Sunday, January 8, 2017

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.


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)

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