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.


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.

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