Archive for the ‘Utilitarianism’ Category

Letting die and letting be murdered

January 14, 2012

You’ve probably heard about the act/omission distinction, about how people have different attitudes toward killing someone versus letting them die.

I’d like to break down that “letting die” category further into two sub-categories: letting someone die by failing to save them from a rights violation versus failing to save them from other causes.

An example of the first would be when you allow someone to be murdered. An example of the second would be when you fail to provide them with food or medical care.

Are those two kinds of letting die equally bad? What about if the entity doing the letting is the government?

Suppose the government rearranged its budget so that it stopped putting any money into anti-terrorism efforts and instead sought to eliminate malaria from the world. Is such a move justified as long as we prevent more malaria-related deaths than terrorism-related deaths?

I get the sense that most people think that letting a murder happen is worse than letting someone die of disease, but I don’t know if I share this view.


Why do we classify acts as ‘moral’?

January 30, 2011

In an earlier post, my friend David brought up an interesting point about consequentialism. Consequentialism is the belief that actions should be judged by their consequences. This suggests that an act cannot be judged until after the fact, perhaps even long after the fact. This seems problematic from the point of view of the actor, because consequentialism tells him nothing about how he should act. It only informs him afterwards whether his act was good or bad. And what good is morality if it’s used simply to classify acts after they’re committed, rather than to promote one act over another?

We generally think of classification and promotion to be the same in moral affairs. To classify an act as immoral is to say you shouldn’t do it. We use moral language as a way of shaming (or encouraging) someone to act a certain way. However, sometimes a seemingly good act will bring about bad consequences. You give a hungry person a peanut butter sandwich, only to later learn that he is allergic to peanuts. Consequentialism seems to suggest that this act is immoral because it has bad consequences. The purpose of calling it immoral means we want to discourage it. And yet, ordinarily, giving someone a peanut butter sandwich is good, so it’s rather odd to discourage something that is normally good.

This is why we need to evaluate an act in two different ways, or more specifically, we need to evaluate it at two different times. One evaluation is made by the person about to act. Because he cannot know the consequences of the act beforehand, he must use the likely outcome of his options as his guide. Then, once the act is done, it is evaluated a second time based on its actual consequences. In our peanut butter case, the act was the right decision based on the information available, and yet it turned out badly. The question is, do we want to call this act moral or immoral?

On the one hand, it makes sense to call it moral. After all, giving food to others is a behavior we want to encourage. The world would be a better place if more people did it. So we should say it’s the right decision.

On the other hand, it is important that other people know this person should not be given peanuts. We need to learn what kinds of food allergies are common and which are life-threatening. That way, we will know which foods to give out in the future. Calling this act “moral” may lead other people to commit the same mistake, and we want to avoid that. To prevent that, we should call the act “immoral.”

It is now becoming more apparent what we want a code of ethics to do. We want people to make the world a better place. This usually involves adopting rules of thumb such as “be nice”, “don’t murder”, and “give out food when possible.” We also expect them to update their beliefs when new information comes in. Giving out food is a good rule of thumb, but others should know not to give peanuts to this one individual, and maybe they should reconsider giving them out at all if a lot of people are allergic to peanuts.

The way to incorporate both ideas is to say that you should act based on the likely consequences of your act. Additionally, you must update your beliefs based on new data, and since this practice generally leads to good consequences, it is another of your obligations as a moral agent.

In sum, the way I would handle the peanut butter case is to say that the person acted morally when he gave the man the sandwich. We should encourage sandwich giving. But now that we know this man is allergic to peanuts, we should tell others to stop giving him peanuts. If someone armed with this information gives this man peanuts again, they will be committing an immoral act.

Michael Neumann defends the indefensible (plus retraction)

January 6, 2011

[Editor’s Note: After discussing this post in public and in private with my friends, I’m willing concede that I’m wrong. I agree with my critics that the facts probably do not support terrorism in the cases I’ve cited.]

Michael Neumann is one of my favorite ethical philosophers. However, I suspect that a great many people will read his essays and think he is despicable, perverse, depraved. Why? Because Neumann justifies acts that most people think are beyond the pale, namely the deliberate murder of children.

In this essay, entitled Israelis and Indians, Neumann compares the struggle of modern-day Palestinians to that of the American Indians in the 19th century. He argues that the American Indians faced annihilation at the hands of the white settlers. Clearly unable to defeat the whites in conventional warfare, the Indians resorted to hitting “soft targets” such as the whites’ children.

Instead of joining the rest of the “civilized world” in condemning child-murder, Neumann defends it. He defends it not on some obscure moral theory but rather on one that is universally accepted: the right of self preservation.

Let’s read how Neumann tells it:

Michael Neumann: The Indians sometimes murdered innocent civilians, including children. These acts were right, wrong, or morally indifferent. Which were they?

I can’t see that they were morally indifferent, can you? Were they wrong? If so, they must have been awfully wrong, because they involved murdering children. Is that what we want to say?

I suggest not. I suggest the acts were terrible, cruel, and ultimately justified. My reasons are familiar to everyone. The Indians’ very existence as a people was threatened. More than threatened; their society was doomed without resistance. They had no alternative. Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.

The Indians had no chance of defeating the whites by conventional military means. So their only resort was to hit soft targets and do the maximum damage. That wasn’t just the right thing to do from their point of view. It was the right thing to do, period, because the whites had no business whatever coming thousands of miles to destroy the Indian people.

Neumann makes the connection to the Palestinians’ struggle:

Michael Neumann: Of course the two situations aren’t quite analogous. Things are clearer in the case of Israel, where virtually every able-bodied adult civilian is at least an army reservist, and every Jewish child will grow up to be one. And the American settlers never spent years proclaiming how happy they would be with the land they had before embarking on a campaign to take the rest of it. One might add that the current situation of the Palestinians is more like that of the Indians in 1880-1890 than earlier, because the Palestinians have lost much more than half of their original land.

The Palestinians don’t set out to massacre children, that is, they don’t target daycare centers. (Nor do they scalp children, but according to the BBC, that’s what Israel’s clients did in Sabra and Shatila.) They merely hit soft targets, and this sometimes involves the death of children. But, like anyone, they will kill children to prevent the destruction of their society. If peoples have any right of self-preservation, this is justified. Just as Americans love to do, the Palestinians are “sending a message”: you really don’t want to keep screwing with us. We will do anything to stop you. And if the only effective way of stopping their mortal enemies involved targeting daycare centers, that would be justified too. No people would do anything less to see they did not vanish from the face of the earth.

In the same essay, Neumann makes a great point about how both the white settlers and the Israeli settlers are “peace-loving” people.

Michael Neumann: Both groups of settlers somehow contrived, despite these goals, to believe that they wanted nothing but to live in peace with their ‘neighbors’- neighbors, of course, because they had already taken some of their land. And sure, they did want peace, just as Hitler wanted peace: on his terms.

Ends justify the means

January 5, 2011

One of my favorite hobbies is correcting misperceptions of utilitarianism. I came across one the other day at this website. The author, Kerby Anderson, introduces us to utilitarianism, analyzes the philosophy, and later critiques it. Let’s skip right to the criticism:

Kerby Anderson: There are also a number of problems with utilitarianism. One problem with utilitarianism is that it leads to an “end justifies the means” mentality. If any worthwhile end can justify the means to attain it, a true ethical foundation is lost. But we all know that the end does not justify the means. If that were so, then Hitler could justify the Holocaust because the end was to purify the human race. Stalin could justify his slaughter of millions because he was trying to achieve a communist utopia.

Anderson’s assertion that utilitarianism leads to an ends-justifies-the-means-mentality is correct, but the rest of the paragraph is not.

Utilitarianism posits that not only do the ends justify the means, but that they are the only thing that could. There is no other standard by which means are judged than the ends they bring about.

Before we go further, I must point out that I am using the term “ends” as synonymous with “consequences,” which is how I believe “ends” is understood in this context. However, when Anderson speaks of “ends” in this paragraph, he clearly does not mean “consequences” but rather “goals,” which are wholly different.

But notice how Anderson describes utilitarianism earlier in the same essay:

Kerby Anderson: Philosophers refer to it [utilitarianism] as a “teleological” system. The Greek word “telos” means end or goal. This means that this ethical system determines morality by the end result. Whereas Christian ethics are based on rules, utilitarianism is based on results.

His introduction of the etymology of the Greek root “telos” is confusing rather than illuminating because it appears to conflate consequences and goals. Under utilitarianism, an act is judged by the end state it brings about, not by the goal of the actor. Anderson makes this clearer later in the paragraph, but in so doing confuses the reader by supplying two contrasting descriptions of a single theory in consecutive sentences.

Why is this relevant? Because it makes all the difference when evaluating the rightness of Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges.

Anderson says utilitarianism would allow Hitler to justify the Holocaust because he had noble goals. Let us grant that Hitler did indeed have noble goals. So what? Utilitarianism does not care about goals, it cares about results, as Anderson himself says in the essay. Did the Holocaust increase utility or not? That is the question that concerns utilitarians, and no sane utilitarian would say that it did.

The same is true for Stalin’s murders. Does it matter that he was trying to achieve a communist utopia? No. If he had brought about a utopia, could he justify his acts under utilitarianism? Yes, assuming the utopia produced enough happiness to compensate the unhappiness caused in its creation. What I will say is that to the extent an act brings about happiness, that is an argument for the act. Likewise, if the act requires the infliction of suffering (which the Great Purge did) that is an argument against it.

The problem with Hitler and Stalin was not that they employed immoral means to achieve noble goals. It was simply that they did not count all the “ends.” And yet, that is all the difference there need be between laudatory and condemnable acts.

Anderson continues:

Kerby Anderson: The end never justifies the means. The means must justify themselves. A particular act cannot be judged as good simply because it may lead to a good consequence. The means must be judged by some objective and consistent standard of morality.

Sure, happiness is difficult to measure precisely, but that does not mean it is entirely subjective. We have some idea of what tends to make people happy: family, friends, winning at Settlers of Catan, and we have an idea of what makes them unhappy: loneliness, hunger, root canals.

Anderson ends his piece by commenting that utilitarianism’s chief flaw is that it “attempts to provide a moral system apart from God’s revelation in the Bible, but in the end, it does not succeed.” Utilitarianism is no doubt an improvement over God’s revealed morality in the Bible, but then again, that’s not saying very much.

Judging government by its consequences

December 4, 2010

Some people think certain government programs are good, while others think those same ones are bad. I think the Drug Enforcement Agency should be eliminated, while some people think its budget should be increased.

Why do people disagree about political issues? Is it because we are exposed to different data on the issue? If that’s the case, then we should just make our data known to the other person (see this paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson in which they argue that most disagreements are dishonest [Editor’s note: this sentence was changed for reasons explained in the comment section]).

I think that our disagreements have something to do with our different knowledge sets and something to do with our bias that we reason better than the next person (who doesn’t think their ability to reason is above average?). However, I think that in politics there is another reason we disagree, and that is the way in which we measure a policy’s success.

As a utilitarian, I judge policies by their consequences, specifically their consequences for human well-being. That philosophy is vague enough that it doesn’t sound very radical, but its implications are. I believe that when we judge government by this rubric, we will find that very little of what government does is justified. This extends even to arenas thought to be the exclusive purview of the state such as the provision of law.

Edward López is an economics professor at San Jose State University in California. He is one of a growing number of economists to enter the field of “law and economics.” These economists judge the law by its consequences and not by the intentions of its crafters. In his book The Pursuit of Justice, López reveals that when we strip away the romance surrounding the law and look at its effects, the results do not reflect well on government-provided law:

López: As an economist, I know that wishful thinking will never produce solid answers. Yet in reading the literature, I found that the vast majority of legal scholarship and commentary treats the law with fantasy. It pretends that law is a public good that can only be provided by governments, and since it is governments that supply law it must be the case that law serves the public interest. What I found in the literature was deeply inconsistent with what I found in the world.

Granted, there are many other ways of judging law and government than its consequences. In fact, I suspect there are few people who are pure consequentialists, which is what I am.

So that I can be a more efficient blogger, targeting my posts to areas where I disagree with my readers, I’m curious to know what my readers think of this issue. Specifically, I want to know what standard you use to evaluate law/government.

If most people agree with the consequentialist approach, I will spend more time trying to convince my fellow consequentialists to be skeptical of the government. If, however, my readers disagree with me even at that fundamental level, I will devote more posts to the merits of consequentialism.

Bentham is turning in his grave

September 29, 2010

Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics that is difficult for non-utilitarians to understand. Apparently, the lack of comprehension extends even to self-identified utilitarians!

Take the economist Scott Sumner, a self-described utility-maximizer who teaches economics at Bentley University in Massachusetts. In a response to Bryan Caplan’s post about double standards in war, Sumner wrote:

Scott Sumner: Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender. Would the act have been morally justified? I’d say yes, but only because we were fighting the ”bad guys.” On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified. They were fighting the “good guys” (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad guys.”)

There is no such concept of “good guys” or “bad guys” in utilitarianism. Units of utility are judged equally regardless of the being who holds them. Moreover, utility is not dependent upon a being’s prior acts. Jeffrey Dahmer did not forfeit his moral worth after he became a serial killer – in fact, it stayed the same. Call him a “bad guy” if you will, but such classification is irrelevant to a utilitarian.

What is relevant to utilitarians is future probabilities based on past data. Forcing Germany and Japan to surrender would produce a different amount of utility than if America were to surrender (has al Qaeda ever demanded a US “surrender”, as in turning over the Capitol building to bin Laden?). If the expected outcomes differ in utility amounts, it is not hypocritical to support one but not the other.

Sumner posts a second reply to Caplan, and digs himself a deeper hole.

Scott Sumner: It’s true I haven’t seen any occasions when I thought foreigners would have been justified in killing lots of Americans. But I’m not sure that means I have a double standard. I don’t recall many occasions (in the past few decades) where I thought a country would be justified in killing lots of Estonians, or Thai people, or New Zealanders, or Canadians, Portuguese, or people from lots of other countries.

It’s funny he mentions Portugal as if the country hasn’t been in a war since the 1600s.

I suspect that Sumner’s unease at American deaths has more to do with group serving bias than historical facts. How was it not justifiable for Iraqis to shoot at Americans who had shot at them first? Is that really a difficult question?

The trolley victim

September 23, 2010

One of the most famous thought experiments in ethics is known as the trolley problem. The trolley problem is as follows: an unmanned trolley is heading down a track. A mad philosopher has tied five people to the track who will be killed if the trolley continues on its course. However, there is an alternate track on which the trolley could run if a switch were flipped, and on this track is tied a single person. You have the power to flip the switch. What do you do?

The problem is designed to bring out the differences in competing moral theories. Some ethicists suggest it is worse to kill someone than to let him die. They say that flipping the switch makes you an active participant in the killing in a way that you are not if you just let the trolley run its course. Other ethicists do not see the sharp distinction between action and inaction, and argue that refusing to flip the switch is itself an action. The problem then becomes whether we think five lives are more valuable than one.

If you think flipping the switch is the obvious choice, consider this variation of the trolley problem: a doctor is treating five patients, all of whom will die without an organ transplant. A healthy man walks into the hospital for a routine check-up. The doctor looks at the man and sees two lungs, two kidneys and a heart.

There are countless variations of the problem; each one intended to elicit a different combination of intensely emotional and coolly rational responses. It may seem like a trivial observation, but the easiest way to prompt an emotional response to the trolley problem is to move your listener from the switch to the track. Instead of looking at the problem as an unaffected third party, imagine that it is your life on the line.

When you put yourself in the shoes of the person on the alternate track, it doesn’t seem so obvious that flipping the switch is the best decision. If you were the one tied up, and you saw someone flip the switch, how would you react? Would it matter how many people were on the other track? If you saw 100 people on the other track, would you say to yourself, “Well, it looks like I have to be the one to die.”? I suspect that most people would be horrified of being run over by a trolley, and would have a hard time calmly rationalizing someone else’s decision to kill them with it.

I think this insight has wider application than just hypothetical ethical problems. I think it can be applied to warfare. No matter how obviously just an invasion is to a third party, it’s almost never seen as just by those who are victims in the invaded country.

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.

Have we equal worth?

April 21, 2010

I consider myself a utilitarian, which means that I believe an action is just to the extent it increases happiness in the world. I came across a utilitarian “Frequently Asked Questions” page earlier today that was very good, except for one paragraph. The problem is that the one paragraph contains a significant error, at least to my understanding of utilitarianism.

The FAQ was written by a man named Nigel Phillips, and it can be seen in full here. Phillips tackles the issue of forced organ donation. In short, the ethical dilemma is whether it is justifiable to kill a healthy human being for the purpose of harvesting his organs to save the lives of five people who need his organs to live. Does utilitarianism require us to kill the one healthy person to save the five sick ones?

A common fear about utilitarianism is that the theory would require us to kill the healthy person. Phillips says “not so fast”, explaining that there are all kinds of negative consequences that would result from the murder, in addition to the death we would have caused.

Phillips: How could we pick a victim for our supplies, without generating fear and alarm in the community? If someone who goes to hospital with a minor complaint gets killed for his body parts by the doctors, would this not generate a fear of hospitals in the general populace… who would then refuse to enter one lest a similar situation occur again? And how, if we give doctors the power to decide who should die and who should live, do we stop doctors abusing their powers and becoming, for instance, extortionists?

So good, so far. But the next sentence Phillips writes should leave all utilitarians scratching their head.

There is also the assumption that different people’s lives necessarily have roughly equal worth… which is simply ridiculous from a utilitarian perspective. What if the two recipients are Hitler and Göring, and the forced donor is Martin Luther King?

The idea that people have equal worth is ridiculous? This is certainly not my belief. I believe that a person’s moral worth is a function of their ability to experience happiness in the future. It has nothing to do with their past actions. I feel comfortable with the idea that Hitler, Göring and King all have equal moral worth.

Now, before you leave any nasty comments, I do not believe that we should treat a mass murderer the same as a civil rights leader. How we assess a person’s moral worth and how we treat that person are separate issues. If punishing Hitler and Göring would have eased the pain of the holocaust survivors, or would have discouraged future wars or genocides, then those are good arguments for punishing them. I don’t think punishing King would ease anyone’s pain and it wouldn’t make war less likely, so he should be treated differently. But notice that the difference in treatment is due to a difference in expected consequences and not in the moral worth of the subjects.

As a matter of fact, Phillips embraces this very philosophy later on in the FAQ when discussing the issue of punishment.

Phillips: Utilitarianism does not accept that the “guilty” deserve “punishment” – it views punishment as a prima facie evil since it involves the infliction of harm. This harm can be justified if it has greater benefits in terms of maintaining order in the community, but the utilitarian position is that if punishment is not justified by utility then it is not justified at all.

I couldn’t agree more.