Consequentialism, compassion and confidence

by John Quiggin on November 21, 2009

I’m finally collecting my thoughts in response to Chris’ post on Consequentialism and Communism, particularly this remark imputing to consequentialists in general

the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals

that characterized the Bolsheviks and their successors.

As regards willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals, I think this is an unfair criticism of consequentialists. Look at any of the standard anti-consequentialist philosophical examples – trolley car, organ bank, survival lottery, violinist and so on. It’s always the hard-nosed consequentialist who is supposed to want to save as many lives as possible, and the noble anti-consequentialist who proposes to sacrifice individual lives for “valuable goals” such as clean hands, natural rights and bodily integrity.

The big problem with consequentialism evident both in these examples and the case of Communism, and brought out in the discussion to Chris’ post, arises when consequentialist ethics are applied by someone who is grossly overconfident of their ability to predict long-term consequences. This is obvious enough in the case of Communism – millions of lives were sacrificed in the pursuit of an ultimate utopia and instead Russia ended up with Putin and the oligarchs.

But it’s also standard in ethical thought experiments, and the reason why I find most of them totally unhelpful. Again and again, you are asked to accept, for the sake of argument, ludicrously improbable scenarios that you are supposed to believe with 100 per cent confidence. Unsurprisingly, to me at least, appeals to intuition in such cases don’t get you very far.

Thinking about this, it struck me that a sensibly fallibilist view of our individual capacity to predict consequences would lead directly to rule-consequentialism. I haven’t got this argument tight, but this is a blog, after all.

Here’s my view. Suppose that I make the general judgement (which must be right on average) that I’m no better than average in predicting consequences. Then, if the majority of my fellow-consequentialists[1] agree that a particular course of action is the right one, I would do best to follow their recommendation rather than my own judgement. But, this recommendation obviously can’t take the form of a referendum on every action, so it must take the form of setting out rules, which may be more or less general or specific depending on circumstances. Given that consequentialists agree on a set of rules, I should follow them, applying my own judgement only where the rules don’t specify a particular course of action.

fn1. I’m going to simplify and assume that we all agree on how to evaluate different consequences.

{ 84 comments }

1

Kenny Easwaran 11.21.09 at 8:31 am

On a slightly tangential note, this is the thing I found most interesting about Batman: The Dark Knight. It presented several standard ethical thought experiments, but did so in a setting where you really couldn’t be certain that things would work out as described.

2

yoyo 11.21.09 at 8:57 am

Is there a single person who thinks themself to be merely average at predicting consequenses? Everyone fancies themself an expert.

3

Chris Bertram 11.21.09 at 9:06 am

A few initial thoughts in response John …

* First, an obvious point, but one difficult to get right: what counts as “sacrificing” is going to depend on your view on acts and omissions. The standard deontological view looks pretty crazy in toy examples like the trolley problem, much less so when applied, say, to decisions on war and peace where the bellicose (I’m thinking Hitchens here) help themselves to all kinds of assumptions about the lives they save (“If Uday and Qusay had ben left in power …” – you know the drill.

* Second, following what “my fellow consequentialists” believe about likely consquences seems overly restrictive. Why limit yourself to the estimates of party members?

* Third, copying what others think, even a majority, is a recipe for bubbles and crashes, isn’t it?

* Fourth, OK so you abandon that in favour of rules (meaning rules of thumb). But where are these rules coming from? Past experience perhaps? That sounds like a sensible answer but I already hear the seducer’s voice telling you that the world has changed, that old rules are no longer relevant (now that China is rich, or Iran has the bomb, or Al Qaeda has anthrax, or whatever) … no time for longer deliberation, emergency, etc etc.

4

lemuel pitkin 11.21.09 at 9:21 am

Suppose that I make the general judgement (which must be right on average) that I’m no better than average in predicting consequences.

But suppose I have reason to believe I in particular am better than others at predicting consequences?

5

Phil 11.21.09 at 10:13 am

There is another <a href="theory which states that this has already happened.

6

Bruce Wilder 11.21.09 at 10:37 am

Rule-consequentialism appears indistinguishable from ethics as craft. Consequences are hard to predict, because the processes that produce outcomes are hard to control in the face of ignorance and accident.

Is control an ethical imperative?

7

gyges 11.21.09 at 11:32 am

When I saw this the first time around,

the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals

I thought that it was just another expression of socialism; ie, the elevation of the collective above the individual.

8

novakant 11.21.09 at 11:34 am

As John says, most of these thought experiments are ludicrous and therefore useless. The fact that so many intelligent people have spilled so much ink discussing them should make us think twice about certain forms of academic philosophy.

I will go further and say, that they are actually counter-productive in that they propagate the notion of ethics mainly being about a single individual having to make the right choices, while it is pretty clear that the truly important choices (war, distribution of wealth etc.) are made collectively, or rather by groups of people who happen to have power in our societies.

Let’s face it, the individual is largely powerless when it comes to such choices, even in our much hailed democracies, and generally the lives of individuals are not filled with occasions to make monumental moral choices, but most people are just muddling through, realizing that their actions are pretty insignificant to the big picture. Our best hope is that individuals try to be a bit less of a selfish @sshole than is the norm.

9

JoB 11.21.09 at 11:36 am

4- supposing that, I would have every reason to think you’re a dangerous individual &, that much is certain, a very atypical one (although maybe rather typical in the atypical category of blog wanderers).

Anyway, the higher level consequentialism of John is right – both consequentialist and non-consequentialist arguments can be easily bent to fit the worst decisions.

If anyhing the difference is that consequentialism kills by averages whilst most of anti-consequentialism kills in genocides.

The interesting position are those of Kant, Hume, Rawls which give non-consequential reasons why, or better: under which conditions, one should go with consequentialism.

10

dsquared 11.21.09 at 11:39 am

If one is a sufficiently rigorous post-Keynesian, then one can get rid of the argument from personal predictive fallibility and simply assert that:

1) because the world is non-ergodic
2) no probability measure exists over future events so
3) there is no expected value of any course of action so
4) any belief on your part in an expected outcome is an illusion brought on by predictive overconfidence so
5) follow the rules.

11

Neel Krishnaswami 11.21.09 at 11:57 am

dsquared: steps 1-4 of your argument make a certain amount of sense, but 5 doesn’t follow from them. You can equally well argue that 1-4 imply that the rules can’t have any reasons which make them worth obeying.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.21.09 at 12:28 pm

5. withdraw from worldly affairs, give up everything and join a monastery.

13

Tom Hurka 11.21.09 at 2:24 pm

1. What Neel said about #9: if you know nothing about the future, you know nothing about what rules it will be best to follow. So “murder everyone” is as good as any alternative.

2. What John proposes isn’t, to be pedantic, rule-consequentialism; it’s indirect consequentialism. And indirect consequentialists have this totally unfounded confidence that the rules following which will have the best consequences are the same as the non-consequentialist rules most of us apply in everyday life and in judging the hypothetical cases.

3. There are lots of perfectly realistic cases where act-consequentialism and deontology come apart. It could be that by weakening the protections for criminal defendants, e.g. by lowering the standard of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “on the balance of probabilities” we would, while convicting a few more innocent people, convict so many more guilty ones and thereby prevent crimes that the net consequentialist effect would be positive. Yet many of us would reject the change because of its effect on the innocent. (“Better that ten guilty men escape than that one innocent man suffer.”)

4. Most importantly, it isn’t just that consequentialism yields the wrong verdicts about what’s right and wrong; it’s that it gives the wrong reason for them. Indirect consequentialism says the reason we shouldn’t frame and execute an innocent person in order to prevent a race riot is that a rule allowing such an act would have long-run bad consequences, e.g. by spreading fear through the population. But that’s not why the framing and executing is wrong. It’s not because of how it will affect various remote people in the future; it’s because of what it does to this person and his rights now.

14

engels 11.21.09 at 2:25 pm

I’ve seen it repeated fairly regularly by commenters here but I don’t understand how it is a criticism of the ‘trolley problem’ (say) that it allegedly assumes that the decision-maker will know the outcome with ‘absolute certainty’. I don’t remember this being true, but even supposing it is, if it were stipulated instead that you only be very confident, say, or reasonably certain, rather than ‘absolutely certain’, of the outcome would the outcome of the experiment be different? Even if the outcome was affected, why would this be a reason for rejecting the method of thought experiments in moral philosophy? In everyday life it seems we do often confront dilemmas where we can be reasonably certain of the direct consequences of the options we face. Admittedly this is not always true but it seems to be true often enough that such situations are worthy of study.

15

engels 11.21.09 at 2:55 pm

Looking back, I see the phrase ‘absolute certainty’ was my invention and not a quotation from your post, but I assume this is what you mean when you complain that you are supposed to believe with 100 per cent confidence

16

Matt D 11.21.09 at 3:07 pm

I know it’s CT comment policy to complain about analytic moral philosophy’s obsession with implausible thought experiments, and some of those complaints are completely justified. But many of the complaints seem to miss the point of such thought experiments.

The point of e.g. the trolley problem isn’t tell people what to do when standing next to a fat man on a bridge watching a runaway trolley. It isn’t even, in the main, to tell people what to decide in cases where the confront a trade off between the few and the many. The complaint that the problem is ‘ludicrous and therefore useless’ kind of misses the point.

The point of the debate is (or was– the debate now has a life of its own) to try to understand the distinction between doing and allowing, and especially to understand what sort of difference that distinction might make in moral contexts. Understanding THAT distinction is genuinely morally important, and trying to begin to understand it in the artificial context of a thought experiment is no more illegitimate than, say, using economic modeling to understand economies (those are artificial, of course, but not thereby ‘ludicrous and useless’). In other words, it’s not about the trolleys. Or the fat man. It’s about agency.

Also, what Tom Hurka said.

17

engels 11.21.09 at 3:24 pm

I wondered how John would apply his strictures against ‘ludicrousness’ to economic models but I suppose that if the objection is that ‘ludicrous’ hypothetical situations do not yield reliable intuitive moral judgments then this doesn’t apply to economics models which aren’t used to probe intuitions but as a basis for deductive reasoning.

18

Yarrow 11.21.09 at 3:54 pm

The point of e.g. the trolley problem isn’t tell people what to do when standing next to a fat man on a bridge watching a runaway trolley. … [but] to try to understand the distinction between doing and allowing

Nevertheless, it’s a weakness of the thought experiment that our common-sense confidence that we know the outcome of our action goes down during each step of the sequence “not throwing a switch to alter the train’s course”, “throwing a switch to alter the train’s course”, and “throwing a fat man off a bridge to alter a train’s course”.

And John also mentioned the organ bank and survival lottery thought experiments. If the point of those is not “to tell people what to decide in cases where the[y] confront a trade off between the few and the many”, surely it is at least to persuade them?

19

Charlie 11.21.09 at 3:54 pm

12: Indirect consequentialism says the reason we shouldn’t frame and execute an innocent person in order to prevent a race riot is that a rule allowing such an act would have long-run bad consequences, e.g. by spreading fear through the population.

In such a case, wouldn’t we say that the rule permits consequences of the form: (some innocent person may be killed and a race riot may be prevented and fear may be spread through the population and … etc.)? As a consequentialist, you might attach great weight to the wrongness of killing an innocent person and so reject the rule, even if my own consequentialist outlook led me to weigh things somewhat differently, or not. I don’t see that we’re inevitably guided to ‘the wrong reason’.

As far as trolley problems go; I agree that they often seem ludicrous. But they do seem to get at a core difficulty; even with perfect information, we might find it very hard to explain or justify certain actions, were we in a position to act. However, there seems to be plenty of ‘moral space’ left over.

Anyhow, from John’s original post:

Given that consequentialists agree on a set of rules, I should follow them, applying my own judgement only where the rules don’t specify a particular course of action.

Wouldn’t we be fairly happy if legislators did in fact take the electorate to be ‘consequentialists who happen to agree on a set of rules’ and hence did their best to follow those rules?

20

novakant 11.21.09 at 3:55 pm

The point of the debate is (or was—the debate now has a life of its own) to try to understand the distinction between doing and allowing, and especially to understand what sort of difference that distinction might make in moral contexts. Understanding THAT distinction is genuinely morally important

I don’t think so, and in fact I think that even trying to make such a distinction is, again, to a large counterproductive.

Why? Simply because the people in power who are able to make decisions that affect a lot of other people are and have always been insulated from the consequences of their actions by several layers of bureaucracy and whatnot. They are not killing Iraqis with their own bare hands, they are not ruining the lives of millions by personally robbing them of their life-savings, they are not making people starve by physically taking away their food. Instead, they sign or don’t sign some document, vote or don’t vote for some law that will result in all of that. In the terminology proposed by such thought experiments, they are “allowing” that stuff to happen, but they are not “doing” it. And afterwards they jump into a limousine that takes them to their club for cocktail hour, far removed from any consequences.

By trying to establish an artificial distinction between “doing” and “allowing” the process by which these consequences are generated is obscured, rather than clarified, and the way the power structure within our society manifests itself is ignored.

21

novakant 11.21.09 at 3:56 pm

make that: ” to a large extent counterproductive.”

22

Chris Bertram 11.21.09 at 4:06 pm

There’s a perfectly good reason why the examples we use are “far fetched”, “ludicrous” etc. It is because we are often trying to test our commitment to some principle or other which is alleged to hold universally. A principle wouldn’t even be a _prima facie_ candidate for such universal status if it failed to deliver the right answer in the central cases, so we are bound to seek out more exotic examples – it is the way of the dialectic.

23

Matt D 11.21.09 at 4:43 pm

Novakant: your complaint seems to be that moral philosophers aren’t spending their time being policy-wonk political activists instead. Which is fair enough, I guess, but isn’t going to convince us moral philosophers of much. There are legitimately interesting questions in ethics that have nothing to do with the war in Iraq, as hard as that may be to believe.

Again: the purpose of the trolley problem discussion is NOT to say that there IS a distinction between, say, doing and allowing that allows those in political power to wash their hands of the consequences of their actions by saying they’re just ‘allowing.’ After all, signing a law or ordering an invasion would count as pretty clear cases of ‘doing’ here. The point isn’t post-hoc justification for bad policies: Thompson and Foot aren’t anything like John Yoo. The point, among other things, is to figure out how to explain various distinctions–itself a rather difficult problem–and, further, to figure out if those distinctions are morally important.

I find the debate on the trolley problem tiresome, myself, and I think mere intuition pumping is a philosophical vice, but thought experiments and extreme cases are perfectly legitimate philosophical tools that don’t deserve the scorn often heaped on them. They don’t give us clear-cut answers, but properly used, they help us think about the questions, which is often the point in moral philosophy.

Also, what Chris Bertram said.

24

kid bitzer 11.21.09 at 4:57 pm

i think considerations of personal fallibility–whether fallibility in predicting consequences, in performing conditional deliberations, or in reasoning tout court–are going to do a good job of moving us away from act utilitarianism understood as a first-person how-to guide for living.

but they are going to do a much less determinate job of moving us towards any other specific alternative.

cause it looks like most of the alternatives are going to call on some of those same deeply fallible human modules. deontology? yeah, that’s easy–there’s surely no way someone could go astray applying the universalization principle.

so i think the first half of jq’s thought is right, but not the second half. and probably not any other version of the second half. it may even be that the consideration of epistemic humility will apply so even-handedly to all of the competing options as to be a wash–it will leave the state of play between various consequentialisms and their competitors just where it was.

in my own case, i’m pretty sure that if i were only a lot better at conditional deliberation, then i would…then i would…

ah, what’s the use.

25

Adam 11.21.09 at 5:35 pm

Re: #13 and 14, I believe the certainty/confidence stipulation is indeed present in the usual trolley cases, the point being to dissociate moral factors from epistemic ones.

26

roger 11.21.09 at 7:57 pm

I would think that the term “outcome” here, which seems neutral and bland, might be misleading. Myself, I would think that the meanings of situations can shift. The same outcome can look one way or another depending on the frame of reference. Both capitalists and communists, for instance, bet much on an industrial system that encouraged technology in every dimension, so that quality of life of the average person would go up. From one frame of reference, what a great bet! But if, one hundred years from now, we live on a planet of unbelievable population collapses due to the inability of that system to confront, say, global warming, we might well say, what a shitty bet! (I’m discounting the planetsaving magic of shooting sulfides into the air, forever, by way of an eighteen mile high pipe. Of course.)

Jacques Ellul spoke, in the fifties, of the lock-in effected by the technological system. It isn’t just a matter of whether one’s prediction about the future is correct – whether you can make “x” happen – but also, about whether you can then get rid of x. Lockin, I think, changes the meaning of outcomes.

27

John Quiggin 11.21.09 at 7:59 pm

Chris @3

On 1, at least in part, that’s my point. People who want to make war always help themselves to favorable assumptions about consequences, so it’s up to sensible consequentialists to point out that people who want to make war have always done this, that they have almost always been wrong and that’s why (at least in theory) we have rules against it. But as a matter of fact, it seems to me that the leftists who supported the war, including Hitchens, didn’t do so on consequentialist grounds or, like Norman Geras, played consequentialism with the net down (‘since we are starting the war with no other aim than to overthrow the evil Saddam, anything bad that happens after that doesn’t count as a consequence). At least some people on the right believed the WMD story in its strong (45-minutes to nuke London) form, which would provide a consequentialist case for war, but almost invariably the same people believed the the war was justified by Resolution 1441 and that the US in any case has the right to make war whenever this would serve its national interest. (Longer than I planned on this point).

2. You’re right

3. It’s a three stage process. You contribute your own judgement in the process of agreeing on/voting on the rules, then you follow the rules then you use your own judgement in cases where the rules aren’t decisive

4. Agreed, this is a problem. As with real estate bubbles, the sensible consequentialist has to remind people that the “everything has changed”/”these are special circumstances” has been made many times before, usually falsely. Of course things do change and so do rules. But this is also a pretty big problem for deontological views, especially to the extent that they rely on changing moral intuitions to derive supposedly unchanging truths.

28

John Quiggin 11.21.09 at 8:37 pm

@Tom Hurka #12

1. Sure, and relevant to DD’s point, but not to mine

2. I’m not an expert on these distinctions, but at least taking SEP definitionsit appears that “indirect utilitarianism” doesn’t mean “taking account of all consequences, direct and indirect” (which is what consequentialists should always do), but “taking account of things other than consequences”. If that’s right, I disagree with your claim. I’m not invoking anything other than the consequences of specific acts, which is direct utilitarianism. I derive rule utilitarianism from direct utilitarianism + knowledge of fallibility, and tendency to wishful thinking in projecting indirect consequences. As regards “totally unfounded confidence that the rules following which will have the best consequences are the same as the non-consequentialist rules most of us apply in everyday life and in judging the hypothetical cases”, this is where I seem to part company with a lot of ethical philosophers. I thought the idea of the enterprise was to help us make better choices, not to provide a theoretical rationale for our existing choices. But a lot of ethical philosophers seem to (and sometimes explicitly say they) pursue the second goal.

3. I’ll note first that the combination of fallibility and consequentialism gives very strong grounds for not breaking the rules in particular cases, eg knowingly convicting the innocent to prevent a race riot. The judge or the prosecutor might think that, this time it would be a good idea to convict the innocent, but the rules are there precisely to stop people relying on their own judgement in such respects.

Coming to your point, we know that the criminal justice system, even with the most pro-defendant settings of the rules, and even with all participants obeying the rules, inevitably convicts a number of innocent people. So how do you stop your deontological principle saying “let all go free, lest any innocent be convicted”? And more seriously, there have been lots of changes in the rules (expansion and contraction of the right to silence, majority jury verdicts, double jeopardy and so on) which shift the relative probabilities of convicting the innocent and freeing the guilty. Do deontologists have intutions in each case, or just regarding proof beyond reasonable doubt?

4. Isn’t this begging the question?

29

lemuel pitkin 11.21.09 at 9:04 pm

The point of the debate is (or was—the debate now has a life of its own) to try to understand the distinction between doing and allowing, and especially to understand what sort of difference that distinction might make in moral contexts.

Those of us who aren’t analytic philosophers tend to doubt that there is such a distinction — the terms are used in by different people in different contexts in a variety of overlapping ways. Exploring how (liberal, educated, English-=speaking, etc.) people react to various hypotheticals might be interesting in various ways but it can’t find the clear line dividing these vague gradations, because there isn’t one to find.

(Of course Wittgenstein said it all a long time ago, didn’t he?)

It is because we are often trying to test our commitment to some principle or other which is alleged to hold universally. A principle wouldn’t even be a prima facie candidate for such universal status if it failed to deliver the right answer in the central cases, so we are bound to seek out more exotic examples

But what makes you think any interesting principle holds universally? Sometimes it seems like the entire project of contemporary moral philosophy is to work out a set of first principles from which the conventional opinions of the late 20th century English-speaking liberal middle class can be derived by logic alone.

30

Michael Harris 11.21.09 at 10:28 pm

Lemuel @ 29

Is Chris saying there are univeral moral principles?

FWIW, whenever I have ever brought up hypotheticals like the trolley problem, it’s not to show that a principle is universal even in “extreme” cases, but that individuals will tend to shift how they approach moral/ethical problems depending on the context.

I can’t imagine supporting a number of the policy proposals I do (of the bleeding-heart liberal variety) if I wasn’t supporting them on somewhat consequentialist (cost-benefit) grounds.

On the other hand, in other contexts, I’m inclined to utilise rule-consequentialist or rights-based approaches to particular ethical problems or issues.

I currently have a hair shirt on my Amazon Christmas-gift wishlist, as this ethical wishy-washyness is clearly unsatisfactory and a sign of an underlying moral weakness.

31

freight train 11.21.09 at 10:53 pm

29 –

The purpose of measuring “universal” principles against, say, the trolley problem isn’t to prove which principles are actually universal. It’s to prove what you actually believe about principles. That is, these thought experiments tease out people’s actual inuitions – “I’d have said I was for whatever’s best for the most people, but I wouldn’t feel right about throwing the switch in that situation, even if I can’t say why.” From that point, you can perform philosophical analysis on the results, or you can try to change people’s minds, people’s actions, and the world – but either way, it’s useful to begin knowing as much as possible what people value, not what they think or claim they value.

32

Thomas 11.21.09 at 11:33 pm

The purpose of measuring “universal” principles against, say, the trolley problem isn’t to prove which principles are actually universal. It’s to prove what you actually believe about principles.

That is certainly one aim, but why should it work? That is, why should you actually get a reliable idea of what people actually believe about principles by extrapolating from these extreme cases? If someone really is making consistent decisions based on simple universal principles you shouldn’t need extreme cases, and if their decisions aren’t consistent with simple universal principles there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to privilege their decisions in extreme and artificial problems over their other decisions.

In addition to the practical problems in this extrapolation I think John’s argument shows that the extrapolation isn’t even normatively valid — what you do in situations where consequences are completely clear shouldn’t be what you do in real situations where you shouldn’t be willing to rely on your predictions of consequences.

The intuition pump examples can still be useful tools for identifying what sort of issues should be considered, which I think is part of what Matt D is saying. There the argument is not so much “you don’t really believe this principle” but “what feature has been left out that makes this example misleading?”.

33

john c. halasz 11.22.09 at 12:07 am

It might be worth remembering here, that for Kant, to be at all considered a rational agent, one must act in accordance with a maxim, i.e. a rule, a kind of mini-policy. Such minimal consistency in action is required for any meaningful attribution of agency, let alone moral status or capacity, (since ” a lawless will is a contradiction in terms”). I don’t want to get into the weeds with Kant’s moral philosophy here, (except to note that his emphasis on the interiority of intention to the exclusion of consequences precludes any evaluation of ends, except in the distantiated and idealized form of a “kingdom of ends”, which makes it weirdly consonant with utilitarianism, considered as a sheer rationalization of means), but I think his intuition of the de-ontic status of moral/ethical norms, which as counterfactuals can’t be derived from any givenness, is basically correct. If the matter of morality/ethics concerns acts and material and symbolic exchanges with respect to relations with others qua other, then the separateness of persons, their otherness, is paramount. (This needn’t imply any primacy to individualism, since there are no individuals outside of social groups, since we are already bound up in relations with others “before” we can become such individuated selves, for whom these questions and matters would arise). Ethical “order”, then is a matter matter of maintaining the ethical status of persons/agents within the social group, regardless of what changes or transformations of ontic conditions might ensue or come about. Utilitarianism, insofar as it can’t supply any criterion for the separateness/otherness of persons, would IMHO not be an “ethical” standpoint, but sub-ethical. No matter how admirable a proposal might be under its auspices, it’s a matter of policy and not ethics, or, in other words, the utilitarian reasons recommending such a proposal would not be the same as the ethical reasons obliging its adoption. There are also other generic flaws with utilitarianism, such as its simplistic/mechanistic binary of pleasure and pain, which has little to do with the ambivalence of moral emotions, nor with the status of notionally self-determining agents; and its confusion of the good with “goods” to enable a rather spurious quantification, with the usual implications that more is necessarily better and that egotistical motivations, “interests”, are the paramount concern and criteria. But it’s in that basic mis-recognition of the matter at issue and its stakes in “ethics” where the damage is already done.

As to the “trolley problem”, it’s curious that the impatience with which some people reject it seems tinged with disgust, which, like, contempt, shame, or admiration, is an evaluative emotion. But I don’t take the problem as concerning the difference between acting and permitting,- (sins of commission vs. sins of omission?),-, but rather the difference between immediate (fat man) and mediated (train switch) action. The latter permits abstraction into a third-person perspective, whereas the former is irremediably mired in a second-person encounter. (And I believe the empirical result is that train switch gains a much higher % of approval than fat man). But it’s been put under MRI, with the claimed empirical result that different parts of the brain are “lit up” between the two versions. Apparently, the relational and the cognitive components or subsystems of behavior are evolutionarily “wired” much differently. And it might be useful to reflect on that difference and why it might be so.

34

Chris Bertram 11.22.09 at 12:25 am

If we were just trying to find out what people’s beliefs are, then we’d be doing some sort of sociology of morals rather than moral philosophy. I take it, though, that we’re trying to work out what to believe, where there’s some fact of the matter to which our beliefs ought to conform. (Of course, on various non-realist metaethical views there are no such facts, but the logic of moral discourse presupposes, rightly or wrongly, that there are.) As for universal principles, again, I take it that if there is some principle that holds non-universally then there’s some more general principle that explains its non-universality (and onwards and upwards).

35

Chris Bertram 11.22.09 at 12:31 am

John Q: on the first point – yes you’re right about the leftists who supported the Iraq war being (officially anyway) non-consequentialist. However, I think the pressure to treat the principle-based unwillingness to do unspeakable things as a kind of self-indulgent squeamishness has largely come from consequentialist reasoning about the importance of winning (two world wars, the cold war, etc.),

36

novakant 11.22.09 at 12:34 am

it is the way of the dialectic.

But the dialectic needs to be situated within the philosophical discourse. As soon as one makes a distinction between pristine philosophical principles on the one hand, and our failure to live up to them in the grubby real world, philosophical discourse becomes hermetic, undialectical and – sorry to harp on this – useless in my view.

Hegel, for all his faults, at least tried have his philosophical framework encompass all of the world and – this might surprise some – held “mere abstraction” in very low regard. His system is interesting in so far as he attempted to do justice both to the abstract and universal, as well as the concrete and particular (that he didn’t succeed is another matter). Only if both poles are given their due within the philosophical discourse in equal measure can we speak of dialectics.

Nowadays this would necessitate a truly interdisciplinary approach and giving up the pretense that philosophical discourse has some privileged status among the arts and sciences. Abstraction doesn’t lead to clarity, but in fact obfuscates the complexity under which individuals operate. This is one reason why Rorty left his chair in philosophy for a post in humanities and quite convincingly argued that a novel does more justice to the complexity ethical problems and human decision making processes than your standard academic paper on ethics.

37

John Quiggin 11.22.09 at 12:35 am

I’ll agree that the examples can be useful as intuition pumps, and I can get something useful out of it, relating it back to Chris’ post and my response. The argument for pushing the fat man onto the tracks is pretty much in the same class as that for crushing the kulaks or invading Iraq, namely that we should commit crimes now in the hope that good will follow. As I’ve argued, once you accept that such hopes are highly fallible, you should obey the general rule against committing crimes and ignore the Stalinist/Decent/philosopher assuring you that they have special knowledge that ensures (or gives high confidence) that “this time, it will all be for the best”.

On the other hand, it seems to me, there’s no such argument against throwing the switch. You can’t be sure what will happen, but the uncertainty is symmetrical whether you throw the switch or not, and throwing the switch will probably save lives. I suspect, following Novakant above that the actual solution (assuming benevolent decisionmakers which is not always true) is to insert enough layers of machinery to ensure that the right choice is made without forcing anyone to make the explicit choice “X should die and Y should live”.

38

Chris Bertram 11.22.09 at 12:36 am

Yawns ….

39

Chris Bertram 11.22.09 at 12:37 am

(Sorry, yawn directed at novakant not at John.)

40

Kaleberg 11.22.09 at 2:13 am

The problem with the trolley problem is that if there is some guy who is so massive he can stop, or even deflect, a trolley car, how the hell am I going to push him off a bridge? He must weigh tons! If I were strong enough to push Mr. Big off the bridge, I could probably just jump off the bridge and deflect the trolley car myself. If I could push someone, let us say Ms. Little, off a bridge into the path of a trolley car, doing so isn’t going to do squat to save anyone.

Do they ever ask physicists to vet their problems? Do philosophers ever try doing these things? (You could use a big sack of sand or a crash test dummy if you don’t want to actually push a person off a bridge.)

Maybe this is why most people don’t push other people off bridges to stop trolley cars, and superheroes, like Superman, who can stop trolley cars just do it themselves and not by pushing other people around.

41

lemuel pitkin 11.22.09 at 2:49 am

on various non-realist metaethical views there are no such facts, but the logic of moral discourse presupposes, rightly or wrongly, that there are.

You’ve tucked this into a parenthesis, but in fact it seems like the key point. On one level, we know that moral rules are products of history and contingent in all sorts of ways. But in our own actions and subjective experience, we need to regard moral rules as having objective force.

What I think someone like Rorty is trying to do is suggest that neither of these truths can be reduced to the other. Just because we need to believe, when we are making choices, that there a set of objective moral rules, doesn’t mean there actually are a set of universal rules out there with the same status as mathematical truths.

42

lemuel pitkin 11.22.09 at 2:52 am

The problem with the trolley problem is that if there is some guy who is so massive he can stop, or even deflect, a trolley car, how the hell am I going to push him off a bridge? He must weigh tons!

Maybe he’s the same one who was stuck in that mineshaft.

43

Cala 11.22.09 at 3:27 am

Do they ever ask physicists to vet their problems?
We tried, but they were stuck on the frictionless ice shelf with the penguin and assumed that morality was a perfect sphere.

44

john c. halasz 11.22.09 at 3:40 am

@37 is incoherent: in the “trolley problem” there is, as a matter of fact, not consequential difference between the two cases. Introducing probabilities or degrees of certainty doesn’t alter the stipulated facts, or would alter them equally. As to: “I suspect, following Novakant above that the actual solution (assuming benevolent decisionmakers which is not always true) is to insert enough layers of machinery to ensure that the right choice is made without forcing anyone to make the explicit choice “X should die and Y should live”. The point is that one must make a decision to support or commit violence, not that one’s responsibility can be obfuscated procedurally, so that Gov. Rick Perry makes the legalistic decision, not oneself. One might well chose to engage in or support the enactment of violence under the force of circumstances, but the point is that one remains responsible either way for one’s decision and its consequences, (and the non-violent course might well be worse), which sense of responsibility should condition just how one engages in or supports violence, (or similar or analogous harms).

As to the fat man case, Fafblog beat me to the point, but I suspect that the problem with the framing of the case is not that it exaggerates the physics suggested by his being fat, as if Monsieur Avoir du Pois couldn’t be standing on his tippy-toes to get a better view, while ignoring the absence of a secure guard rail, but rather that it trades in moral innuendo for the soup Nazis among us, for whom fatness would connote excessiveness or superfluousness, thereby “justifying” his elimination from amongst the benighted elect.

45

John Quiggin 11.22.09 at 3:57 am

‘the point is that one remains responsible either way for one’s decision and its consequences”

I agree, but the point of the trolley example is supposed be that our intuitions go the other way; that in some sense you are more responsible if you throw the switch than if you don’t. If those making social rules accept both the quoted sentence and the reality of the point about intuitions, they are likely try to reach some situation where the switch is thrown but no one feels any more (or less) responsible than if it had not been.

46

CJColucci 11.22.09 at 4:23 am

If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?

47

john c. halasz 11.22.09 at 4:42 am

@45

No, the quasi-empirical point of the “trolley problem” is that both the train switch and the fat man cases are consequentially identical, whether answered in the binary yes or no. That more people might answer yes in the train switch case than in the fat man case is supposed to reveal some inconsistency in our moral intuitions. That some % might either answer no or yes to both cases indicates some consistency, but neither the reasons for their intuitions, nor the sense of engagement or responsibility involved, i.e why they are consistent when others aren’t and whether it’s because they value consistency or commitment most of all. At any rate, I took @37 to be answering no to the fat man and yes to the train switch, rather than addressing any asymmetry between acting and refraining, with respect to the responsibility involved. If “those making the social rules”,- (and who are they, if not we ourselves?),- are striving to attain a “neutral” position in which no one feels responsibility either way, then we are in the Grand Inquisitor parable, in which those “responsible”, in the utter cynicism of their hold on power, are striving to “dis-emburden” the others of their responsibility.

48

novakant 11.22.09 at 6:15 am

There are legitimately interesting questions in ethics that have nothing to do with the war in Iraq, as hard as that may be to believe.

I agree – no, really ;). But if we talk about less monumental ethical decisions, my point becomes even stronger. Take for example infidelity, which is, amongst other aspects, an ethical problem and a rather widespread one. I don’t see how analytical philosophy or even philosophy in general (if practiced in a traditional way) can shed much light on the issue, apart from providing us with rather tired generalizations. An essay, a novel or a film on the other hand are able to provide us with a very fine-grained and insightful analysis of the matter.

thought experiments and extreme cases are perfectly legitimate philosophical tools that don’t deserve the scorn often heaped on them. They don’t give us clear-cut answers, but properly used, they help us think about the questions, which is often the point in moral philosophy.

They might sometimes lead to a higher level of reflection and enable us to step back from the issue at hand, but generally the inevitable reduction of complexity will do more harm than good and obfuscate the matters more than it clarifies them. This is due to ethical decisions depending on a variety of factors and being made within a very complex world, while such though experiments are designed to simplify matters and exclude everything that is falsely considered non-essential, just like a scientific experiment.

49

novakant 11.22.09 at 7:34 am

john c. halasz: I think your description of utilitarianism is pretty one-sided, or rather you make it seem as if people had to choose between either utilitarianism or a Kantian “Gesinnungsethik”, while in fact it is entirely possible to integrate aspects of both within a reasonably coherent position. What I find refreshing about utilitarianism is the fact that it can be used to cut a long story short, so for instance one can debate endlessly awbout the Iraq war, but then one can also simply ask the question: “our actions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – how can that be a good thing?”. While I certainly don’t “subscribe” to utilitarianism (and generally find the pressure to favor one approach over another, to choose sides, in philosophical discourse very silly) I think viewing things from this point of view can actually be very productive and should be encouraged – I increasingly count the number of avoidable deaths in order to evaluate ethical/political decisions.

50

Ceri B. 11.22.09 at 8:11 am

I’ll bet I have been anticipated in this thought…

I’m thinking that part of my problem with the extreme cases in thought experiments is the simple observation that most of us act differently when we realize it’s an extreme situation. We may do much better or much worse than we’d hope, but the fact of a real life-threatening or otherwise very important and very urgent crisis changes our mental state. By way of analogy, very detailed study of our posture while driving a car and while riding a bike may not actually say much about our posture when walking and running.

51

bad Jim 11.22.09 at 8:33 am

Take for example infidelity

Yeah. On the one hand, who does it hurt? On the other, if you’ve ever experienced jealousy, you don’t have to ask. When I went to work for my father, in my late twenties, I discovered his unusual arrangement: Monday, Wednesday and Friday he spent with his girlfriend at work (convertible sofa in the office). My mother mostly tolerated this arrangement, and twenty-odd years after my Dad’s death she’s on civil terms with his former lover (we all go to the same UU approximation of a church) but her resentment still simmers. What I got out of the arrangement was an extra mother, which was about the last thing I needed.

The ethical dilemma I most frequently face is exiting a parking lot after a concert, deciding whether to stop to allow someone in front of me to jump the queue, inconveniencing dozens of drivers behind me who have been in motion longer than the laggards in front of me who depend upon my consideration. [In the worst case this drove me to park in a more distant garage.]

These puzzles suggest that no general solution is possible; there may be (or may well already have been) a broad conclusion to be drawn along the lines of Gödel’s incompleteness or Arrow’s election theorems that no approach can be both general and satisfactory.

“Do unto others” is too strong; “do not to your neighbor” is too weak. In practice it’s probably as much about what you had for breakfast or the last argument you had with your brother, and in principle it might not be possible to do much better than that.

52

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.22.09 at 9:24 am

The argument for pushing the fat man onto the tracks is pretty much in the same class as that for crushing the kulaks or invading Iraq, namely that we should commit crimes now in the hope that good will follow. As I’ve argued, once you accept that such hopes are highly fallible, you should obey the general rule against committing crimes and ignore the Stalinist/Decent/philosopher assuring you that they have special knowledge that ensures (or gives high confidence) that “this time, it will all be for the best”.

To a Stalinist NOT crushing the kulaks is a crime, to a Decent NOT invading Iraq would be criminal.

This post seems a bit self-contradictory. You start humbly accepting that your judgment is no better than anyone else’s – and then immediately you demand the everyone subscribes to your petit-bourgeois idea of what is and what isn’t criminal.

53

JoB 11.22.09 at 10:39 am

52- it’s beyond me why one would self-inflict the ‘badness of it all’ continuously if one’s quite evidently not oneself tempted at all.

It’s like somebody playing devil’s advocate so much that, even still quite able to tell the devils from the angels, you go for the devil because it’s the only thing really homesy.

There’s nothing petit-bourgois about accepting consensus judgments. There is nothing being demanded for other to ‘subscribe’. The idealist, non-consequentialist, start is in a realization that other’s opinions not only matter but that other’s opinions are really not cleanly divisible from ours (Habermas diskurs Logik for an example attempt at making an argument of this type). That’s the only universal (it’s quite close to Hume actually in a moral point of view); it’s process-related not content related. All of the rest is fallible, and changeable and depends on how societies deal with specific situations (but without room for not integrating other’s opinions in what finally comes out – a Rawlsian thing).

But obviously it is better to do as if nothing has been thought on any of this & jump in a miserabilistic pool of cultural pessimism with respect to one’s own essential absolues & have some fun with strawman Stalinists & thought experiments that abstract away the – even simplest of – processes for pondering other’s opinions.

(experimental psychologists have experimented with these thought experiments, and, the conclusion was that participants found the situations unfair)

54

engels 11.22.09 at 11:15 am

I never realised before that once you realise that a fat man can not physically stop a trolley then the whole edifice of bourgeois philosophy comes crashing down…

55

engels 11.22.09 at 11:42 am

I find it a bit hard to undersatnd why, if Anglophone academic philosophy is a system of white, male, English-speaking, liberal oppression, then we are going to liberated from this by Richard Rorty.

56

belle le triste 11.22.09 at 11:43 am

Surely the fat man *is* the whole edifice of bourgeois philosophy, and the trolley runaway social reality…

57

Chris Bertram 11.22.09 at 11:59 am

#55 De Gaulle and Algeria, Nixon in China … maybe that’s the idea.

58

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.22.09 at 12:35 pm

Fair enough, JoB.

Still, the Decents (to take the most recent example, but also the Stalinists, definitely) weren’t exactly arguing “let’s commit some crimes now for the sake of a bright future”; they felt that invading Iraq was a moral obligation. They weren’t a part of that “consensus judgment” you’re talking about. And if you exclude them, and the Stalinists, and those who push the fat guy, then the argument becomes trivial: let’s not commit crimes. Sure, we all know we shouldn’t commit crimes.

59

alex 11.22.09 at 12:55 pm

Is the question ever posed in the form “should you throw yourself in front of the trolley…”?

All this ever sounds like to me is people sagely repeating that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, while neglecting to note that the particular eggs in question are sentient beings who might have a view on the matter.

60

JoB 11.22.09 at 3:40 pm

58- well, I’ll leave the fat guy to this diet and tell you that I felt that invading Iraq was a moral obligation (& I still feel it was a moral obligation) – but I also felt there was moral obligations on other sides as well and, on balance, the case was for not doing it.

And there you have it: ‘on balance’, exactly what extremists will deny, that there is this opportunity to discuss and to conclude, fallibly, but to conclude one way or the other.

I don’t think it was criminal for Bush to invade Iraq; his crimes were many as far as I’ve followed but the invasion itself wasn’t one of them (amongst other things because there was no clear international law established). One of the major crimes (and hence Stalin – Mao and the lot them as well) was in not respecting due process and worse: distorting a public discourse to a ready-made conclusion as if there was moral obligation on one of the sides only.

Their crime is a.o. to be anti-consequential, see John’s original post.

My thought experiment: the UN security council agrees to the invasion after having all evidence scrutinized, would there be an obligation on member states to support even if the individual member state was against. Yes, there would have been that obligation (& no other side to it).

61

lemuel pitkin 11.22.09 at 4:10 pm

I find it a bit hard to undersatnd why, if Anglophone academic philosophy is a system of white, male, English-speaking, liberal oppression, then we are going to liberated from this by Richard Rorty.

Did someone say that? Nope, nobody said anything about Anglophone philosophy being male. Or oppressive. But it’s so much fun to argue with the pc ogres in your head, isn’t it?

(What people did say is that the moral intuitions of people from a particular background are not necessarily authoritative with respect to morality in general — that intuition has social and historical bases. But then I guess it’s only the feminist thought police who insist that not everyone is exactly like us, right, Engels?)

62

engels 11.22.09 at 6:54 pm

What people did say is that the moral intuitions of people from a particular background are not necessarily authoritative with respect to morality in general—that intuition has social and historical bases.

And who do you think contests this?

63

engels 11.22.09 at 7:08 pm

And why should your claims about what ‘those of us who aren’t analytic philsoophers’ be any more authoritative? I actually know quite a lot of people who are not analytic philosophers (some of whom, amazingly, are not liberals and a few don’t even speak English!) who still think there is a moral difference between killing and allowing to die…

64

Timothy Scriven 11.22.09 at 10:28 pm

“First, an obvious point, but one difficult to get right: what counts as “sacrificing” is going to depend on your view on acts and omissions. ”

Word. Paticularly with the trolley case the whole point of the deontologist position is to not sacrifice the life of one person in order the lives of others. The deontologist position is that:

In deciding whether to perform an action the nature of that action, and not just the consquences ( however broadly defined) of that action, should be considered.

A consquence of the above definition is that there can be a morally relevant distinction between acts and ommissions. As a deontologist of sorts I’m not sacrificing anyone’s life if I don’t switch the trolley. Instead I would be sacrificing a life in order to save others if I did switch the trolley; I believe in a distinction between acts and ommissions because the end of ethics is not to maximise goodness but rather to act rightly.

Mind you this doesn’t mean that sacrificing lives is always wrong, or that consquences can never outweigh rights- it simply means that I feel it is morally obligatory in some situations not to maximise good consquences. In deciding how to act consquences should be entered into the scales, but they are not the only thing that should be. Other factors include special obligations of family and promises, the prima facie duty to avoid harming others, the positive rights of others and considerations about the limits of ethics such as those raised by Susan Wolf.

65

lemuel pitkin 11.22.09 at 10:54 pm

An important point — relevant to John Q.’s original post — that trolley car problem obscures is that you can’t have consequentialism without rules, i.e. without deontology. Because in the real world, all our morally consequential actions are mediated through institutions, which are just sets of rules.

So for instance, the only reason you can think about the consequences of a post on your blog is that the folks hosting the blog, running your and your readers’ ISPs, etc., *don’t* think about the consequences, but just fulfill their obligation to to disseminate whatever you write. And so much more so for something like the invasion of Iraq — it’s logically impossible for it to be made on a purely consequentialist basis since the only way such a decision is possible at all is for large numbers of people to be committed to following the relevant rules. Of course George Bush, or we the voters, or whoever you want to think of as the ultimate decision maker, can be consequentialist — but only because other people are not.

It’s profoundly misleading — in a very telling way — that the trolley-car problem situates the individual in a purely mechanical system that is manipulated through direct physical acts. But thinking about a world with only a single moral agent sheds less than no light on any moral question we actually face.

66

engels 11.22.09 at 11:11 pm

And jfor the record I wasn’t mocking the idea that academic philosophy is white and male. It clearly is. It’s also overwhelmingly middle class and, in some fields, American. And beyond what you would expect from such a group of people, I also think that academic philosophers are mostly fairly right-wing. I’m sure all of this affects both the range of ideas that are discussed and the way in which they are discussed, particularly in more politically sensitive subjects. I just don’t think that Richard Rorty provides the solution to this problem.

67

Matt 11.22.09 at 11:36 pm

I also think that academic philosophers are mostly fairly right-wing.

What makes you think this, engels, and what’s the reference group you’re measuring against? Academics in the US are, on average, significantly more left-wing than the general population and similar people in class-status and I’ve never seen anything to indicate philosophers don’t fit in this profile. And, of the philosophers whose politics I have a fair idea about, very few are right-wing by American standards, at least. It might well be that many of them have pretty average Democratic party views, and that this makes the “fairly right wing” from a world perspective, but I’m not sure that’s true and at least the reference class would need to be specified. (Some fairly famous philosophers had pretty right-wing views, of course. Quine is an important example. But right-wing views are a distinct minority among, say, political philosophers, at least judging from published work.) I’d (honestly) be quite interested in what makes you think this.

68

john c. halasz 11.23.09 at 12:27 am

Novakant @ 49:

No, I wasn’t supporting Kant’s moral philosophy. I mentioned him to point out that there are always “rules” involved in the issue, so it is never a matter of an absence of constraining rules, regardless of whether they are “correct” or not. And I endorsed his basic insight into the de-ontic status of ethical norms. (I did at least hint that the very purism of Kant’s moral philosophy was actually in second-order accommodation with utilitarianism, but that would require getting into the weeds with Kant as theorist/ideologue of the ascendant bourgeoisie. I also hinted at a complaint that neither Kant nor utilitarianism allows adequate scope for an evaluation of ends, since there is a significant difference between, e.g., killing in a good cause and killing in a bad one both in terms of the sense of responsibility involved and the sort of ethical world aimed at, no?) But then I don’t believe a systematic formal-rational prescriptive ethics is possible, and it would have little relevance anyway among the highly differentiated structural-functional conditions of modern societies and their institutional orders. In fact, I don’t much favor a “principled” ethics, insofar as attempts to ground our intuitions in “first principles” abstract away from and distort the actual situations of ethical disclosure and responsiveness. (You could find plenty of easy examples of that in Kant). Which actually goes to your point about the role of literature in ethics, not because literature offers moral exemplars or doctrinal instruction, but because it can inform the “perception” and perspectives which disclose ethical situations and their relevant features. In that light, I’m simply unsurprised by the inconsistencies in people’s moral intuitions, since I don’t think logical consistency is the prime requirement for “moral” agency, as opposed to attentiveness to relevant features and differences and those non-isomorphic, indirect “correspondences” between saying and doing.

But then ethics and politics are not the same and it’s a fallacious tendency of liberalism to conflate them. It’s true that there is an ethical component to political judgments, usually discussed in terms of “legitimation”, and it is likewise legitimate to consider ethical limits on the political. But if both are in some sense concerned with “justice”, they “quantify over” such issues differently and over somewhat different domains. Besides, political justice is always imperfect and rather compromised, and arguably politics is always more about power than “justice”. (Though, on the other hand, “Gesinnungsethik”, as a passionate, if not fanatical, commitment to certain basic beliefs, does play a role in political affairs and conflicts, and often enough a useful one, even if it provides no guarantee over outcomes, and if other sorts of agents and orientations are also ingredient in the balance, as even Weber backhandedly acknowledged). But political arguments and judgments are of a very mixed kind. One doesn’t need to appeal to body counts, let alone their assignments, to oppose the gratuitous violence of political undertakings. Appealing to the notion of “fourth generation” warfare, for example, was sufficient to expose the absurdity, the strategic folly, of the Iraq invasion, as counterproductive to just about everyone’s “interests”, except those of reactionary Cold War imperialists. Nor is politics always about collective welfare and rights, since the existence and “identity” of political communities are also at stake, so framing arguments in those terms isn’t always decisive, nor required. But it is curious how often political arguments/disputes devolve into an argument over corpses and their assignments, perhaps because of the modern definition of the sovereign state as the organized monopoly over legitimate violence, traditionally figured as a power of disposal over life and death. Though maybe it’s always been so, ever since Antigone. But I find the notion that the absolute horror of past evils can be recuperated for political instrumentalizing so as to prove one’s cause, in the uncertainty of present and futural conflicts and outcomes, by “putting oneself into the right”, passingly strange.

69

John Holbo 11.23.09 at 12:39 am

john c halasz: “But then ethics and politics are not the same and it’s a fallacious tendency of liberalism to conflate them.”

You gloss the difference: “political justice is always imperfect and rather compromised, and arguably politics is always more about power than “justice”.”

So, basically, you think that liberals have a tendency to conflate normative ethical theory with descriptive political theory? That is, they tend to be Panglossian. They can’t tell the difference between the best of all possible and the actual world? What is the basis for this suspicion on your part about liberals? Give me a few examples of liberals who commits the conflation in question. Or at least one prominent theoretical example.

70

John Holbo 11.23.09 at 12:40 am

I do actually agree that a lot of liberal political theorists are not very good at theorizing practical politics. But not because they are Panglossians, per se.

71

x. trapnel 11.23.09 at 12:48 am

I would say that one of the main virtues of (rightly understood) consequentialism is that it helps us understand how ought-ness needs to be expressed rather differently as we move from situations of one-on-one interaction, to small groups and family, to large and heterogenous collectivities; it helps us both understand the fundamental similarity between moral problems at the political and the personal level *and* the enormous difference in their practical resolutions. Only consequentialism lets us see the continuum running from transnational institutional design, to political theory and policy analysis, to interpersonal ethics, and even to practical rationality at the personal level; and it helps us see both this continuity and the appropriate disjunctures, institutional and otherwise, as the upshot of universal principles rather than ad-hoc ones.

Anyhow. I find it sad how often arguments against consequentialism seem to have no basis in what real consequentialists think about their own doctrine. For those interested, you can’t go too wrong reading Pettit or Norcross, and both have a lot of their papers available online. And really, Sidgwick got things more or less right a century ago.

72

lemuel pitkin 11.23.09 at 1:10 am

#71 takes a perfect 3 on the Bertram scale, for those scoring at home…

73

x. trapnel 11.23.09 at 1:20 am

I was aiming for 4, too.

74

John Holbo 11.23.09 at 1:22 am

“I was aiming for 4, too.”

Everyone should have a hobby.

75

john c. halasz 11.23.09 at 5:37 am

@ 69 & 70:

Well, Holbo, when it comes to thinking about politics and the political, I’m just not a Rawlsian liberal, but rather an Arendtian republican. So I’m not much interested in a normative/descriptive. ideal theory/real theory distinction. After all, real politics is riddled with “normative” elements, however conflicted or confused. (And yes, sometimes one wishes such utter “normative” obtuseness could be stripped away, to allow for an actually functional “solution”, as with the U.S. health care debate). And Arendt’s criticism was directed at all forms of political theorizing and theoretical politics, in the name of a revived notion of Aristotelian practical reason as praxis, in a modernized frame. Her actual topic was not politics as a theorizable realm, but rather what it means to act, speak, think politically. Hence she appeals to the “ideal” of the pre-philosophical Periclean polis, analogous to and probably modeled on Heidegger’s recourse to the Pre-Socratics to get “behind” metaphysical theorizing, as a riddling device to examine and question at cross-grain modern political theories and concepts. So I take “normative political philosophy” as an effort to pre-specify political norms, whether ideally or “really”, in terms of a heuristic-fictive social contract, with a large grain of salt, as having little real efficacy, and being largely just academic. (Since academics like to think that they live in a world that is a four-square grid of mutual respect and equal freedom, instead of in that scholarly war of all against all that Hegel called the “spiritual animal kingdom”). Rawls, at any rate, strikes me as just elaborately specifying the political intuitions of the “madly for Adlai” crowd, which was the last time such liberalism was hegemonically ascendant.

As for liberalism being “panglossian”, well, I’m also a leftie, if not of a “hard” or “extreme” variety, then reasonably industrial strength, so I hardly think so. But the ancient ideal or dream of liberalism was to bring about a harmonization of all interests and values, basically privatistically/individualistically conceived, into a universal consensus governing society, as well as to harmonize political “liberty” with the market mechanism, with its own fallacious marginal product account of distribution. I suppose that could be called “panglossian”. But I’m much more inclined to think of liberalism as functioning to perpetuate inequality in the very name of equality. And to suppress (awareness of) political conflict in the name of the legitimacy of “universal” consensus. (Hence all those routine positioning moves to maintain themselves at the center between the alleged extremes, so as to hive off or exclude dissenters. Though the liberals own emphasis on consensus over conflict often makes them insufficiently attentive to their opposition and undermines their own cause). But most of all, in its preoccupation with normatively reconciling “freedom” and “equality” and thereby rationalizing political power, is rather oblivious to the hard, difficult issues of power. What is power and how is it at all to be conceived, to be grasped in thought and articulated in speech, along side all the other matters it’s concomitant with? How is it generated, gathered, concentrated, exercised, and redistributed or regenerated? What are its modes and how are those modes convertible into one another? I think those are crucial issues for contemporary thought, not easy to resolve, which liberal thinking rather presumes upon. (Arendt made some contribution there, though with considerable weaknesses/avoidances to go together with its strength. I find Foucault’s “micro-physics of power” to be too all-pervasive and too de-differentiated, but also too parodic to be of much direct application, though he has his effects. I also don’t share his libertarianism).

As to the liberal tendency to conflate morality with politics, lots of thinkers have noted it from that nasty reactionary Carl Schmitt to the far more worldly-wise Arendt. Politics concerns public matters of collective impact and import, whereas morality involves private concerns about personal choice and conscientious belief. To conflate the two does harm to them both. If political conflicts are thoroughly moralized, they become all the more “absolute” and irresolvable. (For example, the abortion debate in the U.S., which is essentially irresolvable by public means, but also manipulated as a distraction from other public issues). If morality is tyrannized over by politics, then the capacity for choice is disrupted and beliefs become falsified, lose all “force” of credibility. (Though the private domain, as realm for the formation of intimate relations and spontaneous initiatives, needs to be publicly protected, since it ultimately is what provides the political public domain with its participant citizens/subjects).

So you asked for at least one “name” liberal political theorist who might be given to the aforesaid conflation. I’ll nominate Judith Sklar, whose “liberalism of fear”, for all that it might be motivated by a concern for cruelty and injustice, nonetheless exemplifies the sort of moralizing (anti-)politics involved, which should be avoided, as undermining the confidence in the “amorality” and risk involved in public-political processes, (which, as a passing-over-into-otherness, is also a realm of necessary alienation). I’ll also remark that much abstract concern for “human rights” has a curiously de-politicizing effect. Since it ignores that “rights”, however specified, are always legal-political institutions emerging from the power balances within a political society, and hence are always invested by power, else they are lacking in any coercive power for their enforcement. Notions of “humanitarian war” should be an obvious oxymoron to anyone with two wits of sense to rub together. Ignoring the material and social context and conditions for the application of the concept “rights”, while being thoroughly confused about means and ends, (since presumably “rights” are unconditional), doesn’t advance any cause, nor serve to ameliorate human lives. (Such thinking is also often utterly obtuse about some of the actual “interests” at work in such projections). No one can completely control the outcome of public-political conflicts and processes, nor guarantee the collective ends that emerge de facto or de jure from them, (if only a reproduction of the status quo, as no doubt many devoutly wish). But there’s always at least the off chance, the bare possibility, that some more genuinely normative innovation or some more fruitful arrangement could emerge, than would be pre-specified by a “normative” theory. Such a naked hope is the worldly vocation of politics.

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Martin Wisse 11.23.09 at 9:26 am


There’s a perfectly good reason why the examples we use are “far fetched”, “ludicrous” etc. It is because we are often trying to test our commitment to some principle or other which is alleged to hold universally. A principle wouldn’t even be a prima facie candidate for such universal status if it failed to deliver the right answer in the central cases, so we are bound to seek out more exotic examples – it is the way of the dialectic.

The problem with that approach is that you end up spending a lot of time and effort into constructing an extreme enough edge case to satisfy the need for universality and yet more time and effort into defending your construct against critics pointing out its flaws, leaving the consideration of the principle in question as at best a secondary activity [1]. What’s more, by forcing yourself into creating such an extreme case there’s always the danger that you’re building it towards a preferred outcome — either to prove or disprove universality.

It’s like software testing. For any moderately complex piece of software it’s easy to spent a lot of time and money creating test cases that try the limits of the system, but which are rarely or never encountered “in the wild” and which say little about the more mainstream circumstances with which the software needs to work. [2]

[1] Classic science fiction example: The Cold Equations
[2] Like the financial/payment system at a Big Government Facility I know that has provisions for combinations of benefit payouts and such that are throroughly tested with each new release but have never been used in production…

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engels 11.23.09 at 10:29 am

Matt, okay, I shouldn’t have written that academic philosophers are ‘mostly fairly right-wing’. That’s not true. I think there might be some more accurate points to be made about the political idiosyncrasies of academic philosophy, and how they might not reflect the range of political views in the population at large, but rather than dig myself in deeper I’ll leave it there.

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Matt 11.23.09 at 11:31 am

I think there might be some more accurate points to be made about the political idiosyncrasies of academic philosophy, and how they might not reflect the range of political views in the population at large

That seems perfectly possible to me. I should say that I wasn’t trying to draw you into a fight, in case it seemed that way, but was honestly interested in what you were getting at here.

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The Fool 11.23.09 at 4:49 pm

Consequentialism is the worst form of ethical theory — except all those other ones.

Its hilarious to listen to all these tiresome, standard-issue, doctrinaire conventional liberals huff and puff about the dangers of consequentialism while they astutely ignore the beam in their own eye.

Natural rights theories are based on absolutely nothing in the real world at all. All you need is a minimally good story and next thing you know you have a right — or you don’t.

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John Holbo 11.24.09 at 1:05 am

Thanks, john c halasz, I now know better what I think is confused about your view of philosophy, politics and ethics. And as you, of course, know what you think is confused about my views about politics and ethics … I think we’d better just leave it at that. We can agree to disagree without even having to specify what we disagree about.

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john c. halasz 11.24.09 at 4:01 am

@80:

Well, for all that I insist on differentiating/not confusing the moral and the political, I don’t think a complete absence of confusion is an attainable, let alone an entirely desirable, condition. Quiggin had spoken of falling into “moral and political confusion”, which, come to think about it, is a pretty apt characterization of the general and perennial condition of the world: if you’re not at all confused, you just haven’t been paying attention, (since, as is well-known, attention is the natural prayer of the soul). I’ll take it you roughly understand why I insist on the “amorality” of the political, which is not the same as rampant immorality, though, Lord knows, there’s always plenty of that, too, and that I’m not eschewing any consideration of rights, but rather the republican “grounds” for construing them are different from the liberal ones, though there may be some partial overlap.

BTW there’s one point from the last head-butting, locking-of-imaginary-antlers thread that I wanted to clear up. I wasn’t “uncharitably” attributing to you an argument, but rather was making it in my own right, if apparently too implicitly: that there is no prior, call it “reason”, “rationality”, or what you will, that can guarantee one from falling into moral and political confusion, though neither you, nor I, nor any other reasonable person would fall today in the way that Heidegger did. As an example, Habermas, who’s not your bog standard liberal, but might fairly be characterized as a quasi-socialist super-liberal, supported the bombing of Serbia, because modern moral consciousness has been “disemburdened” onto modern legal structures and, of course, such legal injunctions need to be enforced, etc. Another case of a philosopher getting lost amongst the weeds of his own philosophy, rather than exercising the risks of an actual judgment. (One wonders if he’d bothered to call his former student Zoran Djindjic, to find out what he might think).

Also, since someone threw into my face gratuitously a comment of mine, from a 6/25/09 thread, on the Chris Bertram thread complaining about the hoi polloi, I did leave a query as to whether you’d ever fulfilled the promisary note you’d left at the end of that earlier thread.

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John Quiggin 11.24.09 at 11:09 am

Quiggin had spoken of falling into “moral and political confusion”, which, come to think about it, is a pretty apt characterization of the general and perennial condition of the world: if you’re not at all confused, you just haven’t been paying attention

Just to recap, the moral and political confusion I was referring to was not the generic condition of the world but the specific confusion involved in joining the Nazi Party, accepting preferment at its hands, and sending Jewish friends and colleagues on the path to the gas chambers.

Most of us are confused, but hopefully not that confused. Perhaps some of us would fail the test today, as Heidegger did then, but many resisted then and many would, I am sure, still resist today.

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john c. halasz 11.24.09 at 6:55 pm

@82

Not to defend Heidegger exactly, but he didn’t send anyone to the death camps, nor plan the invasion of Poland, etc. Yes, he did collaborate with vicious anti-semites and should have known better about the complexion of the Nazi movement, so naive doesn’t begin to cut it, (though we’re talking about 2 years of active involvement in, er, academic affairs, followed by withdrawal and gradual disillusionment and misgivings). However, though IIRC Hitler didn’t ever win a majority vote and his vote share actually declined, only to be engineered into office by a faction of the traditional right-wing conservatives, the new regime was met with widespread enthusiasm in many quarters of German society. Partly it was a “better dead than red” sort of thing, but also it was perceived as a revolution of national renewal, (as, indeed, e.g., economically speaking, it was at first, with “Keynesian” recovery policies). Hard as it is to put oneself into the historical context, with its pressures and conflicts, and hard as it may be to understand the mentalities and philosophical structures of the German right intellectuals, (especially if one’s never studied any of them), the idea that Nazism could be perceived as an apparent good shouldn’t be dismissed on the basis of hindsight, else one has even less explanatory grasp and insight into a baffling and horrifically unmasterable past. Prominent figures such as Jaspers or Mann, who didn’t fall for it, initially thought that Hitler was just too preposterous and would be a passing phenomenon, (as, indeed, did the very traditionalist conservatives who’d engineered him into power).

So your claims based on hindsight actually resemble the myth of the French resistance, when, in fact, most of the French were passively resigned to the occupation, (as with Sartre), or actively supported the Vichy regime and collaborated with the Nazi occupation, (as with Mitterand). It’s all well and good to appeal for resistance against great political evils, but it’s still better to attempt the effort to be clear-sighted about its possibilities.

The knock on Heidegger is less the public support of the Nazis, (however one reads tendentiously, one way or another, the dug-up facts about that involvement or his duplicitous “explanations”), but that he never apologized or recanted publicly for that episode. (As a piece of hear-say, Marcuse, who was with the O.S.S. at the time, asked Heidegger about the matter, and the latter responded that he wasn’t going to deny what had happened or pretend otherwise, and become a fawning hypocrite like those others. Marcuse, at least, chose to see a shred of “integrity” in that response). Instead, Heidegger just chose to continue on with the “original” intention of his project, with suitable re-arrangements, whether from expediency or because of the conceptual “necessity” of his path of thinking. We don’t know the state of Heidegger’s conscience behind his immense character-armor-, (since how could we?),- but it’s scarcely plausible that he was unaware of or obliviously indifferent to the immense catastrophe that had occurred and the vast suffering involved. What we do know is that, in accordance with his authoritarian-elitist mentality, he regarded the post-war democratic “order” as meretricious, (though in that, too, he was scarcely unique, as a distrust of democracy was widespread among the post-war German population).

So you’re engaging with an historical version of post hoc, propter hoc here. (Those, such as Loewith, who blamed it all on Heidegger’s historicism, are question-begging, since the recognition of the temporal finitude of human existence means or entails that we are living insuperably *within* historical horizons, and what then would be the alternative? A reversion to classical natural law?). What’s more, you’re engaging in the manoeuvre of “putting oneself into the right”, which is a great way to “win” an argument, but remains basically self-manipulative, for all that.

(BTW I regard both complacency and self-righteousness as vices, though hardly the worst sort).

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Salient 12.01.09 at 12:24 am

But thinking about a world with only a single moral agent sheds less than no light on any moral question we actually face.

I dispute this. What about torture?

21st-century intro-to-philosophy textbooks will ask whether it is alright to torture a fat man if we feel absolutely certain he will then tell us the location of a bomb which would otherwise kill n civilians. Does it matter if he was involved in the bomb planting, or merely has secondhand knowledge and is unwilling to share it? If he was the bomb-planter, or an auxiliary participant in a plot?

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