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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Are You Being Played?

I suspect Scott Adams has been playing his listeners. I’ve suspected this for months, but have only discussed this with one person. Until now.

I’ll go ahead and tell you now what I think has been going on.

I believe he is using the technique of “pacing and leading” to get his “conservative” listeners to change their minds on “climate change” (and a few other topics as well). He plays the neutral “voice of reason” with his audience who seems to mostly be Right Statist, but he is much more Left Statist than he lets on. (I so dislike using the terms “Left” and Right” in political discussions, since there’s really only Statist or not. Yet sometimes it seems necessary to examine the interplay between these mirror images.)

Back when he first started discussing the topic, I got the distinct feeling this was what he was doing. In spite of his protests of “I’m just looking at the argument– I don’t know because I can’t know. I’m not a climate scientist.” it seemed to me he was going to take the alarmists’ side when it was all said and done. He gave clues to that effect. Because he is a government supremacist, after all.

And this is the general arc of what I’ve watched happening.

He started off leaning slightly to the skeptical side. So as to agree with the listeners he was (apparently) wanting to influence. Pacing them. He has been slowly and carefully moving slightly more to the alarmist side since then. Two steps forward and one step back. Leading them to where he seems to want them to go.

He has straight out said he uses persuasion (and hypnosis) techniques in his writing and podcasting. He has described these techniques and pointed out examples when they are used by others. Then he uses the techniques on his listeners. He’s doing it right in the open. I believe his intent is to influence his listeners to move away from Right Statism toward Left Statism– maybe to bring them to a center position.

Can I prove it? No. He would say I’m mind reading and there is no written or stated evidence that this is what he wants to do. As I’ve said before, since I can’t read minds I am left with reasoning out what someone is thinking by their actions. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. The future will tell.

I still listen to Scott because I find him interesting and because I still find it informative to get insight into the workings of the statist mind. But I try to mentally vaccinate myself against his persuasion while doing so by knowing what he’s doing. Who knows if I’m protected sufficiently.

Years ago, when I first started reading his Dilbert blog, he once claimed to be “libertarian, but without the crazy stuff“. I pointed out that the “crazy stuff”, as he defined it, is also called consistency. Consistency, based in principles. Things which get in the way of a full-on embrace of statism. Once you believe it’s OK to govern others and use government violence to force others to do what you want and stop them from doing what you don’t want them to do, there seems to be nothing that’s too far to justify. This is the road he travels. He expects you to follow. And he may be tricking people into following him.

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Compulsory Schooling Laws Aren’t Progressive, They’re Inhumane

Someone asked me recently if I could wave a magic wand and do one thing to improve American education what would it be. Without hesitation, I replied: Eliminate state compulsory schooling statutes. Stripping the state of its power to define and control education under a legal threat of force is a necessary step in pursuit of education freedom and parental empowerment.

Some argue that compulsory schooling laws are no big deal. After all, they say, private schooling and homeschooling are legal in all 50 states, so state control of education is limited. While it’s true that some parents may have access to government schooling alternatives, many states require private schools to receive authorization in order to operate. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school.Homeschoolers in most states must comply with state or local reporting mandates that in some areas require homeschoolers to take standardized tests or meet state-determined curriculum requirements.

These hoops are for those lucky enough to jump out of compulsory mass schooling. Despite ongoing efforts to expand education choice mechanisms, like Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tax-credit scholarship programs, most parents have no choice but to send their child to an assigned district school. Even if their child is being relentlessly bullied, even if they don’t feel that the academic environment is rigorous enough, even if they may personally disagree with some of the district’s ideological underpinnings—these parents are required by law to send their child to the appointed public school.

And what if they don’t?

Truancy and Neglectful Parenting

Truancy laws, which originate from a state’s compulsory schooling statutes, grant the full power of the state to come after parents whose children may have spotty attendance records. An in-depth article in HuffPost recently revealed the damaging impact these laws can have on families and children, with parents being pulled out of their homes in handcuffs and sent to jail.

For Cheree Peoples, one of the parents spotlighted in the article whose daughter misses school frequently due to sickle cell anemia that frequently leaves her hospitalized and in pain, enforcement of these truancy laws has been extreme, adding to the stress of her already difficult life caring for a chronically ill child. Awakened in the early hours by police officers who arrested her for truancy, she told the HuffPost: “You would swear I had killed somebody.”

The HuffPost investigation revealed that Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris was responsible for much of the heightened aggression toward parents regarding truancy. As California’s attorney general, Harris was a crusader against truancy and was instrumental in toughening criminal prosecution of parents whose children missed too much school. According to HuffPost:

Harris’ innovation was that school authorities and the district attorney would work in concert, articulating the threat of prosecution much earlier in the process and keeping school officials involved long after a case was transferred to court.

Harris held firm to her belief that neglectful parenting was the root cause of truancy, ignoring other potential explanations like lack of education choice for parents whose children may be suffering in their assigned district school. Harris’s actions to aggressively prosecute parents for truancy “were cementing the idea that parents always were the ultimate source of the problem.”

This is all so familiar. Harris, who billed herself as a “progressive prosecutor” for California, likely believed she was doing the right thing for children, saving them from their allegedly neglectful parents. Horace Mann, the “father of American public education” who is credited with helping to usher in the country’s first compulsory schooling statute in Massachusetts in 1852, also considered himself a progressive. At the time, Massachusetts was experiencing a massive immigration wave that, some lawmakers believed, threatened the current social fabric.

The History of Compulsory Schooling Laws

Indeed, between 1820 and 1840, Boston’s population more than doubled, and most of these newcomers were poor Irish Catholic immigrants escaping Ireland’s deadly potato famine. They challenged the dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms of the time, prompting many state leaders to lobby for a new compulsory schooling statute that would mandate children’s attendance in state-controlled public schools. It was for the children’s own good, they said. As William Swan, editor of The Massachusetts Teacher wrote in 1851, just before the first compulsory schooling law was passed:

Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.

Prior to the 1852 compulsory schooling law, compulsory education laws were common throughout the country. Massachusetts again led the way, passing its first compulsory education laws in 1642 and 1647, respectively. These education laws differed fundamentally from compulsory schooling laws. The education laws indicated a state interest in an educated citizenry and compelled cities and towns of a certain size to hire a teacher and/or open and operate a grammar school. It was the town that was compelled to offer schooling, not the parents to send their children there.

This is a significant distinction. A state arguably has the authority to require its cities and towns to provide certain services, but compelling parents to partake of these services under a legal threat of force—as the 1852 compulsory schooling law ultimately did—crosses the line. As the HuffPost article makes abundantly clear, parents, particularly those who are disadvantaged, continue to bear the brunt of these archaic and deeply flawed compulsory schooling laws.

The Solution

The first step to restore education freedom and empower parents with choice and opportunity for their children is to eliminate compulsory schooling laws that authorize state control of education. States could still require cities and towns to provide public schools to those who want them, but the power to compel parents to send their children there would disappear. In its place, a decentralized network of educational opportunities (including, but not limited to, various types of schooling) would unfold, fueled by visionary parents, educators, and entrepreneurs.

Parents, not the state, would decide how and where their children are educated. New possibilities for education innovation would emerge as the shadow of forced schooling waned. Education freedom begins when government compulsion ends.

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What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Teenagers Crave Purpose

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

Job Experience Could Be A Solution

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.

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Climate Strike

I was the chauffeur last Friday who took my youngest granddaughters to the Climate Strike demonstration in front of the Fayette County, KY, Courthouse. I did this at the request of their mother, my daughter, the hydrologist who works for the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency.  The young women are a teen and a pre-teen on the cusp.

These may seem to be odd arrangements and relationships for someone, such as I, who has a very decided stance on global warming. Just last week, I wrote a blog entry that criticized those who would hide behind complexity.  But I will hasten to add that global warming is very complicated — too complicated for humans, apparently.  Let me make some observations:

  • I supported my granddaughters and my daughter because I support their spirit of civil disobedience.  The point of the climate strike was that school children would skip school to express their impatience with the seeming complacency of their elders.
  • I was concerned for the safety of my granddaughters.  This turned out to be misoverestimated, but I am a contemporary of those gunned down at Kent State University, so I always get queasy when people come up against the police state.
  • I had lots of time on the 60 mile round-trip to Lexington to share information with my granddaughters — and I have the rest of my lifetime as well, just so long as we expect one another to be rational.
  • Most of our climate information comes to us from people whose hair is on fire — the media, the deniers, the protesters, the promoters, and the politicians.  How many pictures have we seen just this year of the edge of the ice.  There is always an edge to the ice!  Somewhere!  The Earth is not covered in solid ice.  Yet these photos are presented to us as evidence that all the ice in the world is melting at a breakneck pace.
  • At demonstrations, you will nearly always hear that you must vote.  I pointed out to the young women that those of us who are over 18 only get to vote against Mitch McConnell once every 6 years, while the coal industry gets to vote every day, with dollars.  The deck is stacked.
  • One of the entities at the Lexington event, distributing flyers and speaking through a bullhorn, was the Kentucky Democratic Socialists.  They claimed to have an environmental project to justify their presence, but one suspects they have a project for every occasion.  Their agenda suggests that they were politicizing this event.
  • The crowd was underwhelming.  About twenty minutes in, I counted just over forty people, and school children were less than half of that number.
  • Three suits watched us from the vestibule of the federal courthouse.  US Marshals?  FBI?
  • Most of the high school students who spoke at the event were articulate, but they are the outliers.
  • Although I am a scientist, I am jaded about people who claim that authority as their main argument for a holding.  As a scientist, I always suspect fortune telling and handwaving.
  • It would not surprise me if the world were indeed in a warming phase, of some finite duration.
  • It would surprise me to find that there is some set of incontrovertible evidence predicting the future.  I am reminded of Butch Cassidy‘s movie prognostication that “The fall will probably kill ya.”  Are we sure that nothing else will get us before global warming does?
  • Do we think that politicians even care?  Do we think that corporate CEO’s, who are concerned only with this year’s books, care about the future?
  • Anthropogenic is the 50 cent word we use to show we are smart enough not to insist that humans take the blame for global warming.  Human nature is part of Nature.  We are the ones who buy extended cab pickup trucks and Mercedes SUV’s as soon as gas prices dip slightly.
  • Do we think that people, who have been engaged in war throughout their history, will suddenly do something that makes sense?
  • Do we think the Earth was created only for the short term health and welfare of the few generations living today?
  • I am not a denier.  I am not a decrier.  I am not a seer.  I am not a fearmonger.  I am not a scientist who thinks he is part of a priesthood.

— Verbal Vol

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People Who Are Fully Alive

I got in the Lyft ride expecting Stephanie.

A cool looking dude with a big smile said, “Isaac?”. I said, “Are you Stephanie?” He laughed and said in a high pitched voice, “Yes!” Then told me no, he was covering for his wife.

He mentioned all the traffic from protests and other stuff happening downtown. Then he said something awesome. “But I like it all. It’s all interesting to me because I meditate.”

A few questions later, and we were all-in on a raucous conversation about the extent of the individual’s sphere of control, whether truth and freedom are the same thing, psychedelics vs meditation as a mind-opening process, whether you can be both transcendental and materially successful at once, and the role of the conscious and subconscious mind.

We exchanged emails. Even if we don’t communicate more later, this ride lit up my day. When you’re in the presence of someone who is fully alive, you just feel it. The energy from our conversation was greater than the sum of what we brought individually.

The thing is, I’m one of those people who wants my drivers to leave me alone. But that’s because nine out of ten times they make boring small-talk, complain about weather or traffic, or spout off half-baked political rants.

Not Russ. He reminded me that it’s not conversation itself that’s exhausting when I’m traveling. It’s not conversation with strangers either. It’s mustering the will to interact with people who aren’t alive. That kind leaves you less alive too. It’s a net drain on your energy and sense of life.

But when you have an encounter with someone fully alive? You could talk about meditation, sports, geology, or airplanes. It doesn’t matter. If they’re wide awake and alive about it, you feel it too and leave the encounter with more fuel in the tank then when you started.

Here’s to living fully alive and the Remnant who do.

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