Friday, March 24, 2017

Debate with a Utilitarian, revived!


Back in January I posted the transcript of a lengthy debate I had with an "authoritarian utilitarian" I called Sean.  The debate died down after a few weeks, but this week he reanimated it.  We left off here, and his eventual response is below:
Sean: I'm guessing it's been a while since either of us looked at this – JRTC, change of command shenanigans, and moving over to be HHC XO took up most of my time these past few months. But, if you've the time, I'd like to continue.

Perhaps you can clarify something for me: so, are you a deontologist or a utilitarian? You keep using utilitarian ends in your arguments, so I'm confused as to what your frame is. During your discussion of smallpox, you argue voluntary individual efforts and private organizations made great strides in reducing incidence of the disease: “the number of deaths from smallpox was cut in half by mostly voluntary means” “The will was there, the expertise was there, the non-governmental organizations were there...” “Did mandatory vaccination policies effectively stifle that resistance, or intensify it?”, etc. These statements imply that reducing incidents of the disease was the end goal, not the preservation of liberty or self-ownership. During your discussion of private vs public systems, you made the following statements: “and yet, today, we recognize that the purely private system of shoe provision works brilliantly...practically everyone can afford a pair of shoes, and nearly everyone owns several.” “I firmly believe that the poor stand the most to gain from it”. These imply that the market is merely a tool to increase the material well-being of the participants – a utilitarian goal. During your direct responses you write “By all means, let's save people! It isn't saving people I have a problem with. Theft is what I don't like”, “I posit that if our wealthiest taxpayers were the saintly reincarnations of God himself...and decide that in their efforts to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people on earth, 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”, “Smart, compassionate people can disagree...about the best way to utilize scarce resources towards the betterment of mankind.”, “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”.
These all assume “the greatest good for the greatest number” as an end goal and freedom/liberty as a means towards that end. A utilitarian cares about these ends and indifferent towards the means. A deontologist cares about the means and is indifferent towards the ends. Picking and choosing elements of both is a philosophical contradiction, as the two systems are entirely incompatible. So under which frame do you operate?

And, it's fine if you use the utilitarian frame - we can continue arguing over the proper ratio of market forces to government intervention is optimal in the economy and what forms each might take. Markets and governments are both tools towards a higher end. The rest is then agreeing upon metrics (we already have one metric in the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) already in use in public health policy to allocate resources) and then calculating the optimal policy.

You'll have to bite the bullet either way, though.
Either you care about the system or you care about the end. The point of the hiker analogy was to force this kind of decision - either freedom or utility. The cell phone represents resources, the injured hiker represents those in need of resources, and the friend's attitude represents an unwillingness to apply all of those resources to aid another.

The central question of the analogy was this: when considering what action to take,
which is priority: the freedom of your friend or the welfare of the hiker? From the language you used, it seems as though the welfare of the hiker was the primary concern - utilitarianism. Your hesitation to overpower the friend was based on assuming he would also help the hiker, not based on his right to his cell phone - "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". "If only...". The only thing keeping you from intervention is the assumption that you both shared the same goal: the welfare of the hiker.

Me: Our central disagreement comes from this line:Picking and choosing elements of both is a philosophical contradiction, as the two systems are entirely incompatible.”  I made it clear from the outset that I think that’s a false choice.  I also made it clear that I’m happy to defend libertarianism on utilitarian grounds for your sake, and the many times you quoted me doing this are examples of that.  But when you ask me to clarify whether I am a deontologist or a utilitarian, the simplest answer is “neither,” because neither convince me as standalone moral philosophies.  They each have elements of truth, but neither tells us all we need to know about moral behavior.



I am hardly unique in this regard: barely anyone on earth is a perfectly devout deontologist, and barely anyone is a perfectly consistent utilitarian (of course, most people don’t even know what those words mean, but if you give them surveys testing how they think we ought to act in hypothetical situations, their choices consistently reveal that most of us borrow from both frameworks, and others too).  I don’t think it follows that the moral beliefs of everyone on earth except an enlightened few are ridiculous, hypocritical and invalid.  I think it follows that whatever it means to “do the right thing” is informed by BOTH of those competing values.



By analogy, communism and capitalism are incompatible ideologies which directly contradict one another – and yet, it may be that the best economic systems are hybrids of the two.  “Draft and develop” and “buy the best free agents” are incompatible philosophies for building a baseball dynasty, and yet it may be that the best franchises employ a hybrid of the two.  Likewise, we should not always refrain from killing or stealing, but nor should we always disregard the means employed in pursuit of a greater good. 



Neither deontology nor utilitarianism adequately encapsulates the complexity of human moral intuition: that fundamental, deeply embedded sense of right and wrong which for most people serves as the litmus test for resolving ethical questions.  They are each but partial truths, revealing portions of a more complicated whole; like yin and yang, as complementary as they are contradictory.  They cannot both be completely correct at the same time, but this only makes them wholly incompatible to a dogmatist.  They can both be partially correct, as opposite poles of a spectrum of moral perspectives on which there exists a happy middle ground.



The answer to the question “Do the ends justify the means?” is “sometimes.”  We need a system to identify those times.  That’s what my three conditions (remember those?) were all about: bridging the gap between two insightful but flawed moral worldviews to create a more holistic (if less simple/formulaic) conception of human morality.
To return to your analogy, you ask “which is priority: the freedom of your friend or the welfare of the hiker?” My conditions respond: “it depends.”  Such a question presupposes that those things are in contrast.  If you were 100% certain that those things were in contrast, and that ONLY by overpowering your friend you would be able to save a life, I’d agree with you that the welfare of the hiker takes priority.  But in real life, you are never 100% certain, and we need a framework that navigates real life.  Recall some other quotes from my initial response: at the beginning “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.” And at the end, “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.”

So I’ll repeat: welfare matters.  Outcomes matter – of course they matter.  But so do the means, which means unless you’re damn sure the outcome will be better, and there’s no other way to make it better, you should be extremely wary of using violence to get your way.  “First, do no harm.”  Have a strong bias against force, because deontology has important ethical insights too.

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