Governing Least: What’s Really Wrong with Utilitarianism

One argument against utilitarianism is that no one actually follows it.  I call this the Argument from Hypocrisy.  A better objection, though, is that even highly scrupulous utilitarians don’t comply with their stated principles; I call this the Argument from Conscience.   In Governing Least, Moller powerfully develops a parallel objection: While utilitarians often urge self-sacrifice, they rarely preach other-sacrifice.  But given their principles, they totally should!  Moller’s explanation is so well-phrased that I decided to reproduce a complete section.

Challenges to living with utilitarianism tend to focus on what I called options— the option we think we normally have to flout the overall good when we rather sleep in, or buy a subwoofer instead of donating to charity. But what really cuts ice are constraints on our actions. Singer and others emphasize that they can accept that they do not, as utilitarians, have the option to loaf about when they could help others, however much they fall short. But what is really hard about living with utilitarianism isn’t self-sacrifice but other-sacrifice, paradoxically enough. This wouldn’t be so if we were purely self- interested, but we aren’t, and the prospect of exploiting others for the greater good thus terrifies us. Of course, it’s rare that harming innocents will produce much good, but it’s easy enough to come up with cases:

Grandma: Grandma is a kindly soul who has saved up tens of thousands of dollars in cash over the years. One fine day you see her stashing it away under her mattress, and come to think that with just a little nudge you could cause her to fall and most probably die. You could then take her money, which others don’t know about, and redistribute it to those more worthy, saving many lives in the process. No one will ever know. Left to her own devices, Grandma would probably live a few more years, and her money would be discovered by her unworthy heirs who would blow it on fancy cars and vacations. Liberated from primitive deontic impulses by a recent college philosophy course, you silently say your goodbyes and prepare to send Grandma into the beyond.

If this seems too outré to take seriously, we can try this instead:

Child: Your son earns a good living as a doctor but is careless with some of his finances. You sometimes help him out by organizing his receipts and invoices. One day you have the opportunity to divert $1,000 from his funds to a charity where the money will do more good; neither he nor anyone else will ever notice the difference, besides the beneficiaries. You decide to steal your child’s money and promote the overall good.

Recall that we’ve already set aside ecumenical views that side with deontic morality in practice. So it’s no use to protest that the true utilitarian theory has some esoteric feature that lets us ignore the case, say because we should only follow rules with good consequences, and killing those around us to reduce hunger would have terrible consequences overall. The only views left on the table at this point are precisely those that are willing to contemplate that, at least in some circumstances, rubbing out Grandma and stealing from our children is the right thing to do. The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. Exploiting those we love isn’t an ideal we fail to attain, it’s the very antipode of the ideals themselves. Just consider contexts in which we are specifically seeking to articulate them, as when we instruct our children. Do revisionist utilitarians sit down their sons and daughters and implore them to steal from their friends when it is possible to do so undetected and to divert the money to famine relief? There are many books by revisionist utilitarians telling us that we ought to do more to live up to the demands of morality through self- sacrifice; the fact that there are so few urging us to engage in more other-sacrifice would be surprising if revisionists really could take their philosophy seriously in practice.

Notice, again, that Moller is not invoking the Argument from Hypocrisy.  “The problem, then, is that most people don’t seem able to accept even that they ought to aspire to such behavior, let alone engage in it. ”  In other words, utilitarians don’t preach other-sacrifice, but fail to practice what they preach.  They barely even preach it!  Suspicious, to say the least.

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Confessions of a Blogging Opium Eater

Nobody asked but …

With a nod to Thomas De Quincey, I have had to deal with the consequences of an addiction once again.  As a life long University of Kentucky basketball fan, I now must look forward to a long, cold summer.  I will have fleeting moments, perhaps in the NBA playoffs, perhaps when they contest the Rugby World Cup to see who can deny the New Zealand All Blacks.

But this all got me thinking about the nature of undying love, freedom, individuality, and consequences, from the POV of a voluntaryist.  Nobody got me into this mess, but myself.  I know the risks, however, so I suppose I suffer gladly (acknowledging that I would celebrate even more gladly, as I have done countless times in the past).  Looking at my nearly 76 earthly years with the Wildcats and the All Blacks, it has been worth it.

The point, however, is that addictions are one of the consequences of voluntarily seeking joy.  If you do it in the true spirit of the non-aggression principle (initiate no violence), the golden rule (do to others as you hope they will do to you), studying war no more, and hearty acceptance of ALL the responsibilities conferred with your goals of liberty, you can have joy, even among the heartaches.

— Kilgore Forelle

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You Don’t Get to Avoid Consequences

There are consequences to EVERY choice.

This is something I’ve said more times than I can count. Even the right choice will have consequences, and they won’t all be good ones.

Yet, so many times I see people justifying support for archation by pointing out the consequences of choosing the other path. As if I’m pretending there won’t be consequences if only you do the right thing. You don’t get to magically avoid consequences just because you do what’s right. That would be nice, but it’s not reality.

There are consequences to being a libertarian.

There are consequences for being a bank robber.

There are consequences for working for the IRS.

Consequences are utterly inescapable, and you can’t know for certain what the consequences will be. You can’t make your decision based on concrete knowledge of what consequences will come from your choice, because you can’t have concrete knowledge of every consequence you’ll face.

If you comply with a counterfeit “law”, there will be consequences.

If, instead, you defy the counterfeit “law”… there will be consequences. In the long run, you can’t know which consequences will be worse. It’s dependent on so many factors– including luck.

If you take this job, there will be consequences.

If you turn down the job there will be other consequences.

If you v*te, there will be consequences.

If you decline to participate in going through the motions of choosing (or rejecting) a particular master there will be consequences.

The best you can do, in my opinion, is to not do things that make you feel guilty– which make you feel like you can’t live with yourself– and let the pieces fall where they may.

For me that means I choose to not archate and I don’t support those who do. As consistently as possible. And then deal with the consequences as they arise.

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Unforeseen Consequences, Boeing Edition

Nobody asked but …

I don’t want to rehash the details, to second guess, to play “I told you so.”  It looks as though, however, that complication has led again to unforeseen consequences.  It seems that a collision among customers, research and development, marketing, and multitudinous governmental regulatory agencies has produced another snarl of buck passing and finger pointing, diluted responsibility and destroyed accountability.  One American airline says that because they have 24 of the aircraft models in question, they will be cancelling an average of 90 flights a day for the foreseeable future.

The constellation of problems stem from a gaggle of causes.  Pricing and optional features have led to a matrix of bad outcomes that are being felt throughout the world, not least by the hundreds of people killed so far.  Past users of the global aviation system have died, current users have been displaced, and future users are thrust into deep uncertainty.

I have experienced over the weekend, a model in miniature of the above snafu.  Kilgorette and I undertook a Spring gardening project starting on Saturday, the making of a new hosta bed next to the woods near the house.  It wasn’t until after dark that my lovely bride discovered that the pinkie finger on her left hand had quit working properly.  Mystified as to the cause, she took some analgesic and went to bed.  From there things spun out of control.  By morning, the pain was excruciating.  Kilgorette now remembered getting a thorn in her gloved finger, and pulling it out.  By evening we were in a Lexington hospital’s ER.  We got home by 3am Monday morning with instructions to see a hand surgeon later in the day.  I had to cancel my 2 Monday classes.  In the afternoon, Kilgorette was scheduled for surgery Tuesday.  We also fell into the clutches of Big Pharma.  Tuesday, many hours were spent at a surgery site.  Wednesday, I am able to meet with my two classes, but I need to hasten off on a 5-city tour in the late afternoon to get her to physical therapy.  Then on Friday, I will have to miss the weekly meeting of the philosophy discussion klatch while Ms. Forelle and I go to follow up with the hand doctor.  I have learned that the human hand is an amazingly complicated appendage.

Now I get it — the intense meaning of the saying, “a thorn in the side.”  I also realize that, at least in part, airplane features are being designed by the same types as those who dream up television remote controls.

— Kilgore Forelle


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Operant Conditioning for Everything

Operant conditioning gets a bad rap. It gets confused with classical conditioning, which gets associated with Pavlov, which makes everyone think about salivating dogs, bells, and rats getting shocked in search of cheese.

The dog and cheese stuff of classical conditioning is about creating involuntary biological responses. Hear a bell and the body produces saliva. Operant conditioning has to do with voluntary behavior and consequences more directly related to action. For example, getting a cookie when you sing a song may make you choose to sing more songs or feel positive about singing, but it doesn’t make your body involuntarily sing in the presence of cookies.

Both kinds of conditioning are scary in the hands of social experimenters. If anyone talks about turning the world into their lab and running giant programs to generate socially desirable behavior, run the other direction.

But operant conditioning is a great tool to use on yourself!

It’s really about creating and putting yourself into incentive structures where the kind of person who would be rewarded is the kind of person you’d like to be. It affects the kind of people you spend time with. If you surround yourself with friends that affirm you for sitting around not growing, you’re conditioning yourself to do more of that. If you’re around people that are more fun to share growth and challenges with, you’ll push yourself to grow more.

It means taking control of the reward systems you enter. Social media is a potent area. The things that get rewarded with likes, comments, or shares, are not always things that help you become more of who you want to be. It’s easy to chase likes while running away from a self you like. If you understand operant conditioning, it helps you see it and adjust.

Your behavior affects others too. When you see stuff on your news feed that makes your life better, you click like. When you see stuff you want less of, you ignore. This conditions other social users to behave in certain ways to get those lovely likes.

None of this is groundbreaking. It happens all the time whether we realize it or not. But conscious awareness of the process increases ability to control it. Conditioning is going to happen. Wouldn’t you rather condition yourself than be conditioned without knowing it?

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What Does it Mean to Live Free?

It’s hard to own every choice and respect others enough to expect the same from them.

It’s easy to lazily slip into appeals to duty, what’s “normal”, guilt, or shame instead of relying entirely on mutual exchange of value.

If I’d like my wife to come on a walk with me, I can change my tone of voice to imply I’ll have hurt feelings if she doesn’t. I can say, “I always come on walks with you!”. I can try to make her feel weird, like other normal people go on walks. I can appeal to the fact that we’re family, and imply that she owes me a walk because of it.

All of these can be effective. But they’re lesser versions of the person I want to be. I don’t want to make choices in my life based on these things. Why should I ask her to? I want to live free and I want to treat her as a free person.

This forces me to get creative. It forces me to create value. It forces me to have a strong sense of self. I’ve got to ask her to join me in a way that makes it in her unmanipulated interest to say yes, but in a way that makes clear she can freely say no.

It doesn’t mean I have to hide my feelings. It’s the opposite. I can’t allow myself to hide my motives and desires under layers of false reason. Living free and treating others as free people forces honesty.

Humans are good at adding layers of justification and passive aggression to our words and actions. Pretty soon, it’s impossible to identify our own desires. Denying yourself the use of manipulative tactics forces you to come to terms with your thoughts and feelings. Why do I want her to go on a walk with me? How much do I value it? Why might she value it? What could make it more valuable than her alternatives?

It sounds cold and mechanical when broken down like this, but in practice it’s clean and true. It’s so much better than vague entreaties layered with ambiguous emotional consequences.

This is just one small part of living free. But it changes everything. Never accepting the role of victim. Never believing anyone owes you anything, or you owe anyone anything (except what you’ve freely agreed to). These force you to treat each interaction as between free people.

It forces you to break the shackles of your own bullshit.

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