Why I am not a utilitarian

Jeremy Bentham, under surveillance at University College London

Yesterday I visited Oxford’s “Practical Ethics” blog and read a post titled “Why I Am Not a Utilitarian,” by Julian Savulescu.  Professor Savulescu says that he is not a utilitarian because utilitarianism advises us to act in a way that he would find impossible:

As we argue, Utilitarianism is a comprehensive moral doctrine with wide ranging impact. In fact it is very demanding. Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices. People have donated large parts of their wealth and even a kidney, but this still does not approach the sacrifice required by Utilitarianism.

For these reasons, one criticism of utilitarianism is that it is too demanding.

Bernard Williams, a famous critic of Utilitarianism, once infuriated Dick Hare, a modern father of Utilitarianism, in a TV interview by asking him,

“If a plane had crashed and you could only rescue your own child or two other people’s children, which would you rescue?”

Utilitarians should rescue the two strangers rather than their own child.

People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding.

I try to live my life according to “easy rescue consequentialism” – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly. Peter Singer, the greatest modern utilitarian, in fact appeals to this principle to capture people’s emotions – his most famous example is that of a small child drowning in a pond. You could save the child’s life by just getting your shoes wet. He argues morality requires that you rescue the child. But this is merely an easy rescue. Utilitarianism requires that you sacrifice your life to provide organs to save 7 or 8 lives.

Easy rescue consequentialism is, by contrast, a relaxed but useful moral doctrine.

I would go further than Professor Savulescu, and argue that it is not only unreasonably difficult to act as utilitarianism would advise in these extreme situations, but that the emotional attachments and personal drives that utilitarianism urges us to discard are the very things that make it possible for us to behave morally in the first place.  Professor Savulescu quotes research showing that the people who would in fact be willing to behave in ways that utilitarians urge upon us in their thought experiments are extreme egoists and psychopaths.  While such people might be willing to let their own children die in order to save the lives of a larger number of strangers, I would not envy those strangers were they subsequently to find themselves in any way dependent on their rescuers.

Other commenters on Professor Savulescu’s post had made this point by the time I got to it, so I did not say anything about it in my own comment.  Instead, I picked up on a remark that an earlier commenter had made about the various thought experiments in which utilitarians deal.  One of the more famous of these thought experiments is the “Trolley Problem,” in which one is asked to consider two hypothetical alternatives in response to a runaway trolley.  Left unchecked, the trolley will run over several people and kill many of them. The only way one has to check it is to push a fat man in front of the trolley, killing him but saving the others.

This and similar thought experiments raise the question of knowledge- how does one know that one will be able to push the fat man over, how does one know that his body will suffice to stop the trolley, how does one know that the others will be slower to get themselves out of the way of the trolley than one will be to push the fat man over, etc etc.  In posing the hypothetical, a philosopher can always dismiss these questions by saying that, ex hypothesi, the premises are all true.  But the closer you get to real life, the more pressing and more numerous the knowledge problems become.

When philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism 200 years ago, he built it around a notion often called “the hedonistic calculus.”  This calculus subtracts pain from pleasure, yielding a quantity of net pleasure.  The right action is that which provides the greatest amount of net pleasure for the greatest number of people.  Faced with the question of how any person could possibly know what action would provide this, considering that to do so one would have to know every consequence one’s action is likely to have on every person for all of future time, what precisely the feelings of each of those people would be about each of those consequences, and how intense each of these feelings would be, Bentham resorted to a utopian solution.  He coined the word “Panopticon,” naming a social system in which every person was under total surveillance at all times.  In such a system, the authorities might be able to form an educated guess as to what the consequences of their policies would be for their subjects.

The idea of the Panopticon in turn raises several questions.  How would such surveillance originate?  If it were instituted by people who were not themselves under surveillance, and who did yet not have access to the information surveillance would produce, how could they know that the surveillance they were crafting would itself serve to produce the greatest net pleasure among the greatest number of people?  Moreover, since the subjects of the Panopticon would know that they were under surveillance, the institution of surveillance itself would change their psychology quite dramatically, making it impossible for people living before the creation of the Panopticon to have an empirical basis for their expectations as to how such people would react to life within it.  Would those conducting the surveillance themselves be subject to surveillance, and if so, who would maintain surveillance on those conducting surveillance of those conducting surveillance?  Would there be other societies outside the realm of the Panopticon, and if so how would one know what policies would bring the greatest net pleasure to the members of those other, unsurveilled societies?  What about future generations, whom it is impossible to keep under surveillance as they do not yet exist?  How could the rulers of the Panopticon assess the feelings the consequences of their policies would produce in people of future times when they cannot monitor such people?  And, considering that the hedonistic calculus is essentially about subjective feelings of pleasure and pain, how do we respond to suggestions that our understanding of each other’s subjective feelings is always incomplete?  Finally, how does the existence of the Panopticon condition individual behavior?  Does every individual of every station have access to the complete records of the Panopticon?  Are all to use this information in making every decision in their lives?

Even in a society constructed as a Panopticon, then, it is far from clear how one could know enough to live as the utilitarians say we should.  Indeed, many forms of knowledge that are required, for example knowledge about future events or about other people’s subjective responses, may not be obtainable even in principle.  A commenter named Sean OhEigeartaigh pointed out that utilitarian thought experiments require unrealistic assumptions about the amount of knowledge a moral agent might have.  This was the point I was picking up on in the comment below:

I think Sean O hEigeartaigh makes the vital point, which is that these scenarios require more information than a person could reasonably be expected to have. Indeed, I would go further, and say that the whole concept of the hedonistic calculus requires that an agent have more information than a human being could possibly have. As such, utilitarianism is not an ethical theory at all, inasmuch as it cannot develop a set of criteria for judging human behavior. Its only possible use would be as a theodicy, a means of justifying the behavior of a supernatural being who is either omniscient or at a minimum radically better informed than humans can be.

Perhaps it is too much to say that utilitarianism is possible even as a theodicy. To make a theodicy go, one must grant, first, that a supernatural being exists, second, that that being is in some profound sense better than we are, and third, that the actions of that being require moral justification. None of these premises would appear to be particularly secure. Moreover, an attempt to use utilitarianism to justify the acts of whatever supernatural being we have posited would immediately run into a variety of other problems, some of them quite severe. Most obvious, perhaps, is the stubbornly ambiguous concept of “pleasure” at the stem of all theories of utility. I for one can think of no reason why a utilitarian theodicy would have an easier time meaning one thing at a time by this word than the attempted utiltarian philosophies of the last two centuries have had. Furthermore, the implications of conceding the existence of a supernatural being whose knowledge is radically superior to ours would seem to be rather wide-ranging and to call for a rethinking of the concept of rationality on which Bentham et al were trying to elaborate. So perhaps the time has come to discard utilitarianism altogether.

The bit about pleasure refers to another problem that Bentham tried to solve by accepting something horrid.  Asked what he would say if it could be shown that playing push-pin had given more net pleasure than high art, he would unhesitatingly say that in that case push-pin was better than high art.  Bentham’s most famous follower, John Stuart Mill, tried to escape from this by distinguishing among various forms of pleasure, high and low.

What Mill ended up doing was raising a question that has widely been considered fatal to the claims of utilitarianism to be taken seriously: what exactly is “pleasure”?  I think we know, when we say that listening to music gives us pleasure, and eating a fine meal gives us pleasure, and being reunited with a loved one gives us pleasure, and completing an important job of work gives us pleasure, that we are not saying that these experiences are interchangeable.  Saying that we have received pleasure isn’t at all like saying that we have received money.  If we set out to describe with technical precision what it is that each of those experiences has given us, we will not be surprised to find that the answer is a set of distinct and complementary feelings, not differing quantities of any particular substance.  Discard the idea that “pleasure” and “pain” are the names of substances, in the Aristotelian sense of the word “substance,” and it is difficult to see what, if anything, is left of the hedonistic calculus.

Police unions

Late last night, I saw this on Twitter:

My response was:

I had a couple of things in mind here.  First, the police are supposed to operate within communities where the rule of law is established, and to preserve that rule of law.  Unionization makes them likelier to do this.  In some places in the world there are still radical trades unions, but in most places most unions are pretty thoroughly interwoven into civil society.  Pay your union dues, go to union local meetings, etc, and you’ll be constantly reminded that you are part of the local community and that you have a stake in the well-being of your neighbors.  Each time you receive one of those reminders you become that much more likely to act like a human being while you’re on the job.  Combat forces, by contrast, have as their mission “to engage the enemy and to destroy him,” as the US Army Infantry Field Manual used to put it.  If we forbid unions in the military, that is largely because we want our warriors to remain aloof from the people we are sending them to kill.

That’s a sort of generalized communitarian point.  Second is a more left-wing kind of point.  Collective bargaining between representatives of the average cop on the beat and the representatives of the city governments shows that average cop that s/he makes a living by working for wages and as such has more in common with other wage-earners or would-be wage earners than with the people who call the shots in politics, which is to say the people who live primarily on the proceeds of capital.  That isn’t to say that unionized police will want to abolish capitalism; careers in police work tend to be more attractive to very conservative people, and for that matter I’m inclined to support capitalism myself.  But I do believe that the only legitimate power is limited power.  And a police force staffed by officers who know that their economic interests are further from those of the average politician or politician’s paymaster than they are from those of the average suspect is a definite limitation on the power of economic elites who are always eager to use the law as a weapon to intimidate those who get in their way.

Here’s a clip from the 1976 documentary Harlan County USA, in which a unionized coal miner, in New York City to protest outside the headquarters of the company against which he’s been on strike for nine months, talks with a unionized NYPD patrolman.  The seventies are ancient history in a lot of ways, of course, but this is still a good illustration of the general points I’m making here:

I feel you, Johanna

Halloween is coming, so I recently watched the video of the 1982 touring company of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  I wonder if the opening lines of the song “Johanna”- “I feel you, Johanna, I feel you”- are the source of the phrase “I feel you,” meaning “I share your concerns and understand your position,” that was in such widespread use a couple of years ago.  Anyway, it’s a good song.  Here is a clip from that 1982 video showing the bits of it from before and after the confrontation between the sailor Anthony and the evil Judge Turpin:

Out of context, a man telling a woman that no barriers can stop him from his plan to “steal” her may sound creepy, though in the show it is clear that she needs all the help she can get to escape from Judge Turpin and the nightmarish London he and men like him have created.  Perhaps the problem of the male rescuer can be alleviated a bit if we turn to Bernadette Peters’ concert version of the song:

Another reinterpretation of the song is provided here, by Robert Adams:

“Happily you were not rotten…”

Again with Lawrence Dennis

Lawrence Dennis, touring London as a boy evangelist, with his foster mother

In a couple of comments on an article about James Burnham that Daniel McCarthy wrote for The American Conservative, I brought up Lawrence Dennis. Here are the comments:


Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936′s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

A couple of other commenters responded to this, encouraging me to enlarge upon it:


@David Naas: Well, Lawrence Dennis seems to have thought that under an enlightened elite, a system which he would classify as fascist could be made more or less tolerable to the broad majority of the population. Dennis’ prescription for a tolerable fascism was one that stimulated the economy with domestic make-work schemes rather than militaristic adventures, and that put as little effort as possible into stirring up racial hatred and persecuting minority groups. Those make-work schemes were supposed to “ensure that wealth flows down across and out,” as EliteCommInc puts it, and the lackadaisical racism was supposed to be no worse than what was in fact established as law in the USA in Dennis’ time.

Dennis himself grew up as an African American child in the state of Georgia in the early twentieth century and as an adult was an extremely unpopular public figure, so he can have been under few illusions as to what sort of life might await those outside that broad majority. Dennis recounts a shocking episode in his book Operational Thinking for Survival. As a visitor to Germany in the mid-1930s, he was granted an audience with the Nazis’ tamed philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. Dennis tells us that he suggested to Rosenberg that the Nazis stop physically attacking Jews and trying to force them to leave Germany, as they were doing at that point, and that instead they should subject them to the same segregation regime under which African Americans lived. Rosenberg dismissed the idea, but that Dennis would suggest it, in view of his background, is a tragedy in the classical sense of that term.

I’m by no means convinced that any of Dennis’ views were correct, but they are certainly worth considering. Among other things, I think that Burnham’s conception of countervailing power in The Machiavellians gains a great deal of depth and significance if we see it as, in part, a rebuttal to Dennis and an attempt to sketch out an alternative to Dennis’ bleak vision of the future.

I wish that, instead of “worth considering,” I had said that Dennis’ views were “worth studying.”  Especially coming right after an account of his hobnobbing with a representative of the Nazi leadership and proposing a set of anti-Jewish measures, it sounds alarming to suggest that we might “consider” his views, as if we should somehow contemplate following him down that dark path.  It’s true that Dennis’ proposal to Rosenberg would have been far less horrible than the policies the Nazis actually adopted, but there’s quite a lot of space separating “better than the Holocaust” from “worth considering.”  Anyway, it was Dennis’ views on political economy, geopolitics, and the role of ideology in shaping opinion that I had in mind, not his drearily misbegotten attempt to ameliorate the condition of Jews in the Third Reich.

If this does not make you laugh, go to a doctor and make sure you’re still alive

Quite a while since our last update- here’s a video I find irresistibly hilarious.  It’s several years old, but whatever:

Three cheers for Liza Cowan

This morning I looked at Twitter and saw this from Liza Cowan

I mention such a wide variety of people on this site that I laughed out loud when I saw this.  Perhaps Catharine MacKinnon, Pope Benedict, Susie Bright, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and Leonard Nimoy (to mention five names that have occurred here more than once) are all together in some darkened room plotting iniquity at this moment, but I find it hard to imagine.  So I wrote in reply:

Liza explained:

Apparently Liza’s nemeses had Googled her name and Pam Isherwood‘s together and found our old page of “Artists and Art Blogs.”   They are both mentioned there, because of course they are- they’re both very distinguished artists, and you’re in for a treat if you go to their sites.  But the inquisitors took the presence of their names on the same list as evidence that Pam is Liza’s “follower.”  Looking over the list, Liza seems to have a pretty impressive set of followers, including Harvey Kurtzman, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Queen of England.  

This controversy stems from Liza’s view of transgenderism.  As I understand it, her view is related to that of the late Shulamith Firestone, who held that the relation between men and women is very much like the relation that Marxism describes between bourgeois and proletariat in the later stages of capitalism.  Women form a worldwide class of the oppressed, men a worldwide class of oppressors.  Femininity, on this view, is a scar left by abuse, masculinity a weapon wielded by the privileged.  Liza’s opposition holds that gender is a more playful thing, that it is a set of roles we play, some by choice, some under duress, and that by playing the game our own way we can subvert the oppression that certainly does characterize gender relations by and large.  

I am not qualified to have an opinion about this issue.  Maybe Liza is right, maybe the Politically Correct Thought Police who are calling her names are right, maybe the truth is something else altogether.  What I do know is that Liza is an exciting artist, a rigorous thinker, and a good friend.  So if someone is out to ban or silence or smear people associated with Liza Cowan, I hereby volunteer to be banned, silenced, and smeared.   As I put it this afternoon:



Down the political rabbit hole

Cartoon by Joe Mohr

Recently in a comment on Alison Bechdel’s blog, I replied to commenter NLC, who added to a political discussion the observation that not everyone who supports the USA’s Republican Party is equally objectionable.  I agreed, and added:

@NLC: “There are Republicans and there are Republicans.”

That’s very true. I know some Republicans who, however hard I may find it to understand why they vote the way they do, are demonstrably quite all right in all the ways that really matter. I even know some Republicans who do yoga.

Fox News seems to be the separator, young people who are decent watch Fox News and leave the Republican Party, old people who are decent watch Fox News and turn into something like addicts- seriously, that channel is like crack cocaine for them. I suppose that means that in the long run Fox News will kill the Republican Party, but in the meantime it will kill a lot of worthwhile things.

In remarking on Fox News (a.k.a. the Faux News Channel,) I was thinking of some recent posts on a site that is for the most part at an opposite pole politically from Alison Bechdel’s, Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  Mr Dreher is still quite conservative, but no longer identifies as a Republican.  One reason for this seems to be the effect that he has seen right-wing media have on its elderly fans.  In a post titled “Fox Geezer Syndrome,” Mr Dreher quotes at length from several of his commenters who have told stories of aging their aging parents who have made themselves difficult to be around, not because of the opinions which Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them have encouraged them to hold, but because of the belligerence, the obsessiveness, and the overall childishness with which they have begun expressing those opinions since immersing themselves in a constant stream of such material.  Adding to those comments, Mr Dreher writes: 

I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.

The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.

Conservative that he is, Mr Dreher goes on to identify the same dynamic at work among the elderly liberals and lefties who predominate in the comments section of The New York Times.  I’ve certainly seen it at work among acquaintances who regard any criticism of the Obama administration as support for Mr O’s Republican opponents.  Such an attitude seems to be as natural a product of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Blue Team cheerleaders on MSNBC as Fox Geezer Syndrome is of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Red Team cheerleaders on Fox.  

How to succeed in politics

As seen on Tumblr:

From Suspense Comics, 1952

More of our old links pages

Below are our old pages of links to news sites (with a couple of things attached,) periodicals and web magazines, filters, and general interest and miscellaneous.   Read the full post »

Our old page of links to sites about Language and Linguistics

Time to say goodbye to our page of links to sites about Language and Linguistics.  Here’s the last revision, made 1 November 2012: Read the full post »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers