Archive for July, 2010

Intentions don’t matter

July 18, 2010

Utilitarianism is the idea that an act is justified to the extent it maximizes happiness. To a utilitarian, happiness is the only thing that matters. Everything else in life, whether it be freedom, equality, justice or virtue is purely instrumental to increasing happiness.

I have come to accept utilitarianism. The idea that freedom, justice and equality are subservient to maximizing happiness strikes me as reasonable. I’m sure it does not strike everyone that way. I wish I could provide you a 10-step proof as to why utilitarianism is the correct moral theory, but I’m not that ambitious.

One area I’d like to focus on today is the importance of intentions. For some approaches to ethics, the intention of the actor matters a great deal. “Was the man trying to kill his wife or did he do it by accident?” Utilitarianism is a teleological moral theory, which means it is only interested in end states. “Did the act increase happiness or not?”

The question is, do intentions matter in a utilitarian framework? If intentions merely mean what the actor hoped would happen, then no, intentions don’t matter. Utilitarianism is not interested in the disposition of the actor but rather in the predictable consequence of his act. Under utilitarianism, a moral agent has a responsibility to learn facts about the world so he can more accurately guess the effects of his decisions. However, the theory does not require the agent to consciously increase utility.

Consider this: what is the likely outcome of pointing a loaded gun at someone and pulling the trigger? It’s quite likely the person will die. Are there alternatives available to the subject? Yes, he can put the gun down, which results in no deaths. From this knowledge we can say that the subject committed an immoral act if he pulled the trigger: he did something likely to cause great suffering even when he had an alternative course of action which produced much less suffering.

But shouldn’t we make a moral distinction between deliberate murder and involuntary manslaughter? Only to the extent that the murderer or would-be murderer performs acts likely to increase suffering. If I have a malevolent neighbor who tries to kill me by casting a spell on me or by saying a few magic words, he is not doing anything immoral from a utilitarian point of view because his acts are not likely to cause suffering. The fact that he wishes me dead is irrelevant. On the other hand, if I have a beneficent neighbor who kills me because he wants to whisk me away to heaven, he is guilty of an immoral act. The fact that he intended for me to live in paradise is irrelevant. He had no good reason to think this would happen.

Before I go on, I think I’ll pause here to ask if there are any objections to what I’ve written. I’m afraid that I am so wedded to utilitarianism that it’s difficult to tell which parts of the theory seem reasonable to non-utilitarians and which do not.

Pretending to be someone you’re not

July 17, 2010

Bryan Caplan has a new post up about why libertarians should be conservatives. Caplan is a self-described libertarian and not a conservative, but writes the post as if he were a conservative who is trying to show libertarians the error of their ways.

I applaud his efforts and I, too, think this is a useful exercise. When I hear that someone has come to a conclusion different from mine, I ask myself “Under what circumstances would I come to such a conclusion?” Then I try to explain to that person why I don’t think those circumstances have been met in this case.

For instance, I don’t favor much government intervention in the economy, but I’m not categorically opposed to it. When I encounter people who favor more intervention than I do, I think of the conditions that would have to be met in order for the intervention to make sense, and explain to them that those conditions have not been met. If, upon examination, I realize that I was wrong and the conditions have indeed been met, or that my conditions for success were too narrow to begin with, then I back off of my libertarian dogmatism and support the intervention.

In his post, Caplan does the best conservative-imitation he can muster on the issue of immigration:

Bryan “conservative-come-lately” Caplan: I’m very open to more cost-effective and humane ways to deal with the negative effects of immigration. But as long as immigrants are eligible for government benefits, hurt low-skilled native workers, and vote, the only people we should readily admit are the highly-educated and clear-cut humanitarian cases. I’d put Haitians in the latter category. Asking Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable, but asking Haitians to starve in post-earthquake Haiti is a disgrace.

I’m not sure what Caplan was thinking of, but this is not the typical conservative position on immigration. This is the typical conservative position on immigration. Perhaps Caplan recognized that the typical conservative position is not defensible.