laer it’s technically not harmful.
A hundred not so cool, but still acceptable.
A decade, well…
And a year, if it causes harm within the year it’s definitely a bad thing.
That’s totally infantile, right?
But grownups, most of them, can’t see into the unlimited possible future(s). So we can’t measure the ultimate consequences of our actions. But then we can’t make moral judgments about them. So then we don’t have morality, so then we’re at best amoral. Animals. In need of liberation.
Which is where metaphysics began.
A way of conversing about, and sometimes with, the chronologically and spatially limitless context of temporary, physically limited being. The metaphysics being disdained is a perverse vestige of that original necessary conversation, which went to the margin alongside the aboriginal cultures who began it and held it central.
The view that until some representative voice is heard from the other side of that infinite boundary there is no purpose in metaphysical discourse comes from the inheritance of a progressively degraded and profaned relation to whatever that is over there, out there. It’s an inheritance full of fake voices and claims on the divine.
Yet we can’t have social morality without a recognition of some larger goal than individual gratification of desire, that seems obvious.
So then the childish block-stacking of articulable, tangible aims and results begins. Mechanical ethics.
Rational morality leads directly to the Borg.

I was raised by a woman who was severely crippled in the polio epidemics of early/mid 20c. She was visibly abnormal, but because she was a second mother to me, I only saw that in the eyes of staring others. She was active before her death in the grass roots push for disabled rights in California.
She would never have described herself as equal to the able-bodied, only equal in the present system, equally deserving of legal recognition, and respect. But the inequality of her experience wasn’t negotiable, and she knew that. She would understand that you can’t flat-line the biological value-system without serious consequences.
Harriet Johnson is Tarzan’s equal only in a paved world.
It’s unfair to make her solely responsible for the weight of it, but her fight to get and keep dignity requires even more than an assertion of self-worth, it requires humility at exactly the same time. Harriet good, Tarzan better. That’s life on earth.

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Doctor Science 11.03.13 at 9:30 pm

I find Singer extremely useful, because IMinexpertO he does what a philosopher is supposed to do: think things through. My memory of his work (it was a couple decades ago) is that he starts with innocuous-looking premises, and follows them with rigorous logic to disconcerting or even horrific conclusions.

Many people are repelled by this, and say the problem is Singer, or his logic. I say that what he’s done is proven that there was something wrong with those premises. I don’t get the impression that he does as much examining of his premises as he ought, but at least he does a philosopher’s job.

Singer and other utilitarians are often hated not really because of their positions, but because they don’t recognize other people’s feelings enough — and don’t acknowledge their own.

68

Consumatopia 11.03.13 at 9:55 pm

Does anyone here find Planned Parenthood types ‘sinister’ – because i would imagine that all of them, at one point, thought that your parents should have the option, both legally and morally, of terminating your life? My guess is ‘no’ – but i don’t see how the logic of the above is that different from the opening line of argument in that NYT piece

The objection in that piece isn’t to parents aborting fetuses, but to parents (and society) discriminating against certain kinds of fetuses or babies. So, I guess in principle you could have a legal regime in which abortion is legal but genetic screening or any other way of identifying disability in the womb is illegal.

I think that logic ends up expanding the circle of sinister monsters way beyond Peter Singer or Planned Parenthood–and so by the end of the article Johnson talks about a “monster-majority”.

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Sebastian H 11.03.13 at 10:29 pm

“Yes, true. But then, there aren’t any independent means of defining utility or value, if by “independent” you mean “deductive” or “foundational” or “intersubjectively valid, apart from anyone’s context/preferences/temperament.”

I agree, but the implications are different for utilitarianism–or at least that fact is employed differently. Utilitarianism is (at least usually) presented as if it was in scientific contrast to more primative moral systems which rely on God or universal truths as their axioms. But instead of admitting that they just introduce their own axioms, they smuggle them in the back door. That is why utilitarianism is a great tool for other moral systems to use, but a crappy stand alone.

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Ken_L 11.03.13 at 10:50 pm

@12 ‘Real people and their experiences just don’t matter to Singer when they contradict his reasoned conclusions.’

Surely that is a desirable characteristic of reason, as Doctor Science argues @67? There is little point in philosophy if it has to bend to emotion or subjective opinions. ‘Real people and their experiences’ are relevant to philosophy if they empirically falsify an inductive argument, but not if they merely demonstrate that applying ethical principles can lead to human suffering. You can say that about any ethical framework, which is why most people find ethics so problematic, as anyone who has ever tried to teach ethical theory to business students will know.

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Ken_L 11.03.13 at 10:52 pm

*deductive argument.

72

novakant 11.03.13 at 11:05 pm

I second #68. Challenging received wisdom is one of the core duties of philosophy.

Also, why do people embrace or conversely condemn the work of philosophers or philosophical traditions wholesale? I personally grab whatever I find interesting from various sources and it’s worthwhile as long as the argument is on a level high enough to be interesting.

73

adam.smith 11.03.13 at 11:26 pm

Does anyone here find Planned Parenthood types ‘sinister’ – because i would imagine that all of them, at one point, thought that your parents should have the option, both legally and morally, of terminating your life? My guess is ‘no’ – but i don’t see how the logic of the above is that different from the opening line of argument in that NYT piece

hint: the most prominent slogan of the abortion rights movement in the US was “our bodies ourselves.” Upon some reflection on this it really should not be hard to identify the criterium by which abortion is fundamentally different from infanticide.

74

not a utilitarian 11.03.13 at 11:48 pm

Sebastian H #69: “But instead of admitting that they just introduce their own axioms, they smuggle them in the back door.”

Can you give some citings of representative cases of such smuggling? Who are “they” and where do they do it? I have a hard time thinking of any intro to ethics textbook or any introductory book on utilitarianism where the axiological component of utilitarianism isn’t presented up front and arguments for and against different view considered. See for example chapter 4 in Bykvist, Utilitarianism that I mentioned above.

Sebastian H #51: “[citing Singer] Let’s assume we can prove, absolutely, that the individual is totally unconscious and … will never regain consciousness. … [Sebastian goes on to claim:] It is like the ticking bomb torture hypotheticals … have nothing to do with reality”

Huh? Do you not think that there are, as a matter of empirical fact, currently many biologically human beings that have due to damages to crucial areas of the brain technologically irreversibly lost the capacity for consciousness yet still may have organical functionality in heart and lungs, perhaps with medical-technological assistance? Don’t you think we can ask ethical questions regarding the treatment of biologically human beings in such a situation? Do you not think we can learn anything from such cases that is of relevance to at least some other cases?

Also, please give some example where you yourself argue for some conclusion in a non-trivial moral topic and we can then see if your own reasoning will withstand the same sweeping criteria you use to disqualify Singer.

Sebastian H #51: “But utilitarianism doesn’t have good independent means of defining what has utility and what doesn’t. It isn’t good at defining what counts as the happiness we are trying to maximize, the suffering we should try to minimize, and the group of beings we are trying to do that with.”

Can you give some examples of views that are superior at defining the suffering we should try to minimize?

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ZM 11.03.13 at 11:50 pm

adam.smith, I guess what Singer does is bring into focus our framing of personhood, to what living creatures do we extend personhood and the relationship or kinship that that implies, and where do we draw the line? the criterium is not necessarily fundamentally entirely and altogether different, there was that ill and dependent unconscious violinist argument/thought experiment thingy
http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm
which concludes “At this place, however, it should be remembered that we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, and so is not dealt with by anything I have said here.”

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geo 11.03.13 at 11:51 pm

Re js@60: Yes, it may be impossible to maximize net aggregate utility with any precision. But doing it, with or without precision — ie, estimating best overall outcomes — is what we do when we make laws or moral rules.

Why is slavery wrong? Well, what is slavery? Involuntary servitude. Why is that bad? Because it’s involuntary. Why is it involuntary? Because no one wants to be deprived of the ability to participate in decisions that affect her, and to the extent that they affect her. Why not? Because each of us is generally better off/happier with that ability than without it, or so most of us believe.

There’s a thumbnail consequentialist argument against slavery. Is it adequate?

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weareastrangemonkey 11.04.13 at 12:00 am

“The age of chivalry is gone.”

Chivalry was the slave master’s name for the system of slavery.

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weareastrangemonkey 11.04.13 at 12:00 am

Utilitarianism isn’t hated because it is a weird theory; its hated because it seems so reasonable until it runs up against people’s intuitions and personal desires. At which point they decide that there is something fundamentally flawed about the moral theory because it doesn’t match their intuition, or interests. But if that’s a reason for rejecting a theory why bother with a theory, you can just rely on your intuitions. Surely the purpose of a theory is to guide us, to correct us when out intuition goes astray.

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adam.smith 11.04.13 at 12:16 am

@ZM – ah right, thanks for reminding me of that. I do think that argument makes pretty clear, though, why people find Planned Parenthood not just acceptable but worthy of support and Singer creepy.
I agree with Thomson that this isn’t the _only_ argument for abortion rights (which is what her last sentence alludes to). A first trimester abortion seems less problematic to most people for a reason, but because drawing lines is so hard, that’s a much trickier argument to rely on.

80

Hector_St_Clare 11.04.13 at 1:19 am

Re: Upon some reflection on this it really should not be hard to identify the criterium by which abortion is fundamentally different from infanticide.

The criterion certainly exists, but not all of us agree that it’s morally significant (or more specifically, that it’s morally weighty enough to justify abortion).

Re: Not one that would settle the question, no. But look, the question is something like: what is the appropriate unit of moral evaluation and what is the appropriate standard for in assessing that unit? According to one very influential answer, the basic units of evaluation are actions and we assess them according to their net aggregate utility. According to a second kind of view, we assess actions according to the intention of the agent in undertaking the action (or according to the principle the agent acts on). According to a third kind of view, rather than focusing on isolated actions, we should take as the basic unit of evaluation agents acting across time and the standard of evaluation should be the (more or less) stable dispositions—adding up to something we can call the agent’s “character”—that are displayed in the actions. (And these are not the only three options, of course.)

Yeah, I’d more or less agree with this.

81

John Quiggin 11.04.13 at 1:25 am

A minor point that I don’t think has been made is that utilitarianism is consequentialism combined with a particular preference-based theory about good consequences.

A lot of people who want to attack consequentialism present their position as an attack on utilitarianism, thereby helping themselves to all the objections to preference-based theories of the good.

Also, what weareastrangemonkey said

82

ZM 11.04.13 at 1:59 am

weareastrangemonkey@78
“Surely the purpose of a theory is to guide us, to correct us when out intuition goes astray.”
But how do you correct yourself when your theory doesn’t so much go astray, but gets taken to its logical conclusion? Is this where Crime & Punishment comes in?

83

ZM 11.04.13 at 2:01 am

To be fair to Singer, I understand he is in the process of reconsidering his particular sort of utilitarian approach due to climate change and also growing populations. I’m not sure where this will lead him next.

84

Matt 11.04.13 at 2:04 am

utilitarianism is consequentialism combined with a particular preference-based theory about good consequences.

I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Lots of utilitarians these days are preference utilitarians, but I think that probably doesn’t fit more classical hedonistic versions, unless you want to torture the idea of “preference” a lot.

weareastrangemonkey’s point is an important one, and one explored at great length by Henry Sidgwick in what is arguably still the most important book on utilitarianism, _The Methods of Ethics_. Importantly, Singer takes himself to be a disciple of Sidgwick, though how faithful of one I’ll leave to others who have read more Singer than I have.

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js. 11.04.13 at 2:13 am

A minor point that I don’t think has been made is that utilitarianism is consequentialism combined with a particular preference-based theory about good consequences.

Well, classical utilitarianism (Bentham & Mill) was hedonist: utility was defined in terms of subjective states of pleasure and pain (yeah, it gets a bit more complicated with Mill but it’s still hedonist). This isn’t strictly preference-satisfaction because one or more of my preferences might be satisfied (or a negative one violated) without my knowing about it, and so without my experiencing any subjective states with regard to such. The thought that such events should indeed matter in moral evaluation led to the more common acceptance of desire- or preference-satisfaction based versions of utilitarianism/consequentialism in the 20th century. (I used “utility” in my earlier comments to cover both versions.)

But as I’d hoped I’d made clear, my problem is with the use of maximizing principles as the standard of moral evaluation. I don’t really care what value it is you want to maximize; as long as you’re trying to maximize some value, you’ve got some very deep problems using the relevant principle as the standard of moral evaluation (of actions, agents, or whatever). For instance the Rawlsian critique I mentioned above; but see also Bernard Williams’ “Utilitarianism and Integrity”. On the other hand, if you’re not using a maximizing principle, the view isn’t really a consequentialist or utilitarian one, at least as these terms are generally understood.

(This answers geo @76 as well.)

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Bryan 11.04.13 at 2:18 am

If
” all major ethical theories imply awful, repugnant results “
Then
Utilitarianism implies awful, repugnant results.

So when you say “many people still seem to think there’s a special place in hell reserved for the utilitarians” then I think perhaps people generally have more familiarity with the awful, repugnant results implied by utilitarianism due to utilitarianism’s popularity.

Along these lines I had a Criminal law class in which the professor claimed that American law uses utilitarianism as its guiding principle, just putting that out there without making any of the obvious or even non-obvious comments on it.

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Bryan 11.04.13 at 2:19 am

So, in short:

Utilitarianism is hated because of its popularity.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.04.13 at 2:23 am

Re: “Surely the purpose of a theory is to guide us, to correct us when out intuition goes astray.”

I think it would be much truer to say that theory and intuition are supposed to correct each other.

89

bianca steele 11.04.13 at 3:09 am

John, I don’t think you’ve ever discussed this topic before.

js.’s latest comment suggests a musing on the idea that “utilitarianism” could be a tradition (or something along those lines) that one could get right or get wrong, and maybe Bentham/Mill defined it once and for all or maybe Bentham/Mill made a first crack at defining it and didn’t get it quite right, but that those who adhered to it but thought of it differently than others could still be accused of those others’ faults, because they really truly adhered to something different from what they professed to.

What are the chances that sentence/paragraph is readable after the past weekend I’ve had? Very little.

90

ZM 11.04.13 at 4:10 am

Bentham/Mill didn’t so much define it as quarrel over whether push-pin was as good as poetry. I, being Antipodean, of course think push-pin should only be lawful on Anzac Day.

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Donald Johnson 11.04.13 at 4:26 am

I was wondering if any utilitarian philosopher has ever discussed under what circumstances it would be morally permissible to kill a utilitarian philosopher. If the answer is “never”, why not? What makes them such privileged creatures? Is it tenure? Suppose you had a railroad track which split into two branches and there was a baby with a disability unwanted by his or her parents on one track and a utilitarian philosopher lying unconscious on the other and a train was coming and you had control of the switch.

I think Peter Singer has done some good with his arguments for giving all of our excess income to UNICEF–I don’t follow his advice, but I do write slightly larger checks, not because of him, but because it’s an obvious thought which has probably occurred to almost everyone at one time or another. We privileged folk can save lives at very little cost. I also like his defense of animals. These are, loosely speaking, arguments in favor of compassion. I don’t see the point in arguing for the right to kill babies. It might have some theoretical interest to ethicists as a demonstration of some postulate being incorrect in a particular ethical system, but nobody else should care.

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Alan 11.04.13 at 4:50 am

Singer posits an objective good–pleasure or happiness. He then maximizes that good across all entities that might participate in it. He plays no favorites because whether it’s you or a nobody to you, you all are possible participants in the good. That quality–not the bearers of it–is the good. It’s logically consistent. It’s intuitively attractive as pleasure is intuitive as n experienced good, as contrasted against the goodness of rational beings, etc. as much more abstract. There is a logical purity in Singer as good as Kant’s, except it does have an empirical lure of the intrinsic goodness of pleasure that Kant’s goodness of rationality lacks.

And then there’s Spock, either Wrath or Darkness: “The needs of the many. . .

And we tend to think that thinking as heroic and a form of sacrifice, and precisely as diminution of the value of self.

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Bloix 11.04.13 at 7:31 am

#53 – “the Peter-Singer-wants-me-dead rhetoric of that NYT article was a bit much.”

I don’t think it was. Singer wrote a eulogy for her after she died. In it he described her as “Someone whose very existence I had questioned.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/magazine/28mcbryde-t.html?ref=magazine&_r=0

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ZM 11.04.13 at 7:48 am

I found that moving Bloix, the concluding sentence made me wonder if he was reconsidering his views on the conditions necessary for happiness “Doubly insulting, first because Johnson did not believe in a life after death, and second, why assume that heavenly bliss requires you to be able to run and skip?”

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.04.13 at 8:30 am

I think our deontological intuitions are also utilitarian, except that their utilitarian assessments are not being calculated on the fly, but had been tested over generations, and proven useful. This is how they became intuitions. You can challenge them all right, but it’s hard. The burden of proof is on you, for all the short- and long-term unintended consequences.
I guess, this is the conservative angle.

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Scott P. 11.04.13 at 3:26 pm

“And then there’s Spock, either Wrath or Darkness: “The needs of the many. . .”

I think the critical key to Spock’s statement is the fact that he used that logic to decide to go into the reactor core himself, and didn’t use it to justify sending in some red shirt to fix the reactor.

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MPAVictoria 11.04.13 at 3:46 pm

Just wanted to say that I appreciate these philosophy heavy posts John. I always learn a lot from both the OP and the comments.

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Anderson 11.04.13 at 3:52 pm

I’m re-reading Charterhouse of Parma for the umpteenth time, and Stendhal seems about equally mocking of absolutism and of liberalism, the latter of which he identifies with “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Just FYI.

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J.R. 11.04.13 at 4:48 pm

Well, I think the question of why people in general hate utilitarianism has been answered: Peter Singer. Nasty old Singer points out that human life is more valuable than property, and that “I like the way it tastes” is hardly a sufficient reason to torture and kill a sentient, so people spend page after page railing about the infanticide thing, and even harping on his demeanor of all things.

However, more interesting is the question of why a certain class of conservative, such as Nock, hates utilitarianism. This kind of conservative looks around and is deeply disturbed by the fact that we live in a society where the value of everything is quantified, where instrumental value is the only recognized value. They are horrified by this “leveling down.”

The source of this, is of course, the commodification wrought by capitalism. Challenging capitalism is forbidden to the conservative, so they take aim at Bentham instead to relieve their cognitive dissonance.

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Rob in CT 11.04.13 at 6:07 pm

I think the critical key to Spock’s statement is the fact that he used that logic to decide to go into the reactor core himself, and didn’t use it to justify sending in some red shirt to fix the reactor.

Hell yes.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” is a great personal moral code. Scale it up, where someone decides the needs of the many and orders the few or the one accordingly and it’s no longer so rosy.

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TheSophist 11.04.13 at 6:56 pm

Jumping back from the (very interesting) discussions above to the question of the OP, I’ll chime in based upon my recent experience teaching an intro course in this stuff (Sandel is our text) to US HS seniors.

The point at which they start getting really queasy about util is after we read Omelas. The vast majority of them are fundamentally not ok with that society, and will respond to “but it makes sense from a util standpoint” with “then util is bad.” Interestingly (and, yes, obviously inconsistently) when they had to write about Yucca Mountain and the Western Shoshone most of them opted for building the waste facility and use explicitly util rationales for their decision. I think where many ended up was that it’s ok to be utilitarian, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody too badly. It certainly is true that some objected to util in a way which none did to (eg) Kant. (Neither of the Randroids in the class had read enough Rand to know that Kant had supplanted Jimmy Carter as History’s Greatest Monster.) Some didn’t even see util as being a moral system at all. I’d occasionally see sentences such as “A utilitarian would do x, but if you think about it from a moral point of view you’d do y.” It’s as if util is just a formula, devoid of moral content.

I do, of course, fully realize that all of the inconsistencies and problematics in my students’ thinking may well have been the result of defective instruction, but I can’t help thinking that they’re at least a little bit typical of folks who have just scratched the surface of these issues.

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TheSophist 11.04.13 at 6:58 pm

Oh, and when Spock was brought up as an example of utilitarian thinking the question “who’s Spock?” was asked. I weep for the youth of today.

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SoU 11.04.13 at 7:49 pm

I think that JR @99 is on to something regarding the aversion to utilitarian thinking among conservatives – and i think that this critique of utilitarian thinking as a misdirected critique of late capitalist society (as a society of calculating hedonists) also has some play among the left. the big difference between these two criticisms, obviously, is that the left sees a large role for something like social justice (in the social utility function trumping that of each individual) in utilitarianism, and cheers, whereas the conservative’s reaction to this element is just another ‘harumph’.

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mud man 11.04.13 at 8:07 pm

William Timberman #32: Is this just the price of admission to adulthood in a society which has long since surrendered completely to the division of labor?

I said before, just because you copped out doesn’t mean everybody did. The Revolution will come when enough people get off number 3 and stick with number 2. Actually yes, you can afford to quit your job. You Always Have Other Options.

On topic, the theory of utilitarianism is bad as a human ethic because the humans are all outside of it. Utiltarianism is the cutting edge of impersonal urban-industrial role-and-rule society, and people are right to fear it. Would be right to fear it more than they do.

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Substance McGravitas 11.04.13 at 8:24 pm

Conservatives are fine with utilitarianism if pleasure units are measured in dollars.

There’s a way in which the now-nonexistent conservative who wants to move carefully before a big change would serve as a complement to utilitarian social schemes.

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Josh G. 11.04.13 at 9:15 pm

TheSophist @ 101: “The point at which they start getting really queasy about util is after we read Omelas. The vast majority of them are fundamentally not ok with that society, and will respond to “but it makes sense from a util standpoint” with “then util is bad.” Interestingly (and, yes, obviously inconsistently) when they had to write about Yucca Mountain and the Western Shoshone most of them opted for building the waste facility and use explicitly util rationales for their decision. I think where many ended up was that it’s ok to be utilitarian, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody too badly.

I don’t see any inconsistency in this position. Your students seem to believe that it’s OK to inconvenience people for the greater good, but not to torture or kill them for the greater good. That isn’t pure utilitarianism and it isn’t pure deontology, but it is a sensible and pragmatic moral system that works fine in the real world.

(There is also, incidentally, nothing about utilitarianism that requires treating animals as moral actors. You can be a fairly strict utilitarian and believe that only humans have utility value. Singer is just smuggling his own moral beliefs into the underlying premises of his system when he pretends otherwise.)

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ZM 11.04.13 at 9:32 pm

Perhaps the inconsistency is in the fine lines between inconveniencing someone and killing them:

“Based upon lifestyle differences alone the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities project found that Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute people were exposed to radiation through unique exposure pathways that included diet, shelter and mobility. Radiation exposure risk for adults are as much as 15 times greater than non-Native American communities downwind, as much as 30 times greater risk for children, and as much as 60 time greater risk for inutero exposure.

Politically weak, socially and economically isolated the Western Shoshone people are vulnerable to exploitation. For the Western Shoshone Nation the stakes are MORTAL. The abuse continues as the Western Shoshone Nation is targeted for the disposal of nuclear waste from 115 nuclear reactors at 75 sites in 30 states. From the Western Shoshone perspective, nuclear waste streams from the reactor communities would become a river as they enter the Western Shoshone country, placing a disproportionate burden of risk upon the land and people of the Western Shoshone Nation.”

From: A Western Shoshone Perspective on Yucca Mountain

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dsquared 11.04.13 at 10:52 pm

Surely the purpose of a theory is to guide us, to correct us when out intuition goes astray.

Other way round, I think. The problem with utilitarians is that if they make a mistake in deciding what course of action is going to produce the best consequences, there is nothing left to stop them. That’s what, IMO, gives utilitarianism its creepy quality; like a badly designed nuclear reactor, all of its failure modes are runaway. So if, (to take a practical example of a Late Enlightenment Democide) the assembled political economists determine that the provision of famine aid to Ireland would, in the long run, discourage capital investment and encourage senseless procreation, then you are going to get people like Nassau Senior worrying that the deaths of 1 million people would be “scarcely enough to do any good”. Other systems, because they lack the central organising principles that give consequentialisms their attractiveness to philosophy students, tend to have contrasting principles and safeguards.

Also Sebastian at 51 is correct – as people, utilitarian philosophers seem to be addicted to a really annoying and impractical standard of reasoning which delights in pretending to convince people that they “really” find disgusting conclusions acceptable. Economists do the same thing with the whole Landsburg-contrarian style and it’s just as annoying.

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novakant 11.04.13 at 11:00 pm

This looks interesting:

Hare: Could Kant have been a Utilitarian?

Somebody smarter / less tired might want to have a go.

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matt 11.05.13 at 12:06 am

novakant:

Could Kant have been a Utilitarian? Um, No.

Hare in this piece is wrong in many ways, some interesting, most not. If someone were under the illusion that happiness was irrelevant to Kant’s moral theory (these readers do exist), some of the passages Hare notices would be helpful.

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William Timberman 11.05.13 at 12:10 am

dsquared makes a crucial point, especially in the modern age, when power relationships and technology intersect in the ways that they do. Consider an example of runaway consequentialism from the current debate over education:

Bill Gates and Arne Duncan independently (ha!) decide that we’d all be better off if our educational system were more efficient in delivering the trained human resources that our society requires. They reason that our present school systems aren’t efficient, and aren’t delivering, largely because no one is realistically monitoring the results. Never mind what the teachers or Diane Ravitch say, they’re part of the problem.

The next thing you know, they’re tearing down schools in Chicago, shell-shocked teachers are dutifully teaching the test (when they’re not looking nervously over their shoulders), and nobody, absolutely nobody can put a hitch the consequentialist juggernaut’s gitalong without becoming an administrative non-person.

Is this a good thing? Is it really the greatest good for the greatest number? Bill Gates is convinced. Arne Duncan is convinced. The rest doesn’t matter, not, at least, until they’ve had their way with us.

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SoU 11.05.13 at 12:43 am

building off of 108 and 111, the criticism seems to be that the utilitarian logic presupposes and/or calls out for some sort of technocratic, managerial class, who have access to the information and power necessary to make decisions concerning the social utility function. however, these same individuals also have the power of inclusion/exclusion, and determine whose suffering matters, with all the attendant blinders in place (derived from their social position etc). a fair critique, and dsquared’s example of the Irish famine is very much on point.

however, in so far as utilitarian theory is quite clear that it is just pain and pleasure which matter, and not the identities of the sufferers themselves, the theoretical version of utilitarianism should advocate a radical leveling of moral subjects against the patterns of exclusion often perpetrated while paying lip service to the greater good.

so – does the one aspect of the theory which implicitly accepts that managerial class mean that the other project of radical leveling can never really take off?

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Harold 11.05.13 at 12:48 am

Arne Duncan and Bill Gates’ educational “reforms” are cruel and cause suffering. Suffering is evil. Therefore these “reforms” are evil, as well as ineffective and destructive of the middle class. Therefore, I would say these men are evil, as well. From a utilitarian standpoint.

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UserGoogol 11.05.13 at 1:12 am

dsquared@108: I think that’s the opposite of right. Utilitarianism is a uniquely falliabilistic ethical system, since the morality of an action relies on many empirical claims about reality, extending outwards until the end of time. If someone argued that giving aid to the Irish was just fundamentally immoral, you’d be limited to making a strictly abstract argument about what is and isn’t immoral, but if someone argues that giving aid to the Irish reduced the overall happiness, you have an empirical claim that people could reasonably disagree on. A utilitarian can never be sure if what they’re doing is right or wrong.

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Harold 11.05.13 at 1:20 am

Slavery and “efficiency” (via Brad deLong):

..[W]hen she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, [Caitlin] Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation. Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.’ Though it appears this is all news to historians of business, historians of slavery have been pointing this out more or less since the 1970s. In an oft-cited 1973 article in the Journal of Economic History, R. Keith Aufhauser pointed out that the task system… enabled plantation overseers to calibrate particular jobs to the capabilities of particular slaves…. Historians since the 1970s pretty well demolished Eugene Genovese’s assertion slavery was a feudal anomaly within an emerging bourgeois capitalist economy, and I can’t think of any recent work on slavery that hasn’t emphasized slavery’s ruthless capitalist aspects. —http://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/01/16/the-messy-link-between-slave-owners-and-modern-management/
Excerpted by Dave Noon, “Treason In Defense of Scientific Management” : http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/11/treason-in-defense-of-scientific-management

Harvard Business School is evidently less depraved than its Kennedy School of Government and its School of “Education Reform”.

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Matt 11.05.13 at 1:59 am

In these discussions, I think it’s worth _something_ to remember that, at an important time, the utilitarians were strong opponents of slavery, while the natural rights theorists had pretty much all lined up in favor of it. The best source on that is probably still Richard Tuck’s _Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development_.

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ZM 11.05.13 at 3:32 am

How about the transcendentalist crew? Ah, Little Women

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Donald Johnson 11.05.13 at 3:44 am

“Nasty old Singer points out that human life is more valuable than property, and that “I like the way it tastes” is hardly a sufficient reason to torture and kill a sentient, so people spend page after page railing about the infanticide thing, “

I’m not sure where you see that. His arguments about human life and animals are admirable–that little thing about infanticide, trivial since no electorate in its right mind will pay any attention to him on that point, is disgusting. It is sort of funny when you think about it–what sort of madmen actually sit around and talk about whether or not it’d be a good idea to kill children with disabilities?

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js. 11.05.13 at 3:49 am

In these discussions, I think it’s worth _something_ to remember that, at an important time, the utilitarians were strong opponents of slavery, while the natural rights theorists had pretty much all lined up in favor of it.

Agreed. For all that I’ll hate on utilitarianism, I have immense respect for Mill. Even beyond the slavery question, The Subjection of Women is pretty fucking great, and while I can find a lot to disagree with in chap. 5 of On Liberty, there’s a lot of other stuff in there that’s indispensable. (And actually, there’s lots of good stuff in Utilitarianism too—it’s just the stuff that’s separable from the doctrine of utilitarianism.)

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geo 11.05.13 at 4:01 am

108, 111, 112: No, no, and no again.

There’s nothing elitist, technocratic, managerial, paternalistic, or in any way undemocratic about utilitarianism/consequentialism. It simply amounts to the assertion that there is no metaphysical or theological basis of morality: no “natural rights,” no “transcendental ground,” no non-banal way of justifying any moral choice. We choose democracy for consequentialist reasons: given the history of the species, it seems like the most durably peaceable and effectual way of living together. We may democratically decide to delegate some complex and contested decision, or realm of decision, to designated experts. In fact, we do, all the time. But they only have the authority we grant them (to the extent we have a genuine democracy, as of course we don’t at present, at least in the English-speaking world).

Besides, believing in natural rights or imprescriptible principles doesn’t automatically preclude elitism. Someone has to decide what those rights or principles dictate in this particular case, and who- or whatever has sovereign power may with equal likelihood decide that that question requires expert decision.

Just try to bear in mind that this is Saint John Stuart Mill whose democratic bona fides you’re impugning. (Yes, yes, I know all about India. He just had a off day.) Or better yet, read Mill’s Utilitarianism, which inspired the pragmatic ethics of William James (another saint). Very reassuring, I assure you.

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js. 11.05.13 at 4:09 am

Oh, also: people going on about “deontology” or whatever should maybe have a look at Kant’s Anthropology. (I mean, I know no one will, but hey, it’s worth a shout.)

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Matt 11.05.13 at 4:13 am

Just try to bear in mind that this is Saint John Stuart Mill whose democratic bona fides you’re impugning. (Yes, yes, I know all about India. He just had a off day.)

This is probably not going to work. If you read _Considerations on Representative Government_, for example, you’ll see that Mill was really quite ambivalent about democracy as we’d normally understand it. He favored giving more votes to “smart” people, for example. That’s not the only case. To say that Mill “just had a bad day” about India isn’t to take Mill seriously enough, I think. Bentham, on the other hand, had quite an interesting theory of, and argument for, democracy, though it’s not one that seems very flattering to most people. The nickle version (which is still pretty influential) is that democracy is able to align the interest of the governors with the governed by making the governors have to strive to remain in power by appealing to the governed. It less high-flown than Mill, but also much less elitist and more broadly democratic.

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SoU 11.05.13 at 4:22 am

@120 –
I am well aware of the tenets of utilitarianism as professed in this and that book, but my interest in those realms of pure theory is rather limited. As many people upthread have noted, utilitarianism is extremely context and fact dependent. As a consequentialist system, you have to make judgements about outcomes, which requires specification of causal mechanisms, understandings of social patterns and unintended effects, etc etc.

All of that means that when we investigate utilitarianism, we must pay attention to how it has operated in the real world, the practical conditions for its existence and patterns of action that accompany its invocation. So sure, utilitarianism in theory has this democratic element (which i noted clearly in the post you objected to), but in practice I think that we an awful lot of Irish Potato Famine or Hiroshima type decisions couched in the utilitarian language for this not to be a problem for the theory.

In so far as you suggest we are ‘choosing’ democracy or choosing to have experts make these judgements, i think you betray the idealist trappings of your approach. We never made that choice – the social contract is just a metaphor after all.

So sure, you can talk all you want about Mill and his democratic bona fides (which i would call into question – you brush away the question of the colonies far too easily imho), but Mill doesn’t encompass utilitarianism – not even close. The history of utilitarianism has dark corners as well as shining lights, and i think it is interesting to probe those dark corners, regardless of whether or not the academic proponents of the theory want to admit that they share a room.

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js. 11.05.13 at 5:17 am

geo,

In addition to what Matt said, you’re surely aware that Mill was a bit of a proto-libertarian. Those arguments in chap. 5 of On Liberty are not so far from what gets trotted out these days. Like I’ve said, I’ve a lot of respect for Mill, but sainting him is surely a step too far.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 5:25 am

1. Ticking time-bomb cases, etc: you never hear this about Omelas, despite – or perhaps partly because of – the fact that its central conceit is so manifestly contrived and inexplicable. There isn’t really that much wrong with trolley cases, applied properly. If you need some kind of visualisation for your abstractions (and it seems many do), then it seems to me more honest and less misleading to generate one’s abstract examples from scratch than to adapt real events with all their attendant baggage. (This ambiguity, aided by the TV series 24, is one of the many things wrong with the Time Bomb Case). Obviously, if one is hostile to ethical theory in the first place, then abstractions will be irritating. But be clear about it.

2. Examples such as that of Bill Gates’s do-gooding are not really germane – Gates is wrong, and his natural property rights give him far too much power. What is particularly utilitarian about that? As UserGoogol rightly suggests, a good utilitarian (operating in full deliberative mode, as one should be when considering great matters of public policy) would be extremely well-attuned to the need to use evidence, and to change course as new evidence comes to light. This is precisely because consequences (obviously) matter. If one were to face a truly knife-edge decision of great, er, consequence, then the failure mode of utilitarian reasoning would be all-or-nothing, but that’s because of the grave situation one is in, and the same applies to any other ethical approach. But that is of course quite the opposite of a ‘runaway’ failure. (Please excuse my irritating philosophical habit of dumping unadorned abstractions on the reader. See 1.)

3. I don’t suppose anyone is really an inconsequentialist. Perhaps Libertarianism, thogh only a political, quasi-legal doctrine and not an all-encompassing ethic, comes closest to attempting a mechanistic moral system in which only intrinsic features of bodily actions are of interest. For the rest of us, actions are partly defined by their consequences – whether from the external, evaluative perspective (in which case we take into account the intentions, beliefs etc of the actor, and categorise their action accordingly) or from the ethical perspective of the person deciding what to do (in which case we obviously don’t).

4. The Doctrine of Double Effect is of interest here – in fact I think it is the ideal entry point through which to approach these issues. The general function of the DDE is to clarify the interaction between ‘side constraints’ or absolute prohibitions on the one hand, and on the other the general requirement to promote good ends. This is of interest here only as an illustration of something that should be obvious – that whatever ethical system you come up with, however incorrigibly rigid the duties it posits (and what could possibly go wrong there?), you will really need to allow for some opn-ended responsibiity to promote good ends in a way that can’t be neatly axiomatised in supposedly inconsequentialist terms. Specifically the DDE’s function is precisely to try to delimit the scope of deontic rules, so as to ensure that prima facie moral dilemmas can be resolved. (This is where trolley cases might be used to illustrate the kind of thing I mean. we shall not indulge ourselves.) Since every act has consequences propagating out through the future, and since some of these consequences may be of a ‘wrongmaking’ kind yet others ‘rightmaking’, we’d better try and decide which consequences take precedence in characterising a certain contemplated course of action. I can’t possibly go into the whole topic here; the point for now is just that the idea of workable deontological constraints is far from straightforward and in particular depends on that of what ? Bennett calls ‘The Act Itself’. There are other consequence-excluding principles which tend to get tangled and confused with the DDE – for example, the doing/allowing distinction and the novus actus interveniens principle. Neither is entirely convincing, but in any case this stuff is not at all straightforward. (Just out of interest, the first of these is rejected by Asimov in formulating the First Law of Robotics; the second would be relevant to the example provided by Watson Ladd (is this right? – ed)

5. So why do people hate utilitarianism (do they? The question does come up much, I shouldn’t think, outside push-polls or discussions which invite hasty adversarial postures). One aspect is its demandingness. In reality, Le Guin has it backwards. The child is not in Omelas, but thousands of miles away, and there is no grand bargain of unexplained origin to provide a cast-iron case of direct moral resposibility, but only a huge messy world of interconnected causes. And, of course, Omelas is not perfect but only gets cheaper iPhones and a new disposable T-shirt every day, while the child is actually rather a lot of children, and not, should this be deemed relevant, ‘feeble-minded’. Trying to do your best to promote the general good, for every moment of every day, without any restriction on the scope of this duty, is not easy. In that context, it’s quite comforting to rely on a mish-mash of vague precepts, gut feelings, internalised legal principles, and one or two not-too-costly Uncompromising Principles. Certainty about the things we can’t ignore, a licence to neglect those we can. There is a lot in this it relates to wearestrangemonkey’s remark and the odd mentions of things like hierarchy and the defence of slavery, too. But there’s really no excuse for it. The less ‘applied’, media-friendly utilitarian philosophers (Fred Feldman being an obvious example) are concerned that we don’t become overwhelmed by the complexities of the causal web we find ourselves in, nor hold ourselves to genuinely unrealistic standards, nor over-indulge in self-loathing after we fail to be maximally good utilitarians. Just to mention again the crucial, radical and very often overlooked internal/external distinction (cf. epistemology), between ethical deliberation and the judging of past conduct: the point of utilitarianism is to decide how to act, not how to dole out opprobrium. Unless you’re a Blame Utilitarian, I suppose.

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geo 11.05.13 at 5:30 am

SoU @123: [In] a consequentialist system, you have to make judgements about outcomes, which requires specification of causal mechanisms, understandings of social patterns and unintended effects, etc etc.

Exactly. But that’s how one makes policy decisions in any system, or for that matter in personal life. Consequentialism/utilitarianism is simply, as I’ve been pointing out, a null hypothesis, a codification of everyday practice, a thumbing of one’s nose at the idea of a metaphysical foundation for moral/political judgment.

127

ZM 11.05.13 at 6:12 am

So, you’re basically saying utilitarians muddle through like anyone else then, without access to the full consequences of actions?

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geo 11.05.13 at 6:14 am

Matt: Mill was really quite ambivalent about democracy as we’d normally understand it

Mill, Representative Government, ch III: “There is no difficulty in showing that the ideally best form of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general. …

“From all these accumulated considerations it is evident that the only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state is one in which the whole people participate; that any participation, even in the smallest public function, is useful; that the participation should everywhere be as great as the general degree of improvement of the community will allow; and that nothing less can be ultimately desirable than the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state.”

Yes, he favored a literacy requirement. But no one was a more zealous advocate of universal literacy. I really think it’s a considerable overstatement to call him “quite ambivalent about democracy as we’d normally understand it.”

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geo 11.05.13 at 6:17 am

Yes, of course, ZM. As someone pointed out above, knowing “the full consequences of actions” is utterly impossible.

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William Timberman 11.05.13 at 6:21 am

geo @ 120

I understand your no in thunder, and I’m not entirely out of sympathy with it, but I still disagree to this extent: if we’re going to dispense with the metaphysical basis of ethical certainty, we still need a way to avoid hubris. To put it another way, if we’re going to replace God, we have to do at least as good a job as He supposedly did. To put it yet another way, when you live outside the law, you must be honest.

Yes, if we had democracy, I suppose we could manage this better, and have at least a modest chance of avoiding that questionable certainty which inevitably leads to nastiness, but we ain’t got democracy, and at this point, we don’t know how to get it.

When God was still supposedly in the saddle, the evils people visited on one another often rested on explicit — and false — metaphysical justifications, that’s true enough. In our age, with God safely out of the way, the Masters of the Universe look in their syllabus of modern plausibility and offer us consequentialist justifications for similar sorts of evils which, as often as not, are equally false. Null hypothesis or not, we’ve all of us still got a lot of ‘splainin to do. If the metaphysicians are certified as hors de combat, and the consequentialists fall short in practice despite their splendor in theory, just who are we gonna call?

Or isn’t that what this whole thread’s been about?

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geo 11.05.13 at 6:33 am

William: Eloquent, as always. But consequentialists don’t have a theory. Consequentialism is an anti-theory, a demystification of the idea of moral theory. As a kind of radical pragmatism, it tries to show that theory, unlike poetry, makes nothing happen; that we’re on our own, and have always been on our own, though we haven’t always known it.

BTW: it wasn’t quite accurate to say that Mill favored a literacy requirement. He favored, as Matt said, an education premium. But again, no one was more zealous for universal education than Mill.

Good night.

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js. 11.05.13 at 6:48 am

a good utilitarian (operating in full deliberative mode, as one should be when considering great matters of public policy) would be extremely well-attuned to the need to use evidence, and to change course as new evidence comes to light

A good utilitarian is a problematic kind of thing, tho for me to explain why would take a comment about as long as yours (and while I quite enjoy your comments, composing one of similar length would take me far too long). But look, show me one convincing rebuttal to either the Rawlsian or the Williams-style critique. You don’t even have to summarize it, just point me to it—if it’s reasonably well known, I’d hope I already know it. Utilitarianism is a well-worked out view about moral evaluation (and maybe deliberation, tho that is a significantly more difficult task for utilitarians), and if there’s a convincing defense of the aggregation/maximization principles that are a necessary part of such a view, then I don’t know it. If you don’t think maximization principles are necessary, then I’d submit you don’t understand utilitarianism is. (That consequences matter is indeed a null hypothesis; utilitarianism most certainly isn’t.)

(Re no. 4: Philippa Foot is turning in her grave.)

133

ZM 11.05.13 at 6:53 am

Would a “good” utilitarian be a happy utilitarian? Or something else? I thought utilitarianism didn’t so much have an idea of the good as such?

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js. 11.05.13 at 6:58 am

Consequentialism is an anti-theory, a demystification of the idea of moral theory. As a kind of radical pragmatism, it tries to show that theory, unlike poetry, makes nothing happen; that we’re on our own, and have always been on our own, though we haven’t always known it.

Sorry, but this is completely false. Just for example, Mill starts out in Utilitarianism by bemoaning the fact that there’s no “science” of morality (best understood along the lines of Wissenschaft), and it’s his ambition to correct this. Utilitarianism, consequentialism, or whatever, is just as much a foundationalist moral theory with a grounding principle, etc., as any other moral theory advanced in the history of philosophy. If you want anti-theory, you’d do better with Jonathan Dancy, etc. (Sorry to get rather obscure, but there are genuine anti-theory types in moral philosophy, but they’d be caught dead before describing themselves as utilitarians.)

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 7:12 am

@dsquared Fair to point out that JS Mill was among the strongest critics of English policy regarding the Irish Famine

136

John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 7:16 am

“But look, show me one convincing rebuttal to either the Rawlsian or the Williams-style critique.”

The most convincing response to Rawls is that he is really just offering a variant on utilitarianism, based on a more general theory of choice under uncertainty (rank-dependent rather than EU) with a correspondingly more general social welfare function. In any case, he’s a consequentialist.

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00148955#page-1

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Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 8:06 am

“Rawls is that he is really just offering a variant on utilitarianism, based on a more general theory of choice under uncertainty ….”

Really? Of course there are consequentialist elements in Rawls (there are in any sane theory) but I think what we’re seeing from you in those remarks, John, is the propensity of economists to translate other theories into their own idiom. Translation accomplished, such theories may either be assimilated or “refuted”. Such translations may or may not resemble the original in vital respects, caveat emptor, etc.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.05.13 at 8:08 am

Geo: ” It simply amounts to the assertion that there is no metaphysical or theological basis of morality: no “natural rights,” no “transcendental ground,” no non-banal way of justifying any moral choice.”

Suppose you’re driving on a road, it’s 3 am, you’re not in a hurry. You’re approaching a traffic light, and it turns red. The moon is shining, and you can see a mile in every direction: there are no cars, no pedestrians, no dogs, no cats. Do you stop? If you do, why? Notice that there is nothing metaphysical or supernatural about the traffic light.

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roy belmont 11.05.13 at 8:13 am

Donald Johnson 118-
what sort of madmen actually sit around and talk about whether or not it’d be a good idea to kill children with disabilities?
It’s hard to tell there in the midst of all that irony, but if you’re serious, probably every successful nomadic people that ever lived, not so much talked about it, as did it. Plus the Greeks. Plus a lot of other settled, civilized cultures.
In the extreme you have odd superstitious tribal practices like the killing of one of a pair of twins. But the baseline is/was too much drag on a way of life that can’t carry the extra weight and survive, or thinks it can’t.
The severely handicapped aren’t all being cared for even now anyway. The ones that are dying just aren’t making headlines. But the general attitude is certainly that it’s inhumane to even consider eugenic practice, and it is, now, when we have so much surplus material and time.
Our contemporary attitudes toward the permanently infirm, as a whole class rather than as individual freaks, seem to be pretty anomalous, and have a lot more to do with ease and availability of compensatory care and technologies than moral enlightenment.
It wasn’t til way deep in the Industrial Revolution that society could pride itself on caring for someone like John Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, as a moral act of compassion, as opposed to revering him as a monster/god/oracle etc. Or leaving him out to die.
And of course the lower end of that society exhibited him as an object of cathartic degradation before his rescue.

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ZM 11.05.13 at 8:26 am

“When I first heard about the latter charge I was shocked, for much of the film’s primal force resides in what I would call its radical humanism, which goes beyond anything I can think of in western cinema. It would be fascinating as well as instructive to pair The House is Black with Tod Browning’s 1932 fiction feature Freaks — which oscillates between empathy and pity for its real-life cast of midgets, pinheads, Siamese twins, and a limbless “human worm,” among others, and feelings of disgust and horror that are no less pronounced. By contrast, Farrokhzad’s uncanny capacity to regard lepers without morbidity as both beautiful and ordinary, objects of love as well as intense identification, offers very different challenges, pointing to profoundly different spiritual and philosophical assumptions.”
Jonathon Rosembaum ” Radical Humanism and the coexistence of film and poetry in The House is Black”

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ZM 11.05.13 at 8:43 am

As I said in Ingrid’s Economics and Morality thread, I’ve been reading Pareto to try to work out what he said about his efficiency principle equation. So far I haven’t come across it. But I have read him somewhat on utility – specifically “the final degree of utility of instrumental goods of various orders”, relating to someone called Menger’s idea of there being various orders of goods. Now, I don’t endorse Pareto, or follow his equations, but his writing is better than I’d expected (and quite frequently amusing).

Pareto: “Tis fact is true, and in some circumstances it is very useful to keep it in mind in order to dismantle many of the sophisms that dog the science of economics, but it cannot be denied that by following that path, when we really wish to know those final degrees of utility, we are led into a very prickly jungle, so thick with difficulties that we can no longer extricate ourselves.
Let us suppose we have to investigate the utility of sheet iron produced in England. That sheet iron will be bought by a ship builder. The ship will be acquired by a ship owner. A trader will charter the ship and load her with cotton. That cotton will be spun in Manchester, the yarn will be taken to Italy and used to make some fabric, which to cut a long story short, will end up in the hands of the consumer.
The degree if utility if that sheet iron is nothing but the degree of utility of that fabric and other similar direct consumption objects that will be procured by means of the ship!
It can be understood how, when they see themselves being pushed into such a thick jungle, many resist and reject theories of Pure Economics. In our opinion, it is necessary to study diligently all that is reasonable in their objections and treasure it, and it is not beneficial to reject them haughtily as contrary to our theory; for a theory that cannot bow to practice is not only useless, but also noxious.”

Unfortunately it goes on for a bit and concludes with therefore: free competition!

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Collin Street 11.05.13 at 9:02 am

But consequentialists don’t have a theory.

Please tell me this is a joke.

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not a utilitarian 11.05.13 at 9:52 am

Many above would be helped by the distinction between a decision procedure and a criterion of rightness. Does your objection target utilitarianism as a direct comprehensive decision procedure in some situation? Then it is likely an objection that there are several plausible utilitarian replies to.

For example, the question Mao Cheng Ji #138 asks could be answered like so: it has good consequences if people internalize the traffic rules to such a depth that we hesitage to override them in a situation where the only benefit from override would be a very small time saving. That is the reason that justifies why we have a systems and social norms in place that function to produce the right depth of internalization of that rule. But it would be awful if people saw traffic rules as absolute. If you can prevent serious injury by breaking a traffic rule, without thereby running a big risk of even worse injuries, then you should break the rule. There is no objection with real bite against utilitarianism as a criterion fo rightness in any of that. However, any non-consequentialist has a lot to answer in relation to such cases: why is it ever allowed to override a supposedly non-consequentialistically justified rule? What explains exactly where the “override line” is drawn? Give a plausible answer to that *without* falling back on consequentialism. Start with that small task and keep at it for a few years and you may have dug yourself a hole so deep that you can publish it as a book called “Intricate Ethics”.

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Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 10:24 am

And @JohnQ #136

Now I’m in work and can download the paper you link to, I see “This paper
is concerned with a class of social welfare orderings which have characteristics of Rawls’ difference principle and Bentham’s utilitarian rule at the same time. “

How does a paper concerned only with the lexically subordinate second part of Rawls’s principles serve to establish the claim that “he is really just offering a variant on utilitarianism”? At most, it could serve to establish the claim that Rawls ranks *some* states of affairs by an outcome-based criterion (actually, he ranks institutions that pass a meet a series of prior criteria by a propensity-to-generate-an-outcome, but let’s not fuss). Moreover, js’s remark, to which you were responding, was specifically directed to utiltarianism’s maximizing and aggregating character. To be genuinely responsive you would have to show that Rawls’s view (contra his representation of it) shares those characteristics. which you can’t, because it doesn’t.

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 10:47 am

” think what we’re seeing from you in those remarks, John, is the propensity of economists to translate other theories into their own idiom”

Probably right, but maybe more like a transposition (in the chess sense) than translation. To spell this out, I can do an optimization exercise for an ex ante representative individual with generalized EU preferences (the way Harsanyi does with EU to derive utilitarianism) and come up with the same ranking of institutions as Rawls proposes. So, from a consequentialist viewpoint, Rawls is the same as a generalized utilitarian.

Does it matter that Rawls reaches this conclusion from a different starting point, or that he represents it differently, and if so, to whom does it matter? As a consequentialist, I’d say no, but perhaps I’m begging the question.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.05.13 at 10:50 am

“For example, the question Mao Cheng Ji #138 asks could be answered like so: it has good consequences if people internalize the traffic rules to such a depth that we hesitate to override them in a situation where the only benefit from override would be a very small time saving.”

This sounds to me like a trick similar to “humans always act in self-interest, because even when they act altruistically that’s only because it makes them feel good”. It seems to me that if in the scenario I described you stop, then you’re not a (pure) utilitarian. There is no utilitarian logic to stop: no logic for you to stop. And the logic you described is actually anti-utilitarian.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.05.13 at 11:02 am

“And the logic you described is actually anti-utilitarian.”

…I mean, it’s still small-u utilitarian, but it’s anti-Utilitarian, which is what we are talking about here (thanks to the Albert Jay guy in the OP): expediency vs. taste and manners.

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Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 11:03 am

John, take some activity, dancing, cooking, whatever …. Suppose someone says, I can formalize your movements such that I can represent them as maximizing some function F. Well maybe they can do that. But they aren’t entitled to draw the conclusion that the dancer or the cook was aiming at the maximization of that function all along, that that is what they were essentially doing.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 11:50 am

CB: But Rawls does actually frame the diff principle in that way: that people under uncertainty would – or should – choose maximin rather than ‘maxi-mean’. This is his big departure from classical-style maximising utilitarianism, really (though I think the extended ‘OP’ metaphor tends to mislead, suggesting that ATOJ is, in some fundamentally anti-utilitarian way, contractualist – I do not suggest you are thus misled.)

But Rawls’s actual argument constructs a basic framework for the laws of a putatively just regime (utilitarian judges and officials would not of course just be instructed to maximise utility), using basic human goods as the foundation of a detailed consequentialist justification for all the features of the theory, such as the priority of liberty. This is not much different from Mill.

Along the way we get a convincing utilitarian reconciliation of fairness in constructed law with the existence of realistic ‘utility monsters’: expensive tastes are largely learned, so not to be indulged as real needs. Can’t recall if explicit, but there’s an obvious strategic/incentive rationale there, just as there is for punishment under utilitarianism. Similarly, envy gets discussed, not entirely satisfactorily – R after all being a fairly conventional kind of econ. liberal, but the idea that other-regarding preferences are akin to double-counting and not to be accounted for is there, and IIRC goes back to Mill. Generally, all of Rawls’s arguments for his chosen system are based on promoting the human good in a way that’s pretty much utilitarian. (I’m inclined to agree with geo at least as far as to say that utilitarianism – of one flavour or another – is really just what falls out once we accept that there aren’t any fundamental, specific absolute duties which would conflict with utilitarianism, and yet we should be impartial and concerned to promote the good and avoid the bad.)

Found a handy short summary of R’s arguments against U-ism, here: http://pages.pomona.edu/~mjg14747/033-2006/RawlsUtilitarianism.shtml which seems roughly accurate AFAIR. All the arguments, which aren’t too compelling anyway, seem to rest on the idea of a social system of rules whose content rather than justification is utilitarian.

If so, then that oversight can provide an explanation of why Rawls thought he was overturning utilitarianism when in fact he may not have been really. There are also utilitarian reasons to adopt maximin positions with respect to the distribution of rival goods, e.g. diminishing marginal utility. It’s at least open to us to speculate that R had these kind of considerations, many of which can be intuitively grasped, in the back of his mind, but it doesn’t really matter much if we’re considering how well he did at rejecting utilitarianism, rather than whether he was embracing it (which he clearly wasn’t).

js. – Williams’ arguments hve always seemed pretty weak – I can’r even remember the details, and my books are not at hand. I don’t rate Williams really. IIRC, it was a combination of ‘we have limitations and form affections, etc’- which is fine and a utilitarian will take those into account, and enjoin us to do so – and being squeamish – even rather priggish – about getting one’s hands dirty when in extremis.

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Sam Clark 11.05.13 at 12:10 pm

Sorry to butt in, butTim Wilkinson seems importantly wrong about a couple of things:

though I think the extended ‘OP’ metaphor tends to mislead, suggesting that ATOJ is, in some fundamentally anti-utilitarian way, contractualist

But ATOJ is fundamentally anti-utilitarian, in justification not just in content: it requires that the social regime be justifiable to each person individually, by meeting her own (suitably pruned) interests. This is impartial (that’s what the veil of ignorance dramatizes), but it’s not impartial in the same way as utilitarianism, because it’s not agent-neutral. And it’s that feature that gets Rawls the non-utilitarian content of his principles of justice, if anything does.

I don’t rate Williams really. IIRC, it was a combination of ‘we have limitations and form affections, etc’- which is fine and a utilitarian will take those into account, and enjoin us to do so – and being squeamish – even rather priggish – about getting one’s hands dirty when in extremis.

Williams explicitly says that Jim should pull the trigger in the ‘Jim and the Indians’ thought-experiment. The point is to show that the utilitarian moral psychology and account of rational deliberation are too simple, not that the utilitarian is wrong about what Jim should do.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 12:50 pm

Well, maybe I don’t recall correctly on Williams, then – I’ve got that Smart /Williams thing somewhere, but not handy at present. I just remember a lot of gubbins about integrity and motivation which (I do recall concluding) any reasonably sophisticated utilitarian would take into account anyway so far as it wasn’t just preciosity (which it partly was). But probably my dim recollections should be put aside at this point – over to you to explain.

The Rawls stuff – it requires that the social regime be justifiable to each person individually, by meeting her own (suitably pruned) interests – but what he actualy delivers doesn’t do that in any real way (certainly not in any real way that constrasts with a utilitarian-designed system), does it. Even the worst off is only assured that there could not have been a better worst-off position – that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be better off under another system. In other words, it doesn’t address the particular individual, only the structural features of the situation.

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Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 12:56 pm

Tim: as I mentioned above, the fact that Rawls’s frames the DP “in that way” hardly establishes that he’s a consequentialist, given its subordinate role in the theory. Further, the claim that maximin is fundamental to the justification of the DP (as opposed to the prior principles) is, at the very least, disputed – to my mind convincingly – by people like Samuel Freeman.

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matt 11.05.13 at 1:00 pm

geo: Rawls was an opponent of utilitarianism, but his account was not meant to “justify morality.” He also went so far as to claim that his view had no metaphysical content at all. That is, he agreed with you that “we are on our own.”

In any case, the notion that we are on our own is of course a metaphysics, a claim about what really is. It should be scrutinized like any other metaphysics.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 1:47 pm

CB – well the DP is subordinate only to the ‘most extensive system of equal liberty’ bit, which could almost have come from Mill and (again ‘IIRC’ – a sign I should shut up about this, probably) isn’t argued at any great length nor in distinctively non-utilitarian terms.

Also, if @152 is suggesting that Rawls’s account of the DP should be reconstructed in terms other than those he uses, then it’s hard to see why one should entirely rule out the idea that he’s actually proposing an indirect utilitarian account, even though he is opposed to a society based on the ‘principle of utility’. I looked up Freeman and he did the Stanford entry, in which he says following the maximin rule of choice results in choice of the principles of justice over the principles of utility (average or aggregate) – if (if) this accurately represents Rawls, then there is a clear failure to compare like with like there – it should really be ‘… over the principles of justice that would be constructed on a utilitarian (expected utility) approach’. If (again, if) Rawls views the position he’s arguing against in this way, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that a more rounded view might actually be compatible with, or even reconstructable from, his own position.

But I’m in danger of arguing for a position I’m not that committed to now which is sign no 2 that I should shu

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UserGoogol 11.05.13 at 3:04 pm

Donald Johnson@118: Peter Singer didn’t just bring up the topic of killing disabled infants out of sheer whimsy. If you look at his writings (say, Practical Ethics) he’s looking at the more general topic of euthanasia and how it is already a topic of debate. Starting out with “easy” topics such as when an adult is perfectly capable of expressing their desire to die or when a child is going to die soon either way and we just want to make their death more painless, he then generalizes “well, what if an infant won’t die right away but will still live a life which is significantly less enjoyable than the average one?” and then comes to his more controversial conclusion.

In general, Peter Singer’s writings are very much focused on issues which are already active topics of non-academic discussion. He doesn’t just run around looking for what moral norms he can use utilitarianism to tear down.

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geo 11.05.13 at 3:42 pm

js @134: By “theory” I meant foundational moral theory. In the opening pages of Utilitarianism, Mill writes: “I shall attempt to contribute something towards the understanding and appreciation of the Utilitarian or Happiness theory and towards such proof as it is susceptible of. It is evident that this cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term. Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. The medical art is proved to be good by its conducing to health, but how is it possible to prove that health is good? The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it produces pleasure, but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good? If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that whatever else is good is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula may be accepted or rejected, but it is not a subject of what is commonly understood by proof.”

By “comprehensive formula,” Mill means exactly what deontologists/intuitionists like Kant, Nagel, Dworkin et al mean by their self-evident, incorrigible, eternally subsisting truths about the Good and the Beautiful. That is, a foundational theory. He rejects all such theories. (Though as he also points out, there’s no reason to give up using “theory” or “proof” in their less metaphysical sense.) That is one reason why James claimed Mill as a forerunner of pragmatism, and Rorty probably had Mill’s example in mind when the coined the phrase “the priority of democracy to philosophy.”

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not a utilitarian 11.05.13 at 3:54 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @146: “This sounds to me like a trick … if in the scenario I described you stop, then you’re not a (pure) utilitarian”

If you by “pure utilitarian” mean someone who always uses a direct comprehensive utilitarian decision procedure then you are right and every utilitarian would agree with you on that. This brings us back to the distinction between decision procedures and a criterion of rightness.

Most contemporary utilitarians, by my counting, accept the theory as a criterion of rightness and many would see no trouble in agreeing that we as a means need various other decision procedures, rules, norms, habits, institutions, virtues, technologies etcetera in practical decision making but that that set of tools should be repeatedly assessed and modified with an eye to the criterion of optimific outcomes. So the utilitarian and the non-consequentialist alike want rules to play some part in their ethical system. The utilitarian however have a systematic way of arguing for which rules and how and why they should be revised and traded-off against each other. That is a very attractive and powerful feature in an ethical theory.

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not a utilitarian 11.05.13 at 4:02 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @146: in addition to my last post, I want to illustrate that Peter Singer is no stranger to reasoning that uses utilitarianism as a criterion of rightness and from that assesses other rules, habits, ways of thinking, etceterea. From Practical Ethics 3rd edition, p.236. The context is climate change policies and arguments:

“For non-consequentialists, the complicity principle is relevant here.
If the government’s emissions trading scheme does not cut greenhouse
gas emissions to a point at which there is no further danger of serious
damage to the planet’s climate – and at the time of writing, no country
has implemented a scheme that will cut greenhouse gases sufficiently to
eliminate such risks – then to continue to emit greenhouse gases, even at
a level consistent with the government’s scheme, is still to participate in
a wrongful practice that will harm others. A non-consequentialist could
therefore hold that our intentional participation in this practice is wrong,
even if cutting one’s own emissions to zero would have no impact on
the total amount of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere. This
is a kind of ‘I’m keeping my hands clean, anyway, even if it makes no
difference’ approach that is difficult to justify on direct consequentialist
grounds, but some successful movements for change have their origins
in the actions of those who resist evil without really giving themselves any
chance of making a difference. A resolutely non-consequentialist stance
can have good consequences. Perhaps our sense that it is objectionable
to be complicit in a harmful practice, even if our own actions make no
difference, has arisen because it will sometimes have best consequences
if people act as if they were non-consequentialists.”

Again, this is a very powerful feature of utilitarianism. It can adapt what at first glance seemed to belong to the competing view and give that thing an indirect justification within a consequentialist structure.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 4:08 pm

js./San Clark – had a quick look at what looks like pretty close notes on Williams – http://www2.drury.edu/cpanza/williams.pdf

And – assuming it’s accurate enough (Williams is not philosophically heavy going, after all) it’s essentially as I remembered, including the bit where he gets all precious about getting dirty hands in extremis. I won’t go through the whole thing, but I did notice that he seems to advert both to the doing/allowing distinction and the novus actus principle as artificial consequence-limiting principles. And it’s very clear in this case that this move is based on the external, evaluative aspect of morality and not on ethical decision from the standpoint of the agent; the very confusion I refer to above. In particular,this seems to get him into a horrible and entirely avoidable mess where the (agent-) evaluation- but not decision- relevant issue of remorse/regret/reluctance and the nature of the actor’s own moral code as seen from ‘outside’…

In general,Williams argues, it seems, against Blame Utilitarianism, but not Act Utilitarianism. Not that act utilitarianism is the general standard for beings like us, but in a hard case with time to think, it does apply I think (unlike, in the absence of any emergency etc., the case of the red light, something designed to assist epistemically-limited agents in the avoidance of hidden hazards). Even then, assessment of conseuqences must so far as feasible be all-things-considered: the effects of setting a bad example, having nightmares, incremental formation of bad habits etc are all consequences. Even ‘will I be blamed’ comes into it – but not ‘I will be blameworthy’ as the primary issue from which the ethical decision is derivative. That is backwards. I could go on but lack time, and the flow of discussion doesn’t quite merit doing so at this point anyway.

Anyway, besides that massive foul-up, Williams’s arguments are not so much anti-utilitarian as anti-oversimplified or perverse utilitarianism, and his arguments about what is valuable to people really end up being utilitarian themselves (though he gets the weightings wrong in the Jim example, IMO).

js. – It seems to me that once you concede that consequences matter, you will end up having to allow all consequences to matter (again from the actor’s perspective). This is of course a schematic overview rather than an argument – that argument could be had Then the issue of maximisation/aggregation of consequences, in order to choose the best/least bad course of action, is pretty much forced upon you.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 4:09 pm

‘Sam Clark’; sorry

161

bianca steele 11.05.13 at 4:44 pm

I agree with geo that utilitarianism is all we’ve got and is quite good enough. (I disagree with his take on the value and availability of theories, which strikes me as overly romantic and not even necessarily required by pragmatism to the extent he’s going with it.) Unfortunately, what we too often end up with is plain acceptance of existing institutions as is, justified by assumption that the existing institutions were formed by utilitarian(-like) considerations in the past, and by assumption that present critique based utilitarian(-like) considerations can modify those institutions for the future. I don’t see how Rawls fits in there, but presumably he has a position on it.

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Sam Clark 11.05.13 at 4:44 pm

Tim Wilkinson – let me admit that I’m working from memory here too. But I wasn’t thinking just of the section of the Smart/Williams book, which is indeed pretty gestural, but also of Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy and Moral Luck. My take is that in his deliberately unsystematic way, Williams has an important criticism both of utilitarianism as a rational decision procedure, and of the usual way out of criticism, the distinction between a decision procedure and a criterion of moral correctness (mentioned upthread).

But I’m also at risk of defending something I don’t buy – I am, I suppose, some sort of utilitarian – so perhaps I’d better leave it at that.

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Metatone 11.05.13 at 5:36 pm

I don’t have a lot to add to the technical debates here, but I’m surprised (since I often disagree) to find myself largely agreeing with SebastianH upthread.

I’d refine it to say that the reason utilitarian is unpopular with a “general audience” is that too many “public utilitarians” (for whatever that means, analogy is “public intellectuals”) do slippery things either with their axioms, or with their assumed utility functions. That leaves people with an instinctive distrust.

On Singer, he is intentionally a provocative presence – and as someone else said – that’s perhaps what “public philosophers” are for in part.

I haven’t read that much of his stuff but my impression is that a big part of his provocation is the elevation of a certain kind of consistency to be the ultimate virtue. The trouble with this on technical grounds is that utility functions are not invariant. The trouble on “normal living” grounds is that we tend to live lives of overlapping/competing axioms. Public philosophers like Singer don’t like that, but they rarely engage with it, as it distracts from the purity of their “gotchas.” (As dsquared notes – their addiction to the gotcha seems very similar to that of many economists – and seems to stem from similar misunderstandings about utility functions and competing axioms.)

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Metatone 11.05.13 at 5:51 pm

I forgot, but am reminded by Chris Bertram’s latest: another way utilitarian thinking got a bad name was by some practitioners quietly changing the population over which utility was being aggregated to get a particular result.

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dsquared 11.05.13 at 7:38 pm

In these discussions, I think it’s worth _something_ to remember that, at an important time, the utilitarians were strong opponents of slavery

Although conversely, with the exception of Mill, an awful lot of people who got it right over slavery got it wrong over Ireland. (Carlyle’s infamous “Occasional Discourse” actually makes a lot of this – at one point in that extraordinary and disgusting document, he actually argues that one of the bad things about emancipation is that it would reduce the slaves to the condition of Irishmen, I am not joking).

The trouble with utiliarianism is not so much that it’s a technocratic system (although it always does have tendencies that way, particularly when combined with an excessive admiration of scientists, technocrats, planners or economists), but that it’s a way of turning factual mistakes into moral mistakes. The fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Washington Consensus provided ample examples of people who really should have thought to themselves “Gosh, it’s a shame that my scheme for the betterment of mankind appears to be impossible to get a democratic polity to agree to, guess that means I’ll have to settle for second best because interfering in other peoples’ political self determination is wrong”.

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 7:43 pm

I generally agree with Tim W @149.

Chris @148 As I’ve pointed out before, maximization is a red herring in these debates. Any ranking of any set of objects based on their characteristics maximizes some function of those characteristics.

http://crookedtimber.org/2007/09/17/rationality-and-utility/

The crucial point is that Rawls argument is based on maximizing the minimum utility of a (suitably abstracted) representative individual, and his argument for doing so is the claim that this is a sensible way to choose in any situation of uncertainty. Maximin is a particular (polar) case of the class of generalized expected utility functions – other assumptions about the best way to choose under uncertainty will give you other rules for ranking social institutions/outcomes.

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Harold 11.05.13 at 7:55 pm

“The Age of Chivalry is Gone” (as ironically described by Ariosto in 1515 or so)

Oh gran bontà dei cavalieri antiqui!
Eran rivali, eran di fe’ diversi,
e si sentian degli aspri colpi iniqui
per tutta la persona anco dolersi;
e pur tra selve oscure e calli obliqui
insieme van, senza sospetto aversi.

Translation:
O the great goodness of the knights of yore!
Rivals in love, one Christian and one Saracen,
Still smarting with sore wounds from their late duel,
And aching in each limb with bodily pain,
Through the dark woods and treacherous winding ways,
They unsuspecting rode on the same horse. — Orlando Furioso: I: 22 (1516-32)

[The rivals, Rinaldo and Ferrau (a muslim) ride off together on the same horse in pursuit of the fleeing pagan Chinese maiden, Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, whom they both love.]

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matt 11.05.13 at 8:02 pm

But the reason why Rawls’ argument is not utilitarian can be seen in his construction of the “original position.” No actual person is ever in fact in the original position. Its features are meant to build in requirements of fairness that cannot be justified on utilitarian grounds. Why should we agree to think of ourselves as choosing from behind a veil of ignorance? Only because we concede that this thought experiment captures what we mean by “fair.”

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 8:20 pm

@matt But, if people are/should be expected utility maximizers, the same construction gives you utilitarianism. So, it’s not the construction, it’s the assumption about choice under uncertainty

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ZM 11.05.13 at 8:32 pm

” if people are/should be expected utility maximizers”

Well , I guess you can argue about should be. In terms of are, the proof is in the pudding, as they say – so it just depends on what actually happens in the future as to whether people are true omniscient happiness maximisers or are something other than that.

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geo 11.05.13 at 8:40 pm

dsquared @164: “Gosh, it’s a shame that my scheme for the betterment of mankind appears to be impossible to get a democratic polity to agree to, guess that means I’ll have to settle for second best because interfering in other peoples’ political self determination is wrong”.

There’s a fairly straightforward utilitarian rebuttal to this argument: “Interfering in people’s self-determination almost always produces a bad result, for obvious reasons. You may have to override their life-decisions in cases where they would be endangering others — eg, if they refused to be vaccinated against a lethal and extremely contagious virus, which might thereby gain a foothold and devastate an entire community, and even then only if there was an overwhelming consensus of scientists to that effect. But schemes for the betterment of mankind are too speculative and uncertain to justify that kind of interference.” Whatever you think of this argument, it is unquestionably utilitarian. (As is every other moral argument, whether or not its proponents recognize that.)

And Daniel, I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but do you actually believe the champions of the Washington Consensus (or Soviet imperialism, for that matter) gave a rat’s *ss about the betterment of mankind? Your phrasing gave that impression.

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ZM 11.05.13 at 8:52 pm

moral arguments = utilitarian arguments
utility = morality
Transcendentalism = moral argument
Utility = transcendentality

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Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 8:53 pm

@johnQ “his argument for doing so is the claim that this is a sensible way to choose in any situation of uncertainty”

Without doing a lot of archaeology, I’d be hard pressed to claim that Rawls *never* said this, but I’m sure that his argument doesn’t rest on this general claim, rather his claim is that maximin is the rational strategy wrt to the protection of certain core interests under the assumptions of the OP. Clearly, adopting maximin in any situation of uncertainly leads to crazy results.

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dsquared 11.05.13 at 8:59 pm

do you actually believe the champions of the Washington Consensus (or Soviet imperialism, for that matter) gave a rat’s *ss about the betterment of mankind?

Well the only one I know to talk to is Brad DeLong and in his case yes, I’m pretty sure he did at the time. And I don’t think ex ante that anyone would have really recognised what they were doing as something with a bad track record.

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 9:10 pm

@Chris It may not be what Rawls actually meant (if we can ever find out this kind of thing) but my interpretation is a fairly standard one. For example, the SEP article on the Original Position states “Describing the parties’ choice as a rational choice subject to the reasonable constraints imposed by the original position allows Rawls to invoke the theory of rational choice and decision under conditions of uncertainty.”

There’s also a lot of emphasis on the absence of well-defined probabilities, which is hard to make sense of unless you think of this as a choice under uncertainty, in which case it seems reasonable to talk about generalized EU theories designed precisely to cover the case where probabilities aren’t well defined. These lead to a “maxmin EU” solution, as in the work of Gilboa and Schmeidler.

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Chris Bertram 11.05.13 at 9:16 pm

@JohnQ yes, I know it is fairly common. For example, Harsanyi says just this. But I don’t think it is correct, for all that.

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geo 11.05.13 at 9:23 pm

dsquared: I meant the people who ordered it up, not the people who worked out the details. There were also probably quite a few Soviet Communist intellectuals who believed in what they were doing, but as Brezhnev remarked (speaking, I suspect, on behalf of the Politburo) when queried about the invasion of Czechoslovakia: “Don’t talk to me about socialism. What we have, we keep!” This is probably closer to the spirit in which Bob Rubin and the Business Roundtable approached NAFTA than is the dewey-eyed idealism of gentle spirits like Brad.

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 9:26 pm

While we’re on Rawls, one thing that puzzles me a lot is that having taken what looks like an extreme egalitarian position, he seems to think that it’s consistent with the policy preferences of a moderately liberal (US sense) Democrat (US party sense).

That only works if you hold a strong version of trickle down theory. That is, with something reasonably close to the existing (when he wrote) US distribution of income, any further taxation of the rich would harm the poor.

This is very much a second-hand or third-hand view of Rawls, so feel free to set me straight.

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John Quiggin 11.05.13 at 9:30 pm

To follow up on this, a standard utilitarian position with log utility and plausible estimates of the “deadweight loss” from redistribution typically concludes that the top marginal rate of taxation should be around 80 per cent, since the marginal utility of extra consumption for the rich is effectively zero

Piketty and Saez don’t spell out their analysis here, but they do give the number

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/24/1percent-pay-tax-rate-80percent

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Matt 11.05.13 at 9:47 pm

John- Rawls himself said that he rejected “trickle-down” and the welfare state as compatible with his views, and said his account was compatible with “liberal socialism” or with “property-owning democracy”, but didn’t do a huge amount to explain what those came to. The idea of property-owning democracy has recently gotten a lot more attention, in particular in this recent book
I can’t say how well that really represents the views Rawls would have held, but the idea that he’s basically presenting a modest US left-liberal view is one that he, himself, rejected.

On maximin, he clarified (in Justice as Fairness, I think) that it’s only part of the reasoning for the difference principle (which is only one part of the principles of justice) and only applicable in rare cases. It’s certainly not meant to be a general principle for choice under uncertainty.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.05.13 at 10:19 pm

I had that impression, too – though I can’t trace it to any actual source, so this is not much confirmation – it may not even be entirely independent of your impression, given previous discussions here. I do have access to all my books and articles now so might have a poke around for evidence.

But I’m fairly sure that 1. R at least tries not to commit himself to any specific implementation of his principles in ATOJ, 2. he basically intends a capitalist market setup, 3. he doesn’t really envisage tax rates at that kind of level, 4. he holds the familiar (distinctly odd, to me) view that high tax rates should be expected to cause people to work less (or entrepreneurialise less). My being ‘fairly sure’ isn’t much help, I realise – I’ll report back if I get round to checking, and maybe at least mentioning these will spur input from someone who has better info.

Matt’s has popped up on refreshing the page – I’ll post this anyway fwliw.

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Matt 11.06.13 at 12:27 am

Just to follow up briefly, Rawls is explicit about rejecting “welfare state capitalism” in _Justice as Fairness_, on pp. 136-7. The discussion isn’t long and there are not as many details as one would like, but he says things like, “One major difference [between welfare state capitalism and his preferred view] is this: the background institutions of property-owning democracy work to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society form controlling the economy , and indirectly political life. By contrast, welfare state capitalism permits a small class to have a near monopoly of the means of production.” Liberal socialism is also said to be compatible with the 2 principles of justice.

In general, if people don’t want to take the time to read _A Theory of Justice_ but also don’t want to argue with a version of Rawls they have mostly made up, I’d recommend reading _Justice as Fairness_. It’s pretty short, not a hard read, and provides most of the main ideas.

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bianca steele 11.06.13 at 1:01 am

I’m fairly sure that many years ago, whether in college or afterward, I had the strong impression from lectures and reading that Rawls’ argument supports, what John Quiggin described as liberal Democratic party positions in the US sense, Ted Kennedy positions, no decrease in redistribution and probably an increase. The emphasis on liberty in various posts here at CT (and in this New York Review essay by Stuart Hampshire) are nowhere in any of the anthologized extracts from Rawls in any of the books I have.

If that’s not a “welfare state” or “welfare capitalism,” that seems to be quibbling about names to me. I don’t see how the debate between Rawls and Nozick (or Rawls and Sandel) has the significance it’s supposed to have if that’s not the case. I don’t see how Rorty’s apparent agreement with Rawls could be possible if that’s not the case. (On the other hand, Rorty has surprised me before; he seemed to agree with Oakeshott and never mentions Oakeshott is a conservative.) I have a couple things here I can check, but one is Rorty and I’m not sure how helpful they’ll be.

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js. 11.06.13 at 1:22 am

The crucial point is that Rawls argument is based on maximizing the minimum utility of a (suitably abstracted) representative individual, and his argument for doing so is the claim that this is a sensible way to choose in any situation of uncertainty.

This just isn’t true though. First, the two principles of justice taken together are supposed to ensure a fair distribution of a multiplicity of what Rawls calls basic goods, several of which are (in the relevant sense) incommensurate with each other so they cannot be reduced to one measure of “utility” that can be maximized, minimized, etc., with respect to an individual or an aggregate.

Secondly, the reference here is of course to the Difference Principle, which as CB and others have pointed out, is the lexically subordinate half of the lexically subordinate second principle of justice. Seriously, it’s subordinate twice over. And even after all that, it’s not clear that the subset of primary goods ensuring the provision of which is the job of the Difference Principle—that this subset of primary goods can be reduced to a utility function. (Obviously, I’d think, defining a function with an extensionally equivalent outcome is not at all the same as carrying out an explanatory reduction of the basic goods in question to the relevant utility function. And to show that Rawls is really at bottom a utilitarian, you need to do the latter.)

(Sorry about the jargon.)

185

ZM 11.06.13 at 1:27 am

js.
Is all the jargon simply saying the type of thing that Pareto wrote when he wrote “when we want to know those final degrees of utility, we are led into a very prickly jungle” ?

186

matt 11.06.13 at 1:49 am

Matt is right about Rawls’ endorsement of “property-owning democracy” and his critique of redistribution “from the left,” as it were. The welfare state isn’t wrong because it violates absolute property rights (there aren’t any!). It’s wrong because it fails to make flourishing as a citizen possible for all. It’s interesting because Rawls’ vision is pretty radically egalitarian relative to what he have now, *and* he thinks that vision is underwritten by the basic mainstream concensus about justice on the center-left.

187

Tony Lynch 11.06.13 at 2:01 am

I have a number of fiends who – influenced by Peter Singer – claim o be utilitarians. Singer says people like my friends ought to give 5-10% of their income to sufferers in developing countries. None of them do it. When pressed as to why they do not there are a range of responses.
One says, with a smile “Oh, I’m just a bad utilitarian!” He appears to feel no guilt or shame at this admission.
One says, “I can’t trust those charities to properly distribute my money, so I spend it on my kids, where I can be sure it’s raising their happiness.”
Another (who, in domestic politics, is left-progressive), says “Here (with developing countries) we just have to stand back and let capitalism’s invisible hand do its work.”
My points?
Utilitarianism is an “ethic” without real motivational grip on individuals (though it is a lovely language for power).
And it provides a seemingly endless array of self-justifications for whatever a person wants to do. or not to do, anyway.

188

Tony Lynch 11.06.13 at 2:02 am

fiends wasn’t intended! FRIENDS!

189

Consumatopia 11.06.13 at 2:23 am

Utilitarianism is an “ethic” without real motivational grip on individuals

Well, it can’t be much worse in that regard than the Sermon on the Mount.

190

js. 11.06.13 at 2:26 am

The jargon in my last comment is just to make it shorter, by the way (and writing it quicker).

And, ugh: “incommensurate” should be “incommensurable,” and any mention of “basic goods” is best replaced by “primary goods.” If I’m doing jargon, I might as well go all the way.

191

John Quiggin 11.06.13 at 11:03 am

” First, the two principles of justice taken together are supposed to ensure a fair distribution of a multiplicity of what Rawls calls basic goods, several of which are (in the relevant sense) incommensurate with each other so they cannot be reduced to one measure of “utility” that can be maximized, minimized, etc., with respect to an individual or an aggregate.”

I’ve never seen this asserted of Rawls (not that this proves anything) , but it’s obvious, to me at least, that the Difference principle can’t work in the presence of incommensurable primary goods, and moreover that the whole setup of the veil of ignorance is useless. If I can’t rank the position of two individuals, I can’t possibly compare social institutions. If health and wealth are incommensurable, is it good or bad to take money from the healthy poor and use it to give medical treatment to the unhealthy rich?

192

Chris Bertram 11.06.13 at 11:21 am

John, I confess to not really understanding your last comment, but let me have a go at helping with your remark “it’s obvious, to me at least, that the Difference principle can’t work in the presence of incommensurable primary goods.”

Primary goods are goods that are presumed to be of use to anyone, whatever their aims in life: they include not only wealth and income but also things like basic rights and liberties. Rights and liberties are not commensurable with wealth and income, but it is hard to see how this renders the DP unworkable, it just constrains the DP to work within boundaries established by the lexically prior principles governing other goods. So (to simplify) the first principle injuncts us only to select those basic structures for society that protect a list of basic liberties, the difference principle injuncts us to select from among that reduced set of basic structures the one that maximizes the expectations of the least advantage wrt wealth and income. (Rawls afficionados will note various quick and dirty moves there). It isn’t clear how the DP has been rendered “unworkable” by such a procedure.

193

Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 12:32 pm

Matt’s points @181 etc are indeed from Justice As Fairness, ’01. There’s also a revised ed of ATOJ from ’99 in existence, I see. Not forgetting Political Liberalism 93/96. I was only going on the 1st ed of ATOJ, which I have in fact read all of quite closely albeit years ago, along with related articles and some of the commentary and criticism then extant and subsequently some skimming through PL ’96.

There have certainly been substantial changes since the 72 edition, and indeed betweeen 99 and 01, which can account for differences in perceptions of ‘the’ argument, without anyone having to argue against things they have made up.

Still, much of the revision since 72 seems to have been in response to diverse criticism. Good, if it [1]refines and improves the theory (analogy: homing in on value of a physical constant), but not if it’s [2] more a case of patching it up with an increasingly Byzantine accretion of ad hoc arguments at the expense of coherence, plausibility etc. (analogy: epicycles). Even worse would be [3] nominal repudiation of positions which haven’t actually been eliminated (analogy: I’m not being racist, but…) – sometimes, supposed ‘clarifications’ have this character. Over 30 years, I’d expect a fair bit of the first, probably some of the 2nd, and possibly a few subtle forms of the 3rd, and from what I’ve seen so far I think that may be borne out to some extent.

Rawls’s opinions on the institutional implementation of the basic structure have certainly developed in what seems a fairly congenial way, though I don’t know what his property-owning democracy is, and his retention of the difference principle seems to suggest that he still has in mind the need for inequality as a condition for improving the lot of the worst off. That’s at least suggestive of the trickle down/rising tide/Laffer type of market-incentive argument. Still, all the things Matt mentions are indeed in JaF. I suppose that supersedes previous versions for the purpose of deciding what Rawls thought, from a biographical pov.

The matter’s complicated by the fact that R didn’t quite finish working the material up for publication as JaF, though the material was basically complete AFAICT, and this affected mainly parts IV and V, the latter not being all that relevant, I don’t think.

Another point regarding reconstructive interpretation. Rawls’s argumentation (even within a single version) is complex and sprawling, and tends to appeal to a range of considerations for collateral support, without actually relying on them. In some cases these come across as so much verbiage. One example is his specification of the notion of free and equal citizens as some kind of overarching principle. How does this relate to the OP set-up? What does it mean? What are its implications? We never (I don’t think) get a clear idea. That’s fine as a report of Rawls’s own informal concerns, or as an added plausibility-confirming bonus, but too much of that and trying to actually analyse and argue about the system becomes intractable. If there are a load of obiter dicta all over the place, and these are apt to be drawn on in rebuttal of criticisms or of unwelcome interpretations, then the thing beomces a take-it-or-leave it account (series of disparate accounts) of Rawls’s personal vision. That’s not really acceptable. Such inessential elements should, for analytical purposes, be excised so far as possible, and certainly shoudn’t be relied on for rebuttal. Otherwise Rawls can effectively disarm any criticism or interpretation by mere dictat. But saying it don’t make it so. This of course applies all the more if the dictat appears not to cohere with the rest of R’s vision.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 12:49 pm

wrt ATOJ 72 – I recall concluding that the liberties and opportunity clauses can be regarded as (degenerate) cases of maximin, and that pace Mill, different kinds of goods may be lexically ranked (given infinite relative weight) as one form of aggregation that is consistent with ‘incommensurability’ in the sense of the impossibility of trade-offs, or the lack of a common metric.

In the The Basic Liberties and Their Priority (in Political Liberalism 96, p.294) R states that ‘Basic liberties have absolute weight compared to reasons of pubic good’. He glosses the latter as the ‘utilitarian’ good. He distinguishes it from the liberties by appeal to the notion of the Right, but it’s unclear how this is supposed to fit into he OP setup. If the agent behind the veil is going to bring in ‘what is right’, doesn’t this undermine the very idea of choice under uncertainty? Without this incongruous appeal to the right, there seems to reason to exclude the basic liberties from the ambit of the utilitarian good – Mill, e.g. certainly wouldn’t do so.

A better way of looking at it might be to think of the basic liberties (which in PL he says can be traded off among themselves) as of their nature equally distributed; since there’s no way of increasing one persons’ (lesser) basic liberty by increasing the liberty of another, maximin won’t lead to a departure from equality – R clarifies (ibid.) that there’s no question of regarding the basic liberties as representing some continuous quantity of ‘liberty’.

In fact, R states (op. cit. p311), wrt freedom of conscience, that the veil of ignorance implies that the parties do not know whether the beliefs espoused by the persons they represnt is a majority or minority view. They cannot take chances by permitting a lessr iberty for minority religions, say, on the possibility that those they represent espouse a majority or dominant religion and will therefore hve an even greater majority. – Minimax?

195

Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 12:53 pm

Also – recall that the basic liberties have priority only under favourable circumstances: this doesn’t suggest a ‘though the heavens fall’ approach that seems to be suggested by bringing in the Priority of the Right as a fundamental principle. Under unfavourable circs, trade-offs between the liberties and, say, prosperity are in fact to be contemplated after all.

196

Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 1:06 pm

Sorry for multiple posts, but hve an even greater majority at the end of 193 should be ‘have an even greater liberty’.

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matt 11.06.13 at 1:44 pm

“He distinguishes it from the liberties by appeal to the notion of the Right, but it’s unclear how this is supposed to fit into he OP setup. If the agent behind the veil is going to bring in ‘what is right’, doesn’t this undermine the very idea of choice under uncertainty? Without this incongruous appeal to the right, there seems to reason to exclude the basic liberties from the ambit of the utilitarian good – Mill, e.g. certainly wouldn’t do so.”

The agents in the OP do not appeal to a notion of the right. Rather, the constraints of what would count as right are built into the structure of the OP. No real human being has ever been nor will ever be in the OP. (And of course, very few human beings are merely rational utility maximizers.) It’s a thought experiment.

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bianca steele 11.06.13 at 1:56 pm

FWIW, for those who don’t remember, the top tax rate in the US in 1974 was 77%, though as recently as eleven years earlier it had been 90%. When I was introduced to Rawls ten years later, it was 50% and by the time I graduated, it would be 38.5%.

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bianca steele 11.06.13 at 2:14 pm

Okay, this review by Peter Singer of Nozick’s book in the same journal as Hampshire’s, of Rawls, better matches what I remember hearing. Singer says that “Nonutilitarians not wishing to accept the conclusion that coercive redistribution of wealth is a serious violation of rights urgently require an alternative theory of rights,” A Theory of Justice being an attempt to provide such a theory. On the other hand, Singer concedes that the flaws Nozick finds really are in Rawls’s argument (though that doesn’t change the fact of what Rawls’s argument truly is, of course).

This paragraph in Singer’s review

Rawls attempted to solve this problem by arguing that if people in what he calls “the original position”—a hypothetical state of nature in which, to ensure impartial decision-making, people are assumed to be ignorant of their own talents and socio-economic status—were to choose the fundamental principles of justice to be followed in a newly formed society, one of the principles they would choose would be that inequalities are allowable only in so far as they improve the position of the worst-off group in the society.

meshes with my earlier impression that the original position is a device to encourage the rich to think of themselves as possibly being in the shoes of the poor.

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bianca steele 11.06.13 at 2:19 pm

As opposed to what some commenters here have suggested, which is that the conclusion that maximin is the correct distribution principle is a device to encourage the poor to accept that under another system they’d have it even worse. (Presumably they’re to take the existence of the argument leading to maximin, along with the economic assumptions that declare this to be the best possible system according to the maximin principle on faith, as even the outline of the argument is too long to put into an anthologized piece, much less getting the whole argument into a popular magazine article.)

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Sam Clark 11.06.13 at 2:40 pm

Since I’m teaching it this week, I’ll add that Peter Railton’s ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’ is both an excellent statement of a Williams-type critique, and an appealing utilitarian answer.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 3:42 pm

matt – Rather, the constraints of what would count as right are built into the structure of the OP. – supposedly, yes. So how does that help with making this fundamental distinction, on the basis of ‘the liberal conception of free and equal persons’, between the basic liberties and the goods covered by the DP; a distinction such that the latter could, but the former couldn’t, be seen as the kind of thing a utilitarian might include in its teleological conception of goodness? How is that distinction supposed to arise from the OP?

Point being that people are presenting the priority of liberty as a bar to presenting the liberties as the upshot of a utilitarian-type principle, even if the DP-goods like wealth could be (as in fact they can be).

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LFC 11.06.13 at 5:26 pm

I haven’t followed this whole thread, but istm that discussions of Rawls here often ignore his argument about moral psychology in the third part of TOJ (I refer to the ’71 ed., b/c that’s the one on my shelf). The argument doesn’t directly come into the argument for the two principles earlier in the book, but it clearly mattered to him, otherwise why would he have spent a couple of hundred pages on it? Conceivably one might dismiss a lot of this part of TOJ as “verbiage” (cf. T. Wilkinson @192) but I think that might be a mistake.

To oversimplify considerably, istm R. argues inter alia in that last part that while actually “existing moral feelings” are often “irrational” or “capricious” (TOJ, 1st ed., 489,490), most humans have a sometimes inchoate but ‘natural’ sense of justice, i.e. a desire to act justly (in accord with reasonable moral conceptions and not always or purely from v. narrow self-interest and expediency), and that one merit of a ‘well-ordered society’ is that it nurtures this desire and allows it to find expression and/or to have an effect. I’m looking specifically at a passage on pp.489-90 of TOJ (1st ed.) which ends with the statement that “one of the virtues of a well-ordered society [i.e. one based on the principles chosen in the OP] is that…its members suffer much less from the burdens of oppressive conscience.” Or in other words (as I read it), one of the virtues of a well-ordered society is that it gives fuller scope to “the better angels of our nature” and brings individual consciences more into alignment with social outcomes (or vice versa).

R. clearly wanted to maintain that, while only a ‘thin theory of the good’ came into play in the orig. position, the outcome of the orig. position turned out to be fully consonant with significant aspects of human psychology and moral development. Whether the argument is entirely successful, and exactly how it relates to the preceding discussion here, I’m not sure, but thought I’d mention it anyway. (I also don’t really know whether or how much this line of argument dropped away in his later work.)

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LFC 11.06.13 at 5:27 pm

(my comment at 202 went into moderation)

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John Quiggin 11.06.13 at 6:51 pm

The various qualifications discussed above make Rawls more appealing than a simple advocate of the Difference Principle leading to maxmin, but they also dull the critique of utilitarianism. Instead of replacing the simple rule of maximizing utility with an alternative, more soundly based, rule derived from the OP, we have the dogmatism of a simple rule being opposed by a complex and flexible alternative drawing on both OP arguments and actual social conditions.

It’s certainly reasonable to criticise the early utilitarians for dogmatism, but JS Mill did that job, and no one since has done it better.

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John Quiggin 11.06.13 at 6:55 pm

bianca @197 That’s quite right, and I meant to mention it. But Rawls position implies that something close to the 80 per cent rate should apply not just to top earners but across the board, combined with a universal basic income.

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Bruce Wilder 11.06.13 at 7:15 pm

Why do so many people hate utilitarianism so much?

Why did the Athenians insist that Socrates drink the hemlock? You’re really not supposed to ask too many questions.

The answers that utilitarians give — or that social contract theorists or Kantians or anyone else — run out of road pretty fast, but they drive into territory, where some powerful people would prefer questions not be asked, let alone answers discussed in ways that suggest the answers could matter.

The thing about utilitarianism, and social contract theory, is that they came to life in the decay and collapse of feudalism. Their enemies are not each other; they are just the right and left flank of the same humanistic argument: individual human welfare matters, and is the proper ground of a conception of “good”: man is the measure of all things, as the Enlightenment insisted, the study of society is the study of human nature, etc., etc. Their respective insistence that individual humans matter, their subjective experience and material circumstances matter, their autonomy matters, was and is opposed (and not by each other — the whole “let’s you and him fight” meme might be instigated in ill-will toward both).

What’s remarkable to me is that any philosopher would think that anyone would care, let alone that everyone should care, either about the questions or the answers. Why try to build a foundation for consensus, if that, indeed, is the goal? Why do the utilitarians insist on an untenable arithmetic of good? Why do social contract theorists insist on an impossible original position? Forcing even the possibility of agreement in detail seems to run the ship onto the rocks, so why do it? If philosophy has good questions, but no answers, why not stop with the questions, and punt.

The impossibility of definite answers combined with claims to universal appeal leaves the whole enterprise open to subversion by cynics and hypocrites. What else can we make of Nozick or the Washington Consensus? Whatever framework of rhetoric you build can be used to cleverly dress up the druthers of power as a public good, and both silence and stupid are surprisingly effective arguments

Why isn’t, say, the business of rational choice under uncertainty or the calculating on consequences more socially realistic — not the gamble of a representative avatar, but strategic competition in social or political processes?

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.06.13 at 8:05 pm

I don’t know about Rawls, but why 80%? There are hedge fund managers in the US who make billions. Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply legislate a maximum income as a multiple of the minimum income? Not to mention that there are already hundreds of multi-billionaires in the world. How do you justify their consumption?

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Matt 11.06.13 at 8:13 pm

But Rawls position implies that something close to the 80 per cent rate should apply not just to top earners but across the board, combined with a universal basic income.

For what it’s worth, John, when Rawls does discuss tax policy he suggests that he favors a consumption tax rather than an income tax, as well as a heavy tax on bequests. Is that a good idea? I have no opinion on it. Rawls, of course, wasn’t an expert on tax policy, so it would be odd to take him as a guide as to what to do. But I think you’re really just stabbing in the dark here. It’s always a bit annoying to tell people to go do their homework, but really, if you’re going to talk about Rawls, don’t you think you should read some of him (or, a very good guide, like Freeman’s book _Rawls_)? It’s really clear that you’re unfamiliar with the position and working of a very rough grasp.

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ZM 11.06.13 at 8:58 pm

In Justice as Fairness Rawls seems to start from an imaginary basis of everyone (before being part of a society [???]) rationally determining what sort of society would be best and then proceeding to voluntarily enter into a law bound society together (????).

Taking this as the starting point he seems to not be in favour of redistribution of wealth, although in the actual world I don’t know?

“It may be observed, however, that once the principles of justice are thought of as arising from an original agreement in a situation of equality, it is an open question whether the principle of utility would be acknowledged. Offhand it hardly seems likely that persons who view themselves as equals, entitled to press their claims upon one another, would agree to a principle which may require lesser life prospects for some simply for the sake of a greater sum of advantages enjoyed by others. Since each desires to protec this interests, his capacity to advance his conception of the good, no one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for himself in order to bring about a greater net balance of satisfaction. In the absence of strong and lasting benevolent impulses, a rational man would not accept a basic structure merely because it maximized the algebraic sum of advantages irrespective of its permanent effects on his own basic rights and interests. Thus it seems that the principle of utility is incompatible with the conception of social cooperation among equals for mutual advantage. It appears to be inconsistent with the idea or reciprocity implicit in the notion of a well-ordered society. Or, at any rate, so I shall argue. I shall maintain instead that the persons in the initial situation would choose two rather different principles: the first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate. It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper. But there is no injustice in the greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situation of persons not so fortunate is thereby improved.”

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John Quiggin 11.06.13 at 9:22 pm

“For what it’s worth, John, when Rawls does discuss tax policy he suggests that he favors a consumption tax rather than an income tax, as well as a heavy tax on bequests. Is that a good idea? I have no opinion on it.”

I would have thought that anything less than 100 per cent taxation of bequests would be inconsistent with the Difference principle. Standard theory says consumption taxes fall on labor not capital, which is why they are generally favored by rightwing economists and not by the left. So, I’m left with the feeling I started with that Rawls’ policy preferences were a long way to the right of what (my understanding of) his theoretical position would imply, and probably to the right of what you would get from the standard utilitarian position with utility equal to log(income).

As you say, I’m not a Rawls scholar (though I have read Theory of Justice). I entered the thread because someone asked how utilitarians responded to Rawls critique. As I understand it, the central element of Rawls critique of utilitarianism is the use of maximin in the OP to derive the difference principle. I say, and no one so far seems to have denied, that all this gets you is a generalized form of utilitarianism.

Obviously, there’s lots more in Rawls than this. But then Rawls was a lot more than a critic of utilitarianism. So, it would be helpful if you could spell out what you see as Rawls’ central criticism of utilitarianism.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 9:29 pm

Conceivably one might dismiss a lot of this part of TOJ as “verbiage” well let’s just say I think he (or the editor) was right not to include it in the 2001 restatement.

OK let me ‘restate’ too. R’s direct arguments against utilitarianism are not much good and I don’t think anyone is really defending them. So, the ‘TOJ as utilitarian’ idea, just for its own sake or whatevs.

If it’s the priority of liberty (and equal opp’ty, henceforth elided) that prevents TOJ from being analysed as basically a variant of indirect utilitarianism based, then how is that? It can’t be the lexical ordering, because that is a perfectly viable structure within a utilitarian framework. It can’t simply be incommensurability, because the lexical ordering takes care of that. It can’t be the fact that there’s no equivalent of the diff principle for liberties, because these are not open to the ‘trickle down’ kind of mechanism that would mean inequality raises all boats, so a difference principle would be redundant; maximin would not depart from equality. And it can’t be the thoughtful and mildly interesting ruminations on how well the whole thing comes out in the end from the perspective of moral psychology, good order, stability, etc. because whether or not any of that is supposed to be an input to the OP, so could it be to a utilitarian deliberation.

Instead, it must be some anti-utilitarian kind of moral-political principle, which is not justified by its expected consequences. In effect, we might sloganise, Rawls will have to say it’s right but it’s not good. And that’s the usual problem, and why you really can’t win against the utilitarian. Either you must put forward a principle lacking justification (which would be in terms of consequences – what else?), or you justify it by its consequences, and the utilitarians claim you for their own. This is not a trick – it’s how things are. And Rawls does justify the liberties by their consequences; in fact as the quote @ the end of 194 demonstrates, he does so by reference to something that looks very like maximin (though I see I reversed polarity to ‘minimax’ by mistake there.)

bianca – yes I’d forgotten about those marginal tax rates in the US, which just goes to confirm that vague untraceable impressions shouldn’t be relied on…

John – I don’t really get this: they also dull the critique of utilitarianism. Instead of replacing the simple rule of maximizing utility with an alternative, more soundly based, rule derived from the OP, we have the dogmatism of a simple rule being opposed by a complex and flexible alternative drawing on both OP arguments and actual social conditions. – the OP is supposed to dramatise an impartial deliberative process which uses suitably general facts to deliver a constitution-like structure for society (an Impartial, General Constitutional Deliberation – IGCD). If the less-dull version of the critique is supposed to be comparing Rawls’s ICGD to one which starts and ends with the imprecation to maximise utility, then that was never a good criticism, since the relevant utilitarian comparator is a Millian ICGD.

So, is the idea that allowing the Rawlsian ICGD to take account of actual social conds (which I don’t really think it does, officially, except by being contingent on the circs of justice, e.g. adequate development and prosperity), and yet still comparing it to the caricature utilitarian ICGD exacerbates still further the failure to compare like with like? I suppose that is a dulling, but normally I’d expect the thing to be a bit sharper to start with if we’re to speak of dulling it.

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LFC 11.06.13 at 9:50 pm

ZM@210:
The article (written in the late 50s, I think) that you’re quoting from does not support your inference that he “seems to not be in favour of redistribution of wealth.” It’s an early statement that was more fully worked out in ‘A Theory of Justice’ and subsequent books, but the passage you’ve quoted contains the two principles that he later elaborated on. The second one, the difference principle, might require (quite a lot) of redistribution, esp. when combined w/ other considerations he later mentions. What he favors “in the actual world” is the implementation of the principles he thinks would be chosen in the hypothetical original position, though the details of that implementation weren’t always spelled out in detail. (Though they were spelled out to some extent.)

Btw articles on R. continue to appear, no doubt; I don’t follow most of the relevant journals, but it happens there’s a piece on R. in the Feb. ’13 APSR.

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matt 11.06.13 at 9:54 pm

Tim:

The absolute priority of the liberties in the real world cannot be justified in utilitarian terms. It can be chosen by the parties to the OP on utilitarian grounds, but who cares? Only those inclined to accept that the OP models justice. And nothing about utilitarianism could convince you that the OP models justice. Rather, according to Rawls, only reflection on our notion of a free and equal citizenry could do that.

Neither Rawls nor anyone else has a critique of utilitarianism that doesn’t ultimately beg the question. And the utilitarians are of course in the same position with respect to their first principles. But that’s the nature of moral theory.

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Matt 11.06.13 at 9:55 pm

John- my claims were about the (as far as I can tell, completely unsupported) claims about what tax rates Rawls would like, and the (clearly wrong) view that he argued for generic 1970’s US welfare state capitalism. (On bequests, he says we should use the system that best meets the two principles, and doesn’t pretend to be a tax expert, as far as I can tell.) On the broader issue of Rawls vs. Utilitarianism, I don’t think you’ve responded at all plausibly to the remarks made by Chris, and generally seemed confused on the issues. You might read Samuel Scheffler’s article “Rawls and Utilitarianism” in the Cambridge Companion to Rawls. You might also look at the discussion in the chapters on the two principles of justice in Freeman’s book _Rawls_, though the discussion there is less completely focused on utilitarianism.

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Matt 11.06.13 at 9:56 pm

(I expect it’s clear, but in case it’s not, the two “matts” in this thread are distinct people.)

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js. 11.06.13 at 9:59 pm

As I understand it, the central element of Rawls critique of utilitarianism is the use of maximin in the OP to derive the difference principle.

This isn’t actually Rawls’ critique of utilitarianism at all. Probably the most succinct statement of Rawls’ (philosophical) critique of utilitarianism is found in his early paper, “Justice as Fairness” (published in the mid-50’s, I think, tho maybe somewhat later, and not to be confused with the posthumously published monograph Matt referenced earlier). This is the bit I mentioned way up above @60; it doesn’t have anything to do with the DP, maximin, etc.

You can read the latter as an alternative to a certain sort of utilitarian proposal the distribution of (a certain class of) social goods, but it’s not the “Rawlsian critique of utilitarianism.”

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geo 11.06.13 at 10:07 pm

Bruce @207: Wish I’d said that. Couldn’t agree more.

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Chris Bertram 11.06.13 at 10:15 pm

Fwiw, the articles at SEP By Leif Wenar on Rawls and by Samuel Freeman on “Original Position” are both clear that the argument for the difference principle is not an application of maximin.

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LFC 11.06.13 at 10:24 pm

@T Wilkinson

It’s not a matter of ignoring consequences — he says explicitly (p.30, TOJ, 1st ed.) that *every* moral theory considers consequences. It’s more a matter of how one gets to one’s conclusions and what the ultimate goal is.

Thus, this:
In effect, we might sloganise, Rawls will have to say it’s right but it’s not good.
is not apt, imo. What he “has” to say is what he does say: namely (TOJ p.30), that a just society *might* maximize the sum total of satisfaction of rational desires, but then again, it might not:

…there is no reason to think that just institutions will maximize the good. (Here I suppose with utilitarianism that the good is defined as the satisfaction of rational desire.) Of course, it is not impossible that the most good is produced but it would be a coincidence. The question of attaining the greatest net balance of satisfaction never arises in justice as fairness; this maximum principle is not used at all.

Factoring in the stuff in the last part about moral psychology (etc.) and being colloquial, one might say that most people will likely be reasonably happy in a well-ordered society, but there’s no guarantee that such a society is going to maximize the sum total of desire-satisfaction. And it doesn’t matter b/c such maximization is not the point.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.06.13 at 10:34 pm

John – forgot to add: even were it comparing like with like, isn’t the idea that the Rawlsian (implied) critique is only a variant or refinement of maximising utilitarianism anyway, and not a criticism at all?

More interestingly, that reminds me I meant to ask – I think you suggest that maximin amounts to a ‘generalisation’ of maximean. Is it possible, without going to too much trouble, to convey the intuition behind this in natural language? (I’m assuming you qualify as having done your homework on this topic).

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LFC 11.06.13 at 10:41 pm

I think js. @217 is right. (And js. is doubtless more up on R. than I am.) The main pt, as I understand it, is that utilitarianism (as R interprets it at any rate) aims for a certain end-state (see 220), and R’s approach doesn’t.

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ZM 11.06.13 at 10:57 pm

LFC @213
Thank you, but I am unsure. He still seems like perhaps he is not all that in favour of redistribution to me.

I can’t get access to the full article, but the start of this article (it seems reputable enough?) seems to note a perceived conflict between Rawls’ ideas and equality in the distribution of wealth – although perhaps Rawls later sorted this out clearly?

Economic Equality: Rawls versus Utilitarianism. Ball, Stephen W. Economics & Philosophy; Jul1986, Vol. 2 Issue 2, p225-244, 20p

“The alleged egalitarian impact of Rawls’ theory is crucial again in normative ethics where Rawls is thought to have developed a major counter theory to utilitarianism, one of the most popular criticisms of which has been its alleged inadequacy in in handling questions of distributive justice.
Utilitarians can argue however, as Brandt recently has, that the diminishing marginal utility of money, along with ignorance of income-welfare curves (???), would require a utility maximising distribution to be substantially egalitarian. The challenge is therefore on Rawls to show that his theory yields an ethically preferable degree of equality.”

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LFC 11.06.13 at 11:16 pm

C Bertram:
Fwiw, the articles at SEP By Leif Wenar on Rawls and by Samuel Freeman on “Original Position” are both clear that the argument for the difference principle is not an application of maximin.

In case anyone is wondering, SEP = Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(I assume)

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John Quiggin 11.07.13 at 12:15 am

” I think you suggest that maximin amounts to a ‘generalisation’ of maximean. Is it possible, without going to too much trouble, to convey the intuition behind this in natural language”

I hope so. Suppose you are making a choice under uncertainty, between lotteries based on (say) a roulette wheel. For all lotteries, higher numbers give better prizes, and prizes are in dollars. The simplest procedure is to assume all numbers are equally likely and to pick the prize with the highest expected value. But that might imply a few big prizes and lots that are zero or (if the rules permit it) negative. You can generalise this in (at least two ways) to favor less risky/more equal distributions of prizes.

First, you can look at utility rather than money. This typically means imputing less value to increases in prizes that are already large. Of particular relevance in this context, you can attribute arbitrarily large negative utility to prizes that fail to meet some basic requirement (eg minimal living standard). That gives you expected utility.

Second, you can put more weight on the outcomes for the lower numbers than the higher ones (this can be done whether or not you have well-defined probabilities). This is called rank-dependent utility and is the source of what fame I have in the econ profession. The extreme case is putting all the weight on the lowest outcome, which is maximin. So maximin is a special case of the general class of rank-dependent maximean.

Now replace numbered prizes with allocations to individuals, and you have a model of social choice. Within generalized utilitarianism, you can get egalitarian outcomes in two ways.

First, if there’s large negative utility attached to outcomes below some minimum, and the maximum utility of good outcomes is bounded, then any allocation in which someone gets less than the minimum will be ruled out, regardless of what’s happening to those better off.

Second, if (nearly) all the weight is placed on those at the bottom of the distribution, then improvements for those at the top will be allowed only if they also improve (or don’t worsen) the position of those at the bottom.

As represented among economists, Rawls uses the second of these to get the Difference Principle. From the discussion here, it seems clear that he also invokes the first. And, clearly there’s more that I’ve missed. So, I’ll do some more reading and maybe come back.

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js. 11.07.13 at 12:28 am

On second thought, my 217 is somewhat misleading. Insofar as utilitarianism broadly conceived can be a source of various proposals regarding distributive justice, one could almost read the first part of TJ as a whole as an argument against utilitarianism, and Rawls forwards specific arguments against specific utilitarian proposals as part of his defense of his two principles—some of these even rely on maximin, tho as CB points out, the argument for DP doesn’t, at least not obviously.

All that being said, Rawls does have a more general argument against utilitarianism which is independent of a lot of the details in TJ, which is what I was referencing earlier. In the “Justice as Fairness” paper, it’s explicitly directed at classical utilitarianism, but at the very least, it’s not obvious that it doesn’t generalize. And the point about the incommensurability of primary goods—which is related in that it’s what prevents the possibility of a single maximizable utility function—stands.

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Tony Lynch 11.07.13 at 12:33 am

#189 consumatopia.

You misunderstand. My point is that none of my friends are trying to be better utilitarians. They are trying to be kinder, to be a good parent, to be more respectful of others rights, and so on, but not better utilitarians. This is the point. People say they are utilitarians but hardly anyone seems to then set out to be a better, even the best, utilitarian they can. And if a friend says that is what they are doing, and really tries to do it, then watch out!

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Consumatopia 11.07.13 at 2:02 am

I responded directly to what followed “My points?” I regret missing your point, but that wasn’t entirely my fault, you know?

“My point is that none of my friends are trying to be better utilitarians. They are trying to be kinder, to be a good parent, to be more respectful of others rights, and so on, but not better utilitarians. “

A moral theory, such as utilitarianism, defines what kindness is, what good parenting is, and what rights others should have.

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LFC 11.07.13 at 3:41 am

@ZM

1) The passage quoted by Matt @182 from ‘Justice as Fairness: A Restatement’ suggests R. is very concerned about dispersing concentrated ownership of wealth, not least b.c of its deleterious impact on politics:

…the background institutions of property-owning democracy [R’s preferred setup] work to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy, and indirectly political life.

2) As has been pointed out in previous threads here, there are a number of constraints on income/wealth inequality in R’s theory, of which the difference principle is only one. The theory does end up being quite egalitarian.

3) The article whose beginning you quote @223 frames the issue in a way I find less than illuminating. The implication of the opening graphs of Ball’s article is that R’s beef w utilitarianism is that it yields insufficiently egalitarian results. I don’t think that is R’s difference w utilitarianism. (See “Justice as Fairness” (per js.@226) or some of the early sections of ‘A Theory of Justice’ where he lays out in a general way the differences between his approach and utilitarianism.) These issues are batted back and forth in the earlier part of the thread (which I’ve now looked at, albeit somewhat quickly).

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LFC 11.07.13 at 3:54 am

Btw/fwiw, in TOJ (1st ed) p.502, R. cites a passage from Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’ which he argues shows Mill in effect agreeing with him (R.) in that Mill “intuitively… recogniz[es] that a perfectly just society…would be one that follows the notion of reciprocity expressed by the principles of justice.” And the following sentences are relevant but too late in the evening to type them out.

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ZM 11.07.13 at 5:02 am

LFC,

Well I’m not that knowledgable on Rawls, but I think he is making an argument similar to Pareto except without the utilitarianism (maybe not quite as in favour of laissez-faire style laws – does he go into details about the various state/NGO interventions needed to maintain “property-owning democracy” in a particular text or passage?) which kind of contributes to show its values/premises that are most important to the direction of someone’s logic. Re: arguing that Mill implicitly agreed with him is the same sort of wishful thinking that has geo argue that all forms of ethics/moral are utilitarian – in my opinion it’s a way of trying to elide difference.

“…the background institutions of property-owning democracy [R’s preferred setup] work to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy, and indirectly political life.”

But other people can choose other set-ups to disperse and share wealth/power – like having lots of councils, or collectives, or feuding barons and so forth. The fact that Rawls chooses property-owning democracy (with what sort of government structure, what sort of laws?) gives a specific type of character to his work (of which I am largely unfamiliar so I stand to be corrected).

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geo 11.07.13 at 5:25 am

Here’s what precedes the quote LFC mentions above:

“[According to Mill,] the improvement in political institutions removes the opposition of interests and the barriers and inequalities that encourage individuals and classes to disregard one another’s claims. The natural end of this development is a state of the human mind in which each person has a feeling of unity with others. Mill maintains that when this state of mind is perfected, it leads the individual to desire for himself only those things in the benefits of which others are included.”

And here’s what follows:

“[Mill’s] remarks accord with the idea that a stable conception of justice which elicits men’s natural sentiments of unity and fellow feeling is more likely to incorporate these principles than the utilitarian standard. … The contract doctrine achieves the same result [as the utilitarian], but it does so not by an ad hoc weighing of two competing tendencies, but by a theoretical construction which leads to the appropriate reciprocity principles as a conclusion.”

I think Mill would reply that there is nothing ad hoc about the utilitarian method; that it is no less entitled to employ principles — derived from examining and weighing, over the course of human history and in the light of all human knowledge, as many “competing tendencies” and their consequences as is necessary — than Rawls’s method; that it is not a “conception of justice” that elicits “sentiments of unity and fellow feeling” but the sentiments that generate the conception; and that only a professional philosopher could suppose that “theoretical construction,” rather than the spread of enlightenment and sympathy through political activism and imaginative literature, that leads to the formulation of “appropriate reciprocity principles.”

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geo 11.07.13 at 5:30 am

PS – Actually, I think that’s what Mill does reply in Chapter III of Utilitarianism.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.07.13 at 11:47 am

(Bit long, more to come, don’t want to irritate by holding forth, but old thread, on-topic, or at least organically-grown subtopic, and – IMO, obvsly. – interesting/useful enough to justify the extra scrolling.)

LFC What he “has” to say is what he does say

Well this is my point – I think this is sometimes not the case at all, and that a lot of what he does say is rather disconnected from, if not actually in confict with, what he ‘has’ to say (assuming he wants to maintain the core, invariant, elements of his position). In other words, a lot of dictats which might be very useful if we were considering whether to elect Rawls as designer of our proto-constitution, but not really otherwise.

Also – what end state does utilitarianism aim at? Explain how it differs in this regard from the deliberations of the notional person in the OP.

“there is no reason to think that just institutions will maximize the good. (Here I suppose with utilitarianism that the good is defined as the satisfaction of rational desire.)”

Well there are plenty of different conceptions of the ‘good’, or utility, welfare, happiness, as it features in a utilitarian set-up. This applies to js.’s argument @60 too – and as I’ve pointed out, weighting and even effective lexical ordering of goods is possible here, so it is obvious that the argumemt doesn’t generalise.

Here’s a bit from the ’01 restatement (pp. 98-9):

being guided by the maximin rule in these conditions is compatible with the familiar principle of maximizing the fulfillment of one’s interests, or (rational) good. The parties’ use of the rule to organize their deliberations in no way violates this
familiar principle of rationality. Rather, they use the rule to guide them in deciding in accordance with that principle in the highly unusual, if not unique, circumstances of the original position when the matter at hand is of such fundamental significance.
Note, however, this caveat: the argument guided by the rule fits with the idea that rational agents maximize their expected utility, but only if that expected utility is understood to have no substantive content. That is, it does not mean expected pleasure, or agreeable consciousness (Sidgwick), or satisfaction. Expected utility is a purely formal idea specified by a rule or a mathematical function. As such, the rule or function simply represents the order, or ranking, in which the alternatives are judged better and worse in meeting the agent’s fundamental interests, which are in this case the interests of citizens as free and equal

Not at all convinced that ‘no substantive content’ and ‘purely formal’ are apt, but the general gist is there. I’d say that something like ‘the rule or function aims to reflect the suitably weighted ordinal or cardinal degree to which the alternatives meet the agent’s interests, suitably weighted’ might be about right.

I repeat that the rearguard restatement, (which I haven’t read all of – Matt can like it or lump it) is in many ways radically altered from the previous versions, though the key concepts or at leasts terms are retained. This is not widely known, hence not everyone, esp those not impressed the first time round has ‘done their homework’ by reading wha one woud suppose to be just the latest revision. Notice that most of the triumphant, occasionaly sneering, gotchas come from this document.

There are (as expected) improvements, e.g. an attempt to change the near-universal impression produced during the theory’s heyday that it was defending something not so different from the status quo. Though since R seems really to be recommending, for the USA anyway, ‘property-owning democracy’, his theory of justice might have explained what the upshot of deliberation actually amounts to – it sounds almost like the (o)utopian libertarian set-up in which capitalist markets operate but without concentrated accumulation of wealth… ZM @ )

But from what I’ve seen there are also quite a lot of moves of the 3rd kind (as described @): Rawls wants to retain the basic theory but his refinements and caveats seem in many cases, if taken seriously, to render much of the original set-up irrelevant (trying to be brief, can’t go on for now). One thing that remains constant is the choice of opponent – the principles of justice are still contrasted directly with the principle of utility. As I’ve tried to point out, that’s the wrong comparison – though it can explain why Rawls might be presenting a minor variant of an indirect utilitarian approach, while still conceiving it, even defining it, in opposition to Uism.

Rawls in the above quote from the restatement seems to be admitting that he is furnishing a broadly utilitarian account – though it seems rather (I’m not sure) as if he’s trying to downplay this with the comment about ‘no substantive content’. His own suggestion for the (substantive?) content is the agent’s ‘interests as a free and equal person’ – which is up to him, though as an encapsulation of central human concerns, it seems pretty dry, and ‘an equal person’ is not an entirely happy locution. Writing aggregate structure into self-regarding prefs. NB this is relevant to some Williams stuff in linked summary above, in which W touches on convolutions involved in maximising a utilitarian’s utility, inc. other-regarding utilitarian prefs.)

On the other hand, this may not be that much of an improvement since the argument guided by the rule fits with the idea that rational agents maximize their expected utility doesn’t appear to be true at all, since the minimax principle itself seems to have been messed around with beyond all recognition, under the guise of ‘conditions when it is rational to apply the maximin rule’…(tbc)

Also, and this is one of those dictats which looks a bit like a kind of hedge or ‘two-step of plausible deniability’, R drops into the text (p99): it is not essential for the parties to use the maximin rule in the original position. It is simply a useful heuristic device. Focusing on the worst outcomes has the advantage of forcing us to consider what our fundamental interests really are when it comes to the design of the basic structure. this could just be an acknowledgement that the whole OP situation is a kind of analogy, in which case it’s innocuous, but otherwise, it seems to raise the unanswered question of what they might do other than use the (now heavily hacked) maximin principle (which looks as though – to provide a quick and very dirty summary based on a first reading – it now applies only when every alternative but one would involve the worst-off position being intolerable), we don’t know. Openly utilitarian deliberation? (LFC @ suggests R htinks this might work, though Mill agreeing with Rawls?? Also agree with geo @ – I’d say the U’s method is less ad hoc than TOJ’s deduktion of the principles, and much less so than the restatement’s; and being ad hoc – pragmatism, dealing with contingency – not obviously a cardinal sin where the empirical issue of filling in the utilitarian schema is concerned.) Presumably the idea is that the OP would still render up the principles of justice, or maybe they’re not essential either? I think we should be told.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.07.13 at 11:49 am

edit fail, sorry, trying patience, must do better

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prasad 11.07.13 at 12:14 pm

1) On the supposed inhumanity of Singer and how this tells against utilitarianism, it’s well worth remembering that Kant had, by our standards, substantive views far more horrible than anything Singer has advocated for:
http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.ch/2010/03/kant-on-killing-bastards-on.html

And that’s before we get to his unforced error on the impermissibility of telling a lie to save a fleeing man from a murderer.

2) Hare wrote a blistering attack on Theory of Justice where I think he found a number of instances of conclusory reasoning by Rawls. One amusing point he made is that the central metaphors of utilitarianism (the impartial spectator) and of Rawls’s theory (the veil of ignorance) are very hard to distinguish in terms of their ramifications.

3) IMO the best reason to regard Rawls as basically a defender of the existing order (with certain congenial modifications) is to compare TOJ with Law of Peoples. First he comes up with an account of justice where the starting point involves individual people who know nothing whatsoever about their place in society, not even their own values. From there he derives conclusions like a difference principle. Conclusions quite to the liking of Rawls and the people who cite him.

Later he turns his attention to international relations. But now suddenly his framework threatens to produce extremely uncongenial – dare I say, Peter Singer style – conclusions. So he turns on a dime and decides that the relevant unit of analysis in the new situation is not human beings behind a veil, but rather something called “peoples.” Apparently human beings engaged in moral reasoning should blind themselves to every frickin relevant fact about themselves, but not which country they happen to live in, so their unitary representatives as “peoples” know exactly who they are and what’s good for them. “Peoples” it unsurprisingly turns out, owe each other practically nothing.

The view he ends up with is unstable, and subject to attack from both sides. The cosmopolitan egalitartian can ask why (besides rhetorical/political convenience and the desire to stay relevant) TOJ doesn’t imply vastly stronger obligations across borders or strong rights to cross them. And on the other side someone opposed to the welfare state can ask why his new arguments don’t work just as well transported back to single societies. That kind of middle position can be justified if you start with a non-universalistic ethic, maybe one with place from the outset for community or patriotism, not if you pretend to be arguing from universal principles.

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Chris Bertram 11.07.13 at 12:22 pm

Tim, sadly for me I have my copy of A Briefer Restatement to hand. If I did not, it would not be easy to decode your latest screed (actually, it still isn’t easy). The casual reader won’t understand that “these conditions” in the bit you excerpt refers not to the OP in general terms but to a list of three very specific conditions mentioned on the previous page (sec 28.2). This isn’t entirely without importance for this thread, since, for example, the third condition there identified makes it clear that the argument from maximin does not support the DP (since it fails to choose DP over other, sufficientarian, principles).

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Chris Bertram 11.07.13 at 12:32 pm

As general observation on this thread insofar as it has veered into Rawlsiana. Anybody who knows about Rawls is going to be irritated beyond measure by the (often seemingly random) inaccurate assertions people make about his work. Not everything has been inaccurate, but much of it will be impossible to process for someone who has not already read a great deal. Anyone who doesn’t know about Rawls will learn little of value.

Personally, I hate the nit-picking academic cottage industry of “what Rawls really said/meant” so I resent the fact that a thread like this has succeeded in sucking me back into it. May I suggest that people who want to find out about Rawls do some combination of the following (in decreasing order of demandingness):

1. Read Rawls.
2. Read a good book about Rawls such as Samuel Freeman’s Rawls or our own John Mandle’s What’s Left of Liberalism? or Pogge’s book ….
3. Look at the good online articles at the Stanford Encyclopaedia on Rawls, Original Position and other key concepts.

With that, I resign from the thread.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.07.13 at 1:13 pm

John – OK, thanks (‘the prize with the highest expected value’ should be ‘the lottery…’ etc., I take it.) So the lottery you choose becomes the distribution, each number a person, and the prize their allocation. Conceptualising it as a lottery, as in the OP, is what provides the aggregation method. And the idea is not that maxmin is a generalisation of ‘maximean’, but that rank-dependent EU is, since both maximean and maximin are special cases of it.

I’m not sure what role the uncertainty plays (this is uncertainty about the probs within the lotteries, e.g. whether they are fair, right?), since as you suggest the default is just to use the principle of indifference and partition the probability equally, which is I take it what you do. Actually, I suppose this might reflect the fact that it’s possible to attach differing importance to different people’s allocations – the princ. of indifference being the impartial option?

Chris – yes, it’s not very clear. Neither is Rawls, though I at least have the excuse that my exposition is highly compressed (no doubt this doesn’t excuse all its faults). It’s hard to provide fully-elaborated argument briefly, and I’m a bit self-conscious about posting big slabs from the restatement, for example. If there were some way of satisfying myself that it’s acceptable to do so, and to provide arguments in full, I would. Maybe I will, then.

the nit-picking academic cottage industry of “what Rawls really said/meant” well, I at least have been concerned to distinguish the Rawlsian philosophical position from (a) what Rawls happens to think and (b) the unsupported/insupportable assurances he gives about what it implies, what it does or doesn’t depend on, etc. (And the discussion of how it relates to utilitarianism isn’t really just “for it’s own sake” in the sense of having no further consequences – this topic came up because Rawls’s work was rgarded as including a criticism of utilitarianism (and in the restatement, he frames the whole thing as a battle between Rawlsianism and a (caricatured) utilitarianism.

But if the conversation is to be had (well, since it is being had, in any case), then just saying ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about; it’s far too much trouble to explain; read x, y and z and interpret it as I have’ is not very constructive. I often refrain from making that kind of irritable comment, and just stay away.

I do have the restatement (got it from the Chinese internet), and the section about minimax really does seem quite poor; I’ll try to show what I mean when I get a chance. I’m really not all that hostile to Rawls, nor trying to start a fight or show off or something; but someone is wrong not just on the internet but in the canonical literature of Western political philosophy, and I cannot stand by idly in those circumstances. If the tone is a bit ranty, that’s mildly regrettable, but arises mostly from the need for brevity combined with the fact that caveats, qualifications and general emollients generally get disregarded anyway. And probably a mildly antisocial lack of concern about that kind of nicety.

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Matt 11.07.13 at 1:57 pm

What Chris said. (I’ll add that Jon Mandle’s newer book, _Rawls’s A Theory of Justice: An Introduction_, is also very good for those wanting to know at TJ in particular.)

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LFC 11.07.13 at 4:24 pm

I may have a couple more brief things to say in response to certain things above, but I need more time to consider them.

In the meantime I’d like to comment briefly on Chris B. @238, particularly this statement:

Not everything has been inaccurate, but much of it will be impossible to process for someone who has not already read a great deal. Anyone who doesn’t know about Rawls will learn little of value.

It seems to me there are routinely quite a number of posts at CT where the reader who doesn’t already know about the topic “will learn little of value.” Take John Quiggin’s posts on economic theory. I gave only the briefest attention (like about two mins.) to his recent thread on “the macroeconomic foundations of microeconomics” b/c I figured, almost certainly correctly, that I didn’t know enough in advance about the substance to get much out of it. Does that mean JQ should stop putting up such posts? Well, no, b/c there are clearly some in the readership who can get something out of them (and/or who will find it productive or satisfying to argue w/ each other.)

I do sympathize somewhat w CB’s dislike of the Rawls cottage industry and irritation w (what CB views as) inaccurate statements, and no one can object to the suggestion that people read X if they want to find out about X. On the other hand, there is something itself a little irritating in one of the subtexts of his message, namely “go away and don’t come back till you have read A, B and C.” Except in the case of roundtables on specific books that have been announced in advance, I think threads should be open to anyone who wants to participate in them, regardless of what they have or haven’t read, and if the price of that is some unruliness and irritation and some people coming away more confused or whatever than they were to start with etc. (which it will be), so be it.

P.s. FTR, the one time I read the book in advance for one of the book seminars here (Knight & Johnson), it turned out to be quite disappointing b/c, among other things, the authors didn’t bother to participate in the threads (such as they were).

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Matt 11.07.13 at 4:59 pm

In case anyone is still interested in the original question, this review of a new book by Joshua Greene by Thomas Nagel has some interesting discussion on why some people might find utilitarianism (or some utilitarians) “sinister”, and whether they are right to do so.

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TM 11.07.13 at 5:57 pm

Thanks for the link prasad.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.07.13 at 6:40 pm

I can play the role of helpful expert here and point out my own misconception about the conditions for applying maximin as laid out in the restatement. Above I state acouple of times that they were was hacked around in comparison with the version in ToJ. That was completely wrong – I’d just forgotten about them, and in fact they are not changed much at all. So that could be a bit irritating.

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geo 11.07.13 at 7:08 pm

Thanks, Matt (@242), that’s an apparently fair-minded and very informative review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Much to ponder, but a quick reaction: Nagel keeps using terms like “the moral ideal,” “ideal morality,” “the moral point of view,” “a universal system of human rights,” and “the moral conception behind [such] a system” in a way that suggests he means we can arrive at a non-contingent view that every rational being would be compelled to acknowledge as true. This is the root of the pragmatist’s quarrel with him. We believe that contingency is radical, that it “goes all the way down,” as Rorty put it, and that moral progress is achieved not by a priori reasoning but through the moral imagination, that is, by having experiences, in life or art, that expand our sympathies or (as Rorty, again, put it) widen the circle of those who count for us.

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ZM 11.07.13 at 7:18 pm

From the article Matt @242 linked to:

“Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups)”

Well, I’m not entirely sure about exactly how the elliptical disclaimer alters the preceding statement, but this seems wrong to me from my reading.
Lots of anthropologists have written about the importance of reciprocity and the economy of the gift in and between kinship groups in wider kinship societies. Something like The Gender of the Gift goes into a lot of detail about the role of women in Papuan societies as embodying gift giving in marrying into other kinship groups to achieve wider social reciprocity.
Anthropologists and historians of the European/pacific colonial encounter have quite a lot of data and suppositions about how indigenous people’s attempted to enter into reciprocal relationships with the colonials through material and sexual gifts. Gifts play a role in establishing these sort of relations in many cultures historic and contemporary, just think of diplomatic gifts etc.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 7:43 pm

The idea that the brains evolved to cooperate or fight is very EP. Brains are plastic. I’m pretty sure you can take one of those new-born Papuans and place him into an environment where he’ll grow up a nasty SOB. It’s all formed by the environment.

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ZM 11.07.13 at 7:49 pm

Agreed, there’s violence and cargo cults and such.. I just meant the author shouldn’t assert that the brain didn’t evolve for co-operation/reciprocity between groups – we have minds etc capable of either. And co-operation between groups is not a particularly modern thing, but goes back.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 8:01 pm

Right, the brains are capable, and perhaps societies with pure utilitarian morality did exist. But they didn’t survive. The vikings (or some such) killed them all and took their stuff. We survived. Our morality, our moral intuition has been, so far, among the fittest. Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results, of course.

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ZM 11.07.13 at 8:11 pm

Uh, I would disagree that morality = dominance, and disagree that there is such a thing as “our morality” – people make different moral claims rightly or wrongly

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 8:24 pm

There are common themes though, like what he’s describing. Stick with the family, with the tribe. Flip the switch but don’t throw the fat guy off the bridge.

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ZM 11.07.13 at 8:33 pm

How is flipping the switch any different from pushing the man into the way of the trolley? You would have something weighing on your conscience in either case.

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LFC 11.07.13 at 8:36 pm

TW:
Also – what end state does utilitarianism aim at?

The phrase “end state” was (potentially) misleading, so I’ll retract it.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.07.13 at 8:38 pm

Our intuition says it’s different (according to the link from 242), so it is.

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John Quiggin 11.07.13 at 9:24 pm

Tim W “John – OK, thanks (‘the prize with the highest expected value’ should be ‘the lottery…’ etc., I take it.) So the lottery you choose becomes the distribution, each number a person, and the prize their allocation. Conceptualising it as a lottery, as in the OP, is what provides the aggregation method. And the idea is not that maxmin is a generalisation of ‘maximean’, but that rank-dependent EU is, since both maximean and maximin are special cases of it. “

That’s exactly right, including correction of ‘lottery’ for ‘prize’.

The question of how to handle probabilities is trickier. The simplest case is to assume them equal, but that’s not the only possibility. You can have symmetry, which is obviously what’s wanted for OP/impartial observer exercises, without additivity.

While remaining admittedly ignorant, it seems to me objections to additivity are a constant and central theme in Rawls critique of utilitarianism, from the argument that it “does not take seriously the distinction between persons” to the claim that justice won’t generally maximise a sum of satisfactions”

I’m entirely in agreement with that – the whole point of rank-dependent EU and subsequent generalizations is that they are non-additive. Consequently, I broadly agree with Rawls/generalized EU as against classical utilitarianism/expected utility.

It’s just that I see these as members of the same family. The eagerness to say that one differs radically from the other seems to me to reflect the dislike of utilitarianism that is the subject of the original post.

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ZM 11.07.13 at 9:44 pm

“Our intuition says it’s different (according to the link from 242), so it is.”

Ha ha. I thoroughly doubt very many – if any at all – people would have ever found themselves so unlucky as to experience both situations and then provide accounts to philosophers describing their different intuitive reactions. People might make up any sort of story they like, but it is a little far-fetched to then make sweeping generalisations as to how large numbers of actual living people would feel and respond upon finding themselves in either situation.

The reviewers book looks interesting OTOH. I wonder if utilitarianism is always materialist?

“The conflict between scientific naturalism and various firms of anti reductionalism is a staple of recent philosophy. On one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology.
On the other side there are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level only of physical facts – facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.”

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bianca steele 11.07.13 at 10:13 pm

geo@245
I was just reminded by something I was reading, though, that while Rorty cites those who discuss expansion of our circle of concern in that sense (every time I buy something for my child, I should ask whether it would be better spent on food for the starving in the developing world–for that matter, every time I donate to the local food bank), his examples are more of the nature of bigendians saying, “Maybe those littleendians are people too and ought to be able to sit at our lunch counters and attend our schools, and teach in our schools.”

He doesn’t suggest anywhere–in fact, the contrary–that each individual should ignore intermediate institutions (social and cultural) and consider each action as if s/he had the power to affect anybody in the world.

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Tony Lynch 11.07.13 at 10:54 pm

consumatopia:

“A moral theory, such as utilitarianism, defines what kindness is, what good parenting is, and what rights others should have.”

And utilitarianism? How does it “define kindness”? “Good parenting”? “What rights others should have”?

Take kindness. Is the U defn: “That ‘being nice’ to others which increases general utility?” – which means a lot of kindness is missed.
Or is it “A propensity – sometimes general utility diminishing – to be ‘nice’ to others”? – which means a lot of kindness is repudiated as morally wrong?

In Utilitarianism all the things abover woukl seem either to have to be re-interpreted as

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Tony Lynch 11.07.13 at 10:55 pm

Last sentence escaped delete button.

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geo 11.07.13 at 11:41 pm

That’s true, bianca. I didn’t mean to give the contrary impression.

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LFC 11.08.13 at 12:36 am

prasad @236
I haven’t read ‘The Law of Peoples’ (except maybe small bits), but from what I know about it at second hand I’m inclined to agree w/ you. (I forget whether R. subsequently had some second thoughts about the approach he took there.)

as to this —

The view he ends up with is unstable, and subject to attack from both sides. The cosmopolitan egalitarian can ask why (besides rhetorical/political convenience and the desire to stay relevant) TOJ doesn’t imply vastly stronger obligations across borders or strong rights to cross them. And on the other side someone … can ask why his new arguments [in LOP] don’t work just as well transported back to single societies. That kind of middle position can be justified if you start with a non-universalistic ethic, maybe one with [a] place from the outset for community or patriotism, not if you pretend to be arguing from universal principles.

Yes, pretty much. It’s a weak point in TOJ and why, not too long after TOJ was published, it was being criticized for ignoring questions of global (international) distribution. But R’s basic arguments can be and have been extended in various directions, and that, as you prob. know, has been one direction (i.e., beyond the single-society setting) in which various writers have extended/applied them.

Btw this piece, though cumbersomely titled, looks interesting — Jeffrey E. Green, “Rawls and the Forgotten Figure of the Most Advantaged: In Defense of Reasonable Envy toward the Superrich,” Am Pol Sci Rev (Feb 2013). [Probably gated.]

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bianca steele 11.08.13 at 2:59 am

geo, no problem. I didn’t mean to contradict any part of what you said. I just wanted to add that expanding our sympathies to encompass something more than our local points of view [1] doesn’t only mean adopting a universal or quasi-scientific view of ourselves and others [2], so it doesn’t necessarily imply feeling each of us has obligations to every other person equally [3].

Further sentences, which I had in mind when I read your comment a few hours ago, are foundering on the lateness of the hour, unfortunately. So are revisions that would make more sense of the following notes

[1] as Rorty recommends, I think–though the examples I’m thinking of are largely about expanding what counts as “local,” not changing how we think of “those who are not local”

[2] which I think is what Nagel means when he talks about “the view from nowhere,” which Rorty also cites, though I don’t know what Nagel says about ethics and haven’t finished the TNR article Matt L. linked; Rorty obviously doesn’t think a view from nowhere is possible, even if striving toward it is, and probably more obviously doesn’t think we should be asking individuals to abandon their beliefs and adopt a view from nowhere to replace them

[3] which seems to be implied as a requirement of utilitarianism in the discussion earlier

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bianca steele 11.08.13 at 5:41 pm

Skimming Nagel’s review of Greene, it seems he doesn’t actually extend science to social questions (he wouldn’t be the only one to refuse science that right, though I’m not sure what side of the line it leaves psychology on, and I do think Rorty is more accepting of social science but I’m not sure), so it isn’t obvious what “the moral view” and all the other phrases you (geo) mention are supposed to be, at least to me, yet.

Incidentally this review in the Boston Globe of Greene’s book, by a psychologist (which you probably already saw), makes rather different objections.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.08.13 at 6:18 pm

Rawlsiana is on hold but no more mistakes found btw.

Hearing about the conviction of Marine A (why he should be anon I don’t know) reminded me – criticisms of utilitarianism obviously generally involve cases in which it’s supposed that a utilitarian would depart from standard rules, norms, virtues etc (or indeed even consider doing so). One kind of case in which the stereotypical common person doesn’t object to breaching rules to get the right result is the Dirty Harry kind of case. But this is never counted as a victory for crude act-utilitarianism. Maybe because it is generally in service of rather un-utilitarianish retribution.

Not that Marine A seems to have had any instrumental justification. Though h did offer a kind of attempted excuse ‘nothing he wouldn;t do to us’ which even if true atually points to one kind of utilitarian justififcation for observing fairly rigid rules – the prisoner’s dilemma type of coordination game that underlies things like the Geneva Convention.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.08.13 at 6:20 pm

(Ticking timebomb, already mentioned, is an extreme Dirty Harry case.)

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geo 11.08.13 at 8:39 pm

Bianca @262: The “moral view” et al refers to moral realism. According to Wikipedia:

“Moral realism is a non-nihilist form of cognitivism and is a meta-ethical view in the tradition of Platonism. In summary, it claims:
1.Ethical sentences express propositions.
2.Some such propositions are true.
3.Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion.”

It’s far from obvious to me, too, exactly what this means. In particular, the distinction between objective and subjective seems to me untenable — not, of course, in the practical, rough-and-ready, everyday sense of personal vs. impersonal, partial vs. impartial, fair vs. unfair, but in a special epistemological or metaphysical sense that divides propositions into those that are true without reference to perspectives, contexts, language games, or other “subjective” limitations and those that are not.

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bianca steele 11.08.13 at 10:52 pm

geo, I’m not sure this is the same as what you’re saying, but even knowing more or less that Nagel is a moral realist (which I think you’re saying, that he thinks the idea of moral realism is real, not just an ideal to strive for), I still don’t know what he thinks morality is or how we know what moral truth is. Is it something everyone knows, or something every culture agrees is moral truth? Is it something every philosopher knows? Is it something that can be worked out by anyone who follows rules laid down by philosophers? Is it based on logic, or biology, or some other truths that are just known to be true (somehow)? Or is it something Western philosophy professors happen to believe, but which other people don’t, because they’re just wrong?

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js. 11.09.13 at 1:04 am

If you actually want to know what Nagel’s view is, this could be of help:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Or you could just take potshots.

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geo 11.09.13 at 1:26 am

Bianca: Honestly, I’m a little mystified too by the idea of moral realism. Nagel is a good writer, and I recommend his books, particularly Mortal Questions, The View from Nowhere, and Mind and Cosmos. There’s also an essay on Nagel by Rorty, in I forget which collection, that (as usual with Rorty, at least for his fans) explains Nagel better than Nagel does, or at any rate conveys his significance better.

I do think, though, despite having wasted much time on them, that questions about the ultimate basis of morality, or whether there is one, don’t matter much. Ditto for questions about the ultimate basis of truth, or whether there is one. Whether we treat one another, and the planet, better, and whether we understand our minds and the universe better, won’t be affected by whatever answers we give to them. I think most people a few centuries hence will look on our philosophical perplexities in much the same way as we look on those of the Scholastics.

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geo 11.09.13 at 1:28 am

PS – By ” … whatever answers we give to them” I meant to those questions about the ultimate basis of morality or truth. Sorry for any ambiguity.

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Ed Herdman 11.10.13 at 2:20 am

There is a local guy who told me, when he discovered I had studied philosophy, with great earnestness, that Kant was “the most evil man who ever lived.” In his lifetime and soon after he was called the happiest, or at least most content man. Where people get these ideas is beyond me, especially when you are a self-described Randian (as this man is) and would seem to subscribe to some form of moral realism. (Although I am rather surprised to find that many – apparently most – people consider Kant not a moral realist, and I think he would be also.)

Speaking of potshots, I thought some of the Scholastics did good work. Nobody who knows the name of Jean Buridan will laugh at him for being a scholastic.

I think that we may well be coming up hard, and quickly, against some epistemic limits on knowledge, so that in centuries to come very little (if any) progress will be made on questions like “what is the source of moral conduct?” I can see people not caring, but perhaps only a segment of society will be able to convince themselves that there is no is-ought question (for example).

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