Sunday, January 8, 2017

Debate with a Utilitarian, part IV: An Exchange of Hypotheticals


This is a continuation of the transcript of my debate with a utilitarian acquaintance I’m calling Sean.  Parts I, II and III can be read here, here and here, respectively. 



Our debate concluded with an exchange of hypothetical and historical counter-factual scenarios in which the other side’s moral framework may initially appear to produce an immoral outcome, and both of us trying to defend our own frameworks from that perception.  To make this easier to follow, I took some liberties in reorganizing our chronological responses according to which scenario we were discussing.  The first scenario (Question A) is one I posited to him, whereas the second (Question B) and third (Question C) are ones he posited to me.  Just as before, Sean’s text is in red italics, and all emphasis is added by me to assist in quick-scanning our respective arguments.



Finally, Question B sees the entry of a third participant, who I’ll call Liza, who helps me parry some of Sean’s attacks.



Question A:  Would utilitarians condone rape to maximize utility?



Me: I'm curious: have you heard of the Steubenville rape case?  It was a case back in 2012 that I actually got into a debate with David Friedman about on my blog, using some of the same clashing theories we've shown here.  The question was this:



A woman got herself super drunk at a party and passed out. A bunch of high school football players, also drunk, then took turns groping her and undressing her digitally penetrated her, but she was out cold the whole time and wasn't physically harmed.  The woman in question didn't find out she had been raped until weeks later, when a video surfaced of what they had done to her while unconscious.



But suppose it never surfaced, and she never found out, and nobody else knew about it besides her rapists.  Would what they did to her be good - morally optimal and utility maximizing - because they derived utility from it and she never even knew it happened?



Sean: Ah, a variation on the utility monster.  No. Events do not exist in isolation.



Me: What do you mean by that?  I think I know but I want to verify before I respond.



Sean:

1.     Actions like these perpetuate a culture permissive to other similar events. The fact of the perpetrators committing these crimes makes them and others more likely to do so in the future.

2.     Social contracts (in this case, commonly-agreed-upon laws) have a utility value. In breaking a social contract, they incurred negative utility.

3.     They made a morally wrong decision in the moment of the crime, as they knew about these two factors and they themselves could not have properly assessed her own negative utility.

4.     I reject pleasure as the sole measure of utility. "Flourishing" is the term I use, defined as that which advances the physical, mental, and social health of a human. And the actions of the rapists did not and were not calculated to produce this.



Before you talk about how seemingly deontological principles can apply to utilitarians, remember I agree certain rules can have utility if they allow for ease of calculation (as long as we all agree they can be thrown out at a moment's notice)





Me: I agree with reason #3, so you’re technically off the hook in having to defend their actions.  But the three other reasons you gave are worth exploring.



1.     “Actions like these perpetuate a culture permissive to other similar events. The fact of the perpetrators committing these crimes makes them and others more likely to do so in the future.”



That’s a big assumption.  But to the extent that it’s true, surely the same applies to lots of other actions I would label as immoral – and ESPECIALLY those actions normally taken by government agencies.  You say government is justified in using military forces to ensure people’s physical security; surely this perpetuates a culture that’s more permissive of wars abroad, no?  And hasn’t accepting collateral damage, even in pursuit of human flourishing, at times risked creating a military indifferent to civilian casualties?  You say government is justified in using police violence in some cases; hasn’t this led to police abusing their power? You say government is justified in providing the necessities of life to everyone via taxation; if you don’t think this has led to a slippery slope wherein taxation is also seen justifiable for an enormous and growing list of things far less ‘necessary for life,’ you haven’t been paying attention.  If the government can arrest you for resisting taxation, and then kill you for resisting that arrest, that leads to a culture permissive of the government killing Eric Garner for resisting arrest from a cigarette tax. I could go on for days.



You clarify: “I agree certain rules can have utility if they allow for ease of calculation (as long as we all agree they can be thrown out at a moment's notice).”  But it seems from my analogy, and many others I could draw up, that you are not okay with them being thrown out at moment’s notice.  If you’re like most utilitarians I know, I suspect that even you require quite a few moments before you’re comfortable casting aside certain rules prohibiting certain behaviors, and that usually you use those moments to scramble for cop outs about why doing the thing your conscience tells you is wrong wouldn’t actually be utility maximizing anyway.

If one particular instantiation of an act may potentially or even *probably* have optimally efficient consequences, but should still be avoided whenever possible because that act generally hurts people, and doing it risks “perpetuating a culture permissive” to that act, that sounds an awful lot like the “strong bias against it unless you’re damn sure” standard I advocated above.



2.     Social contracts (in this case, commonly-agreed-upon laws) have a utility value. In breaking a social contract, they incurred negative utility.



I have several objections here:



1.     The law in general has no inherent moral authority whatsoever, from neither consequentialist nor deontological viewpoints. Law is just an opinion with a gun.  If that underlying opinion carries moral weight, it isn’t because of the gun, but rather due to its coincidental overlap with some moral principle which was already authoritative before the law was passed.

In other words, the fact that rape is against the law is not why we think it’s wrong.  Both of us would know those football players had done evil whether or not the State of Ohio’s definition of rape technically prohibited their actions. Inversely, there are many cases in which we break the law to maximize efficiency/happiness/flourishing every day without doing anything immoral.  This can range from common situations where breaking the law is morally permissible (like jaywalking when the streets are empty) to rarer times when we might even have a moral obligation to defy it (like Nazi laws requiring Germans to surrender information on the whereabouts of any Jews in their neighborhood).

Surely you acknowledge that evil laws exist, and at times have even been “commonly-agreed-upon.” Does this mean all those people who helped fugitive slaves escape the South 200 years ago were behaving immorally, and incurring negative utility by violating the law?  Or do utilitarians think it is okay to break the law if it maximizes utility?  And if it’s the latter, why wouldn’t the rapists be justified in doing the same (leaving aside your subsequent clarification about the types of utility you do and do not count, which is a separate dispute)?



2.     Laws are not the same as social contracts.  Laws generally stipulate the things a citizen may not do, whereas social contracts generally stipulate the things the government may and may not do.  Social contracts do not necessarily entail an agreement on the part of the people to obey all of the laws which their government may conceivably impose on them.  In this case the social contract was the State Constitution of Ohio; even if it’s true that this social contract has utility value, the rapists’ decision to rape did not violate it.



3.     Even if it did, when did the rapists sign this social contract?  When did they personally agree to abide by the laws of Ohio?  And if they didn’t formally consent to those laws, how can they be said to have broken any contract?



4.     What is a social contract in the first place, if not an affirmation of the right to self-ownership?  A contract is a formal affirmation of consent.  It is negotiated and signed by people who each agree to sacrifice something *belonging to them* in exchange for something else.  If nobody owned their own body, time, energy, liberty, etc., they would have nothing to sacrifice!  If self-ownership were an invalid principle, nobody would need a contract for permission to kill people, take things others claim as their own, or restrict people’s liberty, including people wearing funny outfits who call themselves the government.  If a social contract has utility value on face, so does a right to self-ownership; the former is meaningless without the latter. So once again your argument relies on my premise, which is a premise you said you reject.



Since I agree with your third reason, I’ll refer to your fourth reason as rebuttal #3 from here on:



3.     “I reject pleasure as the sole measure of utility. "Flourishing" is the term I use, defined as that which advances the physical, mental, and social health of a human. And the actions of the rapists did not and were not calculated to produce this.”



While that’s fine, how can you then turn around and pretend your ideology is more objective than mine?  Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of flourishing.  Neither pleasure nor flourishing have easily quantifiable units, making efforts to achieve “efficient” distributions rather difficult.  But at least pleasure has concrete physical existence.  I have “pleasure receptors” and different endorphins and chemicals and hormones in my brain that can be directly linked to my happiness in a given moment.  You could theoretically add up the amount of dopamine and shit and find an efficient distribution.  Not so for flourishing.  Anything relying on Steve Bessasparis’s definition of “the social health of a human” might as well be coming from the Church, which has their own opinions on what makes human society healthy.



I want to maximize liberty, and you want to maximize flourishing, and both of those words are immaterial notions some human dreamed up.  Both of us can look at material conditions in the physical world and define or gauge them according to our perception of how closely they comport with our ideal, but neither of us can point to science or math for an indisputable measure of those conditions.


Question B:  Was force justified to defeat smallpox?



Sean: My own historical demonstration: Smallpox. 20-60% mortality rate; up to 80% in children. In the 20th Century alone it killed 300-500 million people. Through to coordinated government activity the disease was officially eradicated in 1979. Public resources, coerced by taxation, funded the administration of vaccines.



In the 46 years since, estimate another 300 million men, women, and children would have died if this this global violation of self-ownership had not occurred. Would it have been more just to let them to die? Or, perhaps we could bear the mere tragedy of, say, only 150 million deaths as we wait for the world's famously well-funded and efficiently organized private charities to save them in an ethically palatable manner.  I think if, to the parents of a child dead from smallpox, you pointed out their child could have been saved but for the unwillingness of the fortunate to be taxed, sadness would not be their emotion. I also think, if given the choice, punishment for the unwilling might cross their mind. Should not their feelings be taken into account?



Liza: The idea that the smallpox vaccine could never have been cited without taxation assumes that any attempt to fund the vaccine through charity would have automatically failed. With a disease that widespread across all class and racial barriers, that can take anyone or any loved one, why do you think it's fair to assume the money couldn't have been charitably sourced?



Sean: It could have succeeded, certainly. But, I'd bet it would not have been distributed as fast or as effectively as the government program (especially since mandatory vaccination, sometimes against the population's wishes, was needed to ensure success).  And how many lives is that delay worth?



And, while the disease spread across race and class, it could be geographically contained. African vaccination wouldn't have happened nearly as rapidly.



Liza: Herd immunity relies on a certain percentage of persons being immune to infection--hovering about 90%. Persons who make the choice not to be vaccinated contribute to an increased chance of infection, and consequently death, for those around them. Due to the nature of germs and bodies, it is not a choice where the consequences can be said to be self-contained.



However, it is still wrong to force treatment in people who don't desire it. That is why I'd say government enforced vaccination would fall under the category of "necessary evil". It's not right, but it's less wrong then letting their choice endanger the lives of others.



Me: First, I’ll contest the idea that beating smallpox was primarily a government achievement.  The vaccine was famously publicized way back in 1798 by Edward Jenner, a private scientist, and from 1810-1820 the number of deaths from smallpox was cut in half by mostly voluntary means.  There were sporadic government efforts to make vaccination mandatory throughout the 19th century, but the first at a national level was not until 1853 in Great Britain, and most of them were not initially successful anyway (in fact, there’s strong evidence that efforts to make it mandatory were so unpopular that they actually birthed the anti-vaxxer movement that harangues us today).  In any case, by the time the WHO launched its intensive plan to finish it off in 1967, there were only 10-15 million cases a year with a 25% fatality rate, so central planners sending policemen to bully unwilling patients were at best piggy-backing off the legwork done by private innovators, activists and NGOs. 300 million lives saved seems very high even if there were no private alternative whatsoever. 



Was there a private alternative?  The trouble with counterfactuals is we cannot know for sure, but there’s no intuitive reason government force was the crucial ingredient to making it happen.  Unfortunately, government has now grown large enough to that private organizations are forced negotiate its tangled web of regulations if they want to succeed; the WHO works through the UN because the state, for better or for worse (and I think for worse), is seen by much of the world as the default provider of public goods and the go-to guarantor of public health, so curing diseases in those places requires cooperation with government agencies.  But this doesn’t mean it couldn’t work any other way.  Government does not have any magical properties that allow it to accomplish things private organizations couldn’t.



The overall cost of such cheap vaccines is certainly well within the budget of the trillions of dollars given to charitable nonprofits each year (and even when the state funded it, there’s no evidence the fiscal cost of this was significant enough to raise taxation levels beyond what they would have already been). The will was there, the expertise was there, the non-governmental organizations were there, the distribution networks were established, and the money was there.  The only question is, were there enough people unwilling to become vaccinated voluntarily to foil herd immunity?  And if so, did mandatory vaccination policies effectively stifle their resistance, or merely intensify it?



Even libertarians can disagree on those questions.  I have libertarian friends who support mandatory vaccination on the logic that even technically peaceful actions with innocent intent, like speeding or DUI or setting off fireworks in a crowd, can be prohibited if they pose too great a risk of harming on those around you.  Likewise, they believe the simple act of socializing with at-risk people while unvaccinated constitutes a form of aggression in itself. 



But on utilitarian terms, the more fundamental disagreement has to do with our relative levels of faith in one another to rise to such challenges, relative to our levels of faith in government.  This is true not just of vaccines but also of roads and mail and healthcare and pensions for the elderly; you say “I'd bet [the private alternative] would not have been distributed as fast or as effectively as the government program,” and I say the opposite. 



When things are done by government for a long time, it can be difficult and frightening for people to imagine a world in which it was done by someone else, which too often leads to the baseless supposition that without government it wouldn’t be done at all.  Imagine if FDR had included as part of his New Deal a program which provided guaranteed shoes to all Americans.  “It isn’t right that innocent children go shoe-less!” he might have said, and at the time there were indeed many children who went barefoot.  The argument may well have caught on.  Shoes may not be strictly necessary for life, but they are often necessary for getting a job or surviving outdoors in colder climates, so just like healthcare many people don’t really have the leverage to decline to buy them.  They probably classify as one of the “material needs for human flourishing” you described.



If that program were created, it may well be difficult for us living today, 85 years later, to imagine a world in which shoes were not provided by the government.  The left would fret about the possibility of extortion of people who lack the real option to say no in a private system.  People who advocated the dismantling of a Universal Shoes program would likely be decried as heartless, and told to “walk a mile in their [lack of] shoes” to show some empathy. 



And yet, today, we recognize that the purely private system of shoe provision works brilliantly, with next to zero regulation nor price controls.  Walk into any shopping mall in the country and you will find a greater diversity of shoe options than would have seemed fathomable in 1935.  You can buy running sneakers, walking sneakers, dress shoes, sandals, crocs, boots, cleats, water-shoes, shoes for any occasion.  Within each of those categories there are dozens of sub-categories: those shopping for cleats can pick between those designed for soccer, football, baseball, etc.  Within each sport, even, they’ll find designs for each position group: lineman cleats, linebacker cleats, speed position cleats, and within each position they have different models and brands and colors and designs, metal or plastic spikes, leather or plastic, with your initials engraved in the heel or toe in whatever font you like.  Practically everyone can afford a pair of shoes, and nearly everyone owns several.  It simply isn’t a problem.



A lot of libertarian activism is simply about overcoming this status-quo bias and fear of the unknown. I firmly believe that the poor stand the most to gain from it.



Question C:  Can libertarians wield force on third-parties to save a life?



Sean: Or perhaps we take a smaller, if hypothetical, example:



Suppose you and a co-worker are walking through a little-used trail in a large forest. Along your walk, you happen upon an injured person - he appears to have tripped and cracked his head open on a rock. He has lost a significant amount of blood, and you believe he might die if he does not receive medical attention soon. Your co-worker has the only cell phone. Running to the nearest pay phone would take 40 minutes. A medical helicopter might be there sooner. Your co-worker refuses to call for help.



No injustice was inflicted upon the injured person (condition 1), no certain link exists between your actions and the desired result (condition 2), and there is an alternative means of achieving your end (condition 3).



Is it unjust for you to overpower your co-worker and steal his phone to call for aid? If you were the injured person, what would be your feelings?



Me: I cannot fathom overpowering my friend in such a situation as the one you described, if only because I do not know any acquaintances who would insist on keeping their phone in their pocket at such a time without a good reason.  That may seem like a cop-out, but it has real-world implications for the applicability of your analogy to policy.  In other words, the hiker analogy is flawed because it builds-in assumptions about its characters that don’t hold true among the real world entities those characters are supposed to represent.



In the hiker analogy, the agent making the decision is implied to be of a higher moral character than the person owning the phone.  There is no reason the phone-owning friend would decline to call besides cold indifference to the plight of the injured man; since normal people feel sympathy for the dying, we are left to surmise that those faced with these decisions (policymakers) are cut from a nobler cloth than those their policies govern.  That simply isn’t true. Congressional decisions about which policies to support are driven by motives no less selfish than individual decisions about which ventures to fund.  And contrary to popular mythology, wealthy people are not heartless scrooges who don’t care about the poor and usually decline to help them.  If they decline to donate to Cause A, it is often because they instead prefer to invest in Cause B, or have different strategies about how to best use their wealth for the greatest good.



If taxpayers received receipts for what their tax money goes to fund, they’d see that a fifth of it goes to build bombs and weaponry, or else to train and compensate Soldiers to go kill people in faraway countries who pose almost zero threat to us.  They’d see that another quarter of it goes to a broken healthcare system with inflated prices and no cost consciousness, that has most of the funding sucked up by massive Pharmaceutical companies shoveling as many drugs to elderly patients as the doctor is willing to prescribe.  They’d see that a full one-third of it goes to fund pensions for people who would have gotten a much higher return had they simply put that money in a cruddy mutual fund, that 6% of it goes to fund interest on the debt produced by this organizations chronic fiscal mismanagement, and that most of the remaining 13% or so pays the salaries of bureaucrats doing work far less urgent than “providing life necessities” to those in need.

I posit that even if our wealthiest taxpayers were the saintly reincarnations of God himself, and were also utilitarians to their core concerned with nothing so much as maximizing human flourishing, they may look up from that receipt and decide that in their efforts to do the greatest good for the greatest number, they could frankly get better bang for their buck with a very different allocation of resources.  And if we piece this back into your hiker analogy, we’re left with a friend who declines to call 911 because he has a better idea – maybe he wants to use his phone to Google first-aid tips on how to stop the bleeding and administer aid himself; or maybe he knows the guy is a goner, and wants to lend him his phone to call his family and tell him he loves them one last time.  In any case, the phone does not sit there idle, unused to help anybody anywhere, just like the funds possessed by rich folks do not sit rolled up in a sock under their bed.



Under these more realistic circumstances, I may try to persuade my friend of one course of action over another, and I may get animated in those efforts.  But in none of those situations can I envision myself having the gall to overpower my friend, on the supposition that I knew best (just as I would hope that if it were my phone, he would respect me and my intentions enough to let me try my best).  We would both understand that a literal fistfight over how to best help this man is not the adult way to settle a dispute, because might does not make right and we are fundamentally equals in our ability to evaluate the situation.



Smart, compassionate people can disagree about the best way to help an injured hiker, and they can disagree about the best way to utilize scarce resources towards the betterment of mankind.  Thankfully though, the best ways tend to reveal themselves when we allow one another the courtesy to pursue our own theories, with our own time and energy and resources, in a system of voluntary coordination called the market.  And this is where my third condition comes in: the existence of alternative, peaceful means of solving global problems that lack the tempting perception of immediacy, but so often work much better and much faster than the state.

Debate with a Utilitarian, part III: On self-ownership, and the conditions under which it may be rightly violated


This is a continuation of the transcript of my debate with a utilitarian acquaintance I’m calling Sean.  Parts I and II can be read here and here, respectively.  Sean’s text is in red italics and all emphasis is added by me to assist in quick-scanning our respective arguments.



***



Sean: So, why do you start with the assumption of self-ownership?  And, to get more to the point, under what conditions are you willing to violate a person's self-ownership?  (Because, really, 100% self-ownership sounds a bit like anarchy, so we'd better establish these limits before we talk about taxes)



Me: In a sentence, because I think it best comports with the most fundamental moral instincts held by human beings the world over.



It think self-ownership is theoretically equivalent to the golden rule by definition: the notion that you oughtn't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself implies that there are distinct selves, one belonging to you and others belonging to others, and that people have autonomy over themselves.



And I think that golden rule arose independently in the moral codes of dozens of cultures that had next to zero contact with one another historically, such that it strikes at the heart of whatever it is we conceive as moral behavior.



Sean: Interesting interpretation. What are the limits? That is, at what point can one violate the autonomy of another?



Me: To rob someone of control over their own body, time, energy or property is to wrong that person. Absent context, it is an immoral act. That wrong can only be justified in context if it's a situation where "the ends justify the means," which can only be the case if three conditions are met:



1.     Failure to obtain the ends must lead to more injustice, on net, than the act in question.

2.     The link between the means and ends must be highly certain; there must be little doubt that the act in question will directly and infallibly produce the intended result.

3.     There must exist no alternatives courses of action or inaction that are likely to achieve the same ends in a morally superior way.



Applying this is not an exact science and smart people will disagree about when these conditions are or are not met, but it's the test I use if I'm considering whether to do something which might violate some ethical rule.



Sean: So, then, to re-phrase: violation of someone's autonomy may occur if it is done so to prevent a highly certain greater violation of autonomy (either degree, quantity of persons, or combination thereof). Is this correct?



(I'm not starting another consequentialist vs deontologist train - just making sure I understand your frame)



Me: And is highly certain/likely to succeed in preventing it. More or less that's right. You can see how that's compatible with a big chunk of consequentialist thinking which hopefully is our common ground for proceeding.



Now, autonomy violations might not be the only acts which are immoral, yet might be justified by the ends-justify-means conditions.  Perhaps lying or cheating or breaking a promise might also fit.



Sean: Sounds good - I was hoping so, and wanted to confirm.



Now, who is considered covered by these obligations? Who is considered to have autonomy?



Me: Living adult human beings. Where to draw the line between childhood and adulthood, and what rights children may have, are separate questions we could get into if you like.



Another way of putting it is this: there are certain acts that almost all human societies see as immoral on face: killing, rape, theft, assault, etc. I'm not saying you can never do any of those things under any circumstances – I am just saying there should be a strong bias against it.  If you're going to engage in one of those activities on the consequentialist justification of greatest good for the greatest number, you better be damn sure you're right about what those consequences will be.



And, almost all of those "immoral in the abstract" activities involve violating someone's self-ownership. I.e., most philosophers view it as a pretty safe assumption that killing is wrong outside of certain extreme circumstances.



Sean: So, all of these immoral acts seem to be between people. Do you make allowance for circumstances beyond anyone's control?



You would be ok with violating the self-ownership of a murderer to prevent a murder.  But, would you be ok with violating the self-ownership of a bystander to prevent an avoidable death? Say, if I confiscate some of your surplus food to give to someone who is starving?



Me: So I don't view murder and starvation as the same. One is worse than the other. That may not make sense to an absolutist consequentialist because the ultimate consequence is the same (death). But I see one of those things as merely tragic, and the other as something worse than tragic: unjust.



Put another way: starvation makes me sad and want to help. Murder makes me angry and want to punish (or at least willing to forcibly prevent it).



I fully grant that if I and my family were starving, I'd probably be willing to pull a Jean Valjean and steal sustenance to save my life. I might even be willing to steal on someone else's behalf. I don't know if that would make it right though.  (And remember, if there are other ways by which we might feed the starving people besides theft, it would still fail my third condition.)



Sean: I understand, and I disagree. And, it's still a transfer of resources from one party to another. My concern was charity vs tax



Me: Right, but the distinction between charity and tax is super important! I have no problem with transferring resources, that's what the market is all about.



Sean: Well, we were arguing over if a life saved by a government from incidental death (i.e. government-provided smallpox vaccine) could be counted against a life taken by the government.  As you can guess, I equate the two (as I equate murder/starvation and charity/tax).



So, can you justify the difference between tragedy and injustice? You were descriptive before - can you prescribe?



Me: Right, and that's another instance of how strict utilitarianism doesn't comport with so many human moral intuitions, which from my view is evidence of its flaws as a moral theory (but not from yours, because you see those intuitions as mere brain states, sourced from evolution, that have no philosophical merit).



Sean: If you think this is strict utilitarianism, let me tell you about some of my other calculation!  But, I'd say this is entirely in line with other human moral intuitions



Me: I could say the same about "if you think I'm an anarchist, let me show you some of my friends..."



(Reader's note: At this point I will skip over a portion of our debate, which you can find excerpted in Part IV).



Sean: Please answer this: The source of your argument seems to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive ("But I see one of those things as merely tragic, and the other as something worse than tragic: unjust"). Are justice and injustice merely the result of one's feelings? Then, at what point are the feelings of the downtrodden accounted?



The Golden Rule has another edge. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". I would have others save my life from the fell clutches of circumstance, and I would have others force me to save my fellow humans. Rawls' still-serviceable Veil demonstrates this basic human sentiment - if I find myself at the bottom of the ladder, I care not if it is by tragedy or injustice, nor if my salvation comes by charity or tax. As fundamental as your principle of self-ownership is the human desire to be aided in one's time of need, and by force if necessary.



This is the cry of every starving pauper, and upon this cadence turn the wheels of Revolution. By what chant did the citizens of Paris march on Versailles? The Russians against the Czar? The Chinese against their Emperors? "Bread". What could be more powerful and more fundamental than this feeling of injustice so strong it would bring great nations to their knees? If we speak of universally-acknowledged ethical truths, I think the masses of humanity spoke rather loudly those days.





Me: You ask: “Are justice and injustice merely the result of one's feelings?” I answer: Only if you define all non-physical concepts as “the result of one’s feelings.” Injustice is a theory about morality.  It is primarily cerebral.  It may well stir emotions, and be informed by them, but it is different than base human urges like hunger or pain.



You ask, in effect, what difference it makes to those at the bottom, whether their salvation comes from charity or tax?  Maybe none, at the moment they are starving.  But it does make a difference to others in society at that moment, and maybe even to the paupers over the long term.  The economic implications may influence their ability to get a job, or even their incentive to get a job, and improve their station more permanently.  And in the moment they do succeed, at long last, in elevating themselves and their family members from the hell of poverty, it would matter to them quite a bit if another person felt entitled to take what they had only recently gained and give it to someone else in more dire straits.  Nobody values their property more dearly, nor will defend what is theirs more ferociously, then former paupers.



And when it comes to things a fundamental as death, even the downtrodden can recognize the difference between murder and accident. It may make no difference to a golfer whether he dies instantly from a bolt of lightning or dies instantly from a murderer’s bullet through his brain, but his family would certainly notice the difference, and would likely want the murderer brought to justice (for reasons that have little to do with his proclivity to murder again).



When the citizens of Paris, Russia and China were driven to revolt, whom were they revolting against?  Rich people generally?  Or did they seek to overthrow their GOVERNMENTS?  And if there was usually significant overlap between those two groups, might there be a reason for that?  No private entrepreneur had become rich in 18th Century France by minding his own business and peacefully trading at the local market.  Without the power of the state at his disposal, King Louis could not have seized the wealth necessary to build Versailles, and the inequality of wealth that struck the Frenchmen as so unjust could not have arisen. In each case, someone with an Army was using it to enrich himself, build shrines to his glory, conquer and repress foreign lands, etc.  Citizens of such regimes were victims of horrible violence if they spoke out against this waste, and victims of theft each time they were taxed to support such obscenities. Their poverty was not merely tragic, but unjust, and they were right to riot. 



Of the Golden Rule, you say “I would have others save my life from the fell clutches of circumstance.”  So would I; by all means, let’s save people!  It isn’t saving people I have a problem with.  Theft is what I don’t like.  And in the moment you’re robbing Peter with designs on using what’s stolen to pay Paul, it isn’t Paul who is having something “done unto” him.  “Do” is a verb conveying action, and just like the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule guides people’s actions in a very direct sense.  You cannot define actions so broadly that the Golden Rule ENTAILS doing unto others what you would NOT have them do unto you, lest the saying become a contradiction.



You say “I would have others force me to save my fellow humans.”  No you wouldn’t; that is a contradiction. By definition, you cannot consent to be forced to do something.  If you would have someone prompt you to do X, their prompting does not qualify as a use of force.  If they had to force you to do it, you wouldn’t have done it otherwise. If you agree to it freely then no force is required; if force was used, then you didn’t agree to it freely.  (The only exception is matters of competency, where someone can anticipate in advance that they will soon be in an altered mental state, and make their wishes known while they still have their wits about them, but that’s pretty clearly not the situation the Golden Rule was designed to govern.)  Even the situations in which I do condone taxation are still a deviation from the Golden Rule.  I don’t let myself squiggle out of it.

Debate with a Utilitarian, Part II: On physical reality, and its implications for moral philosophy


This is a continuation of a transcript of my debate with a utilitarian acquaintance I’m calling Sean.  Part I can be read here.  Sean’s text is in red italics and all emphasis is added by me to assist in quick-scanning our respective arguments.



Sean: Your fourth question is the key disagreement.  We must agree on this before any other discussion.



To confirm my frame: some material needs are pre-political - those needed to maintain homeostasis (food, water, shelter, protection from violence and disease) and belonging to community.  The dead have no politics, and a government with a census of one would be odd indeed.  For politics to be possible we need at least two alive persons interacting with each other.  This is the most basic utilitarian frame: keep people alive and together.



This conflicts with your axiom of "Self-Ownership", but I do fancy my ideology to be more fundamental - it is necessary for two people to be alive and interacting for the concept of "Self-Ownership" to exist.  An hypothetical to demonstrate:



Three shipwreck survivors are trapped on a desert island.  They have a radio, contacted civilization, and know a rescue will occur in 6 days.  However, each person only owns enough water to survive for 4 days (Total water on the island: 12 DOS for one person, 4 DOS for three, and 6 DOS for two).  Assume each person dehydrates at the same rate, and will die when their water runs out.  Two scenarios are possible: either all three die on day 5, or two overpower one and take their water by force (assume no noble sacrifice on the part of the one - unreliable). Utilitarianism states two should overpower one and ensure survival of the two (who then can continue to debate the issue of "Self-Ownership" within a utilitarian framework).  "Self-Ownership" states two should not overpower the one - all three will own themselves up until they die of dehydration, at which point the concept of "Self-Ownership", a product of the human mind, ceases to exist on the island.  So, which is the preferable outcome?



(This is half a metaphysical question.  I do not believe philosophical concepts exist outside a person's mind - to quote the late, great Terry Pratchett: "Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy".  If you believe the concept of "Self-Ownership" not only exists without any person to conceive of it, but also is of such importance that all persons could be rightfully sacrificed in pursuit of it, then we have a disagreement on the fundamental nature of the universe.)



The rest of your questions are indeed political: defining other material needs, the definition of flourishing, the methods of securing resources, mechanisms of distribution, needs vs wants, abstract vs concrete, 4 million flourished vs 7 million flourished and 1 million destitute, definition of "we", etc.  However, they are all political within the utilitarian frame.  We've moved on from the basics of "two people alive next to each other" and began to discuss other aspects of human flourishing.  We accept the goal and only question the details of "human" "flourishing" and the method to achieve it.



These are important questions, and there will be deep divides over the answers.  But, accepting this frame is not trivial - Patrick Henry rejected it with "Give me liberty or give me death".  Both sides of the Cold War rejected it with MAD (better the whole world burn than the communists/capitalists survive).  Some religious factions reject it by holding it's better to die as a believer than live as an apostate.  And, our hypothetical survivors might reject it by preferring to die as individuals rather than live by violating the self-ownership of another.



TLDR: Would "Self-Ownership" exist if no persons were alive to conceive of it?  And, if it does, is it preferable to have 0-1 persons, or 2+ persons living without "Self-Ownership"?





Me: To answer your question first this time, no: “self-ownership” would not exist were no persons alive to conceive of it (there would be no selves to own). But, I don’t think that means I’m accepting your frame.  You say my fourth question is pivotal, so let’s zero in on it.



I asked: “why is the right to an efficient distribution of society’s resources more important or more ‘real’ than the right to self-ownership?”



You answered (as simply as I summarize in a quote): because “it is necessary for two people to be alive and interacting for the concept of Self-Ownership to exist.”



That’s true, but irrelevant to my question, for four reasons:

1.     It is also necessary for two people to be alive and interacting for the concept of a distribution of resources to exist, efficient or otherwise.

2.     Neither the right to self-ownership nor the right to an efficient distribution of resources are required for at least two people to be alive and interacting in the real world.

3.     If we’re allowed to make whatever assumptions we like about human nature (i.e., self-sacrificial forfeiture of one’s own water rations is unreliable) is just as easy to build a hypothetical world wherein the right to self-ownership would be required for at least two people to remain alive and interacting (perhaps on the assumption that there is no radio, the rescue timeline is uncertain, and without an observed right to self-ownership one shipwreck survivor would simply kill the other two to maximize his longevity) as it is to build the one you did.

4.     Even in a hypothetical world where an efficient distribution of resources were required for at least two people to be alive and interacting, this would merely mean that the efficient distribution of resources was chronologically anterior to the physical existence of the concept of self-ownership, or that it was a prerequisite for its continued physical existence, NOT that anyone had a RIGHT to that distribution, nor that the concept of a right to that distribution were more philosophically important/real/fundamental than any other right.



This fourth objection may be the most important to why we’re going in circles here.  I am completely unconcerned with the physical existence of self-ownership as a thing with matter and mass.  Moral philosophy is not a hard science. Its truth claims do not attempt to identify the atoms and molecules discernable by fine sieves.  Philosophy certainly exists (plenty of people are already alive and comfortable enough to conceive of it) but it isn’t ordinarily thought of as something you can touch.  If concepts like utility and justice and property occupy actual brain cells in a physical location, we haven’t observed that yet.  They ordinarily are thought to exist only in the realm of the abstract, and that’s as true of your theories as it is of mine.  Normative “ought” statements can be neither proven nor disproven by descriptive observations of what material conditions first allowed those statements to be uttered.



Your frame highlights this dichotomy by splicing a purely descriptive claim alongside a purely normative one.  You write, “some material needs are pre-political - those needed to maintain homeostasis…and belonging to community.”  One half of that sentence is not like the other! “XYZ are needed to maintain homeostasis,” is a non-political, scientific observation, granted – but “XYZ belong to community” is plainly political. In fact, it’s a claim to OWNERSHIP, which tickles my funny bone because it means your frame relies on part of mine!  The phrase “belongs to” is meaningless without some conception of property rights; aren’t utilitarians not supposed to think there’s any such thing?



Now, to clarify MY frame.  I agree it is sometimes justifiable to violate people’s rights, as your desert island analogy suggested.  It may at times be the least bad option; we can have a sort of “violable rights” or “rights with well-defined exceptions” system that’s still internally consistent.  But a) I’m very specific about what those exceptions are, and b) it’s important to understand that you’re still wronging someone.  You’re still committing an offense, even if it’s outweighed by the lives you’re saving, and that should still weigh on your conscience a bit.  In your case, the one you’ve killed was equally entitled to four days of water as you were.  The MOST moral thing to do might well be to volunteer yourself as the one to die.



All of the questions I asked in my first post can be answered within a utilitarian lens, but none of the must be.  None of them “accept the goal” of universal human flourishing and “move on” to the question of how to best ensure it, unless you define that starting point so broadly as to make it basically meaningless.  A belief it is good that at least two people be alive next to each other is nothing whatsoever unique about utilitarianism.



Rather than closing with questions, I’ll close with some observations about the discussion so far:

1.     I think the discussion would be clearer if both of us stopped using the word flourishing.  It’s too broad and lends to talking past one another.

2.     I think the discussion would be easier to follow if we both stopped talking about things as abstract as the preconditions philosophic thought and shifted towards topics more directly relevant to modern political disputes.

Sean:

1) "Flourishing" was intentionally vague - it represents a materialistic rather than idealistic argument. Additional specificity would only muddy the waters.


2) The abstract is absolutely relevant to modern political disputes. Only after we agree on a common metaphysics and common ethic can we have any hope of resolving other issues.


Suppose we tried to talk about tax policy. My policies would attempt to use taxation to redistribute wealth. Your policies might attempt to reduce the tax burden overall.  I would start discussing the distribution of money as compared to some ideal outcome. You might focus on the method by which money was distributed, rather than the outcome itself.


I'd argue end results are more important than method (consequentialist ethics). You might argue the opposite (deontological).  Then we'd attempt to reconcile these two ethical systems, which will lead to the conversation we were having.


Me: I didn't realize flourishing was necessarily materialistic. Recall the Evangelical who defines it by abidance to God's law. But it is helpful now to know what you mean by it.

I understand that the abstract is relevant to where we won't see eye to eye. But, I don't think we're likely to agree on a common ethic, and I think it would be a shame if the debate were to end there. I am well-versed in the effort to reconcile deontological and consequentialist systems (I first wrote about it on my blog almost five years ago, and wasn't as good a writer then and I rambled a bit, you can feel free to read my thoughts here or here.) Rarely do such efforts result in one side clearly winning. Thankfully, that doesn't make any further debate completely fruitless. The world is full of people who hold different ideological starting points, and debating real-world issues often requires fluency in several of them, so you can "make the case" within several different ideological frames at once. That's certainly how it worked on debate team in college.

We can stick to the abstract for now if you prefer, though.  Since we're both online now it'll probably go faster. What's your response to what I wrote about question four?


Sean: Well, I was just thinking if we started debating the real-world issues without the same frame, it becomes an exercise in rhetoric (which is fine on its own, but is really something better done in person). If it's all right by you, I'd prefer to finalize with the abstract (until one of us gets sick of it and we agree to disagree)



So, the answer to question four - that is, how do we banish Hume's ghost and tease an "Ought" from an "Is"…



I take issue with your characterization of "abstract" ideas. These do exist in the physical world - as electrical patterns woven into your neurons. If I MRI your brain and have you think of different ideas, I could see a physical response. In this sense, concepts like utility and justice do occupy networks of brain cells. There is no "abstract". "Ideas" do not exist independent of their physical representation in a person's brain.


Is this a fair description?


Me: But that physical brain response would be different for each person. I don't think efforts to map out different brain states and zero in on the singular one which represents "thinking about utility" or "thinking about self-ownership" are at all likely to succeed. At best we can identify certain regions of the brain that are "activated" by certain broad types of thinking, and that's useful to know medically, but I think that's a completely separate field with minimal overlap to moral philosophy.


I don't think cognitive neuropsychology impacts whether we have rights.



Sean: It has a huge impact. If concepts like "utility" and "self-ownership" only exist as electrical patterns in a person's brain, then we can be reductionist and state only the patterns are real. There is no problem of reconciling the mind and the physical world, since only the physical world exists.



And this worldview does not allow for deontological ethics.



If deontological ethics is concerned with following a set of rules/principles/concepts, and these rules/principles/concepts are patterns in a brain, then deontological ethics is concerned with the interactions of brain patterns. That is, concerned with producing a certain brain pattern. This is consequentialism.



Andrew: Yeah, and I'm not sure I buy into that, that "only the physical world exists." That's why I've taken care to put "physical existence" before anything where I'm referring to "whether X concept has matter." I don't see it as analogous to "whether X concept is morally valid."


I get that Hume would tell me I'm being abstruse. I'm ok with that. Very little in ethics is objectively provable and efforts to make it so are trying too hard to find a definitively, empirically right answer where there might not be one. I'm comfortable navigating a world where philosophical disputes boil down to which assumptions you start out with, and then we compare those assumptions and their implications with our moral intuitions to identify which best comport with those ingrained aspects of morality that seem most widely held.



And even if only the physical world exists, consequentialism is also a brain pattern.  And if those ingrained, almost-universally-held elements of morality are purely evolutionary, I don't care. It says nothing about which we should live by. They are ought statements with biological origins, but ought statements nonetheless.



Sean: True, but no prescriptions have been made yet - we've only limited the toolbox, not stated what we should do with the tools

Depending on our assumptions from here we can construct many different ethical systems, but they all must be in the language of "The goal is producing this particular end state in the physical world" rather than "The goal is adhering to these principles".  From here, we can argue about the assumptions.



Me: But if my version is "the goal is producing an end state wherein these principles are adhered to," or "wherein I adhere or everyone adheres to these principles" then what's the functional difference?



If we continue down this path we will get into questions of whether existence is defined by perception: the cliche "if a tree falls in the forrest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound?" thing. If there were a definitively right answer philosophers would have settled on it centuries ago. But there isn't, and I find it dull to go round in circles, which is why I suggested moving on.



Sean: Well, it's more important that we agree on an answer, rather than finding a correct one. But, let's see if there is a functional difference.


(to be continued)