Suppose there is a primitive culture that values children a lot. For example, large families are afforded admiration and respect. HRE the civilized come in and inform them of the global warming issue and tell them of their newfound moral duty to check their procreation. There will be resistance of all kinds. Perhaps by "preference adjustment" HRE mean attempts to change the culture in order to bring the people in line, such as through their "sub-rational" means. In that case I guess it's not so bad.
Category Archives: Normative Ethics
Another issue is the proper advocacy of anti-natalism. Suppose the propagandists tell an African community: "Children are bad." "Why?" they ask. "Because they contribute to global warming." But then children as such would still presumably be good, a great blessing in fact. (It's not like HRE's anti-natalism stems from some pessimistic philosophical doctrine, such as the idea that it is better never to be born.) It's just because of an unfortunate accident, namely, the global warming problem, that children are now a net cost. Moreover, each individual child contributes only a negligible amount of GHG emissions. It's not this child who is a disaster; for example, killing the child would still be morally wrong; it's the overall government policy that is presumably good.
The truthful way to address the community would then be: "It is everyone's moral duty not to reproduce." It's not the private "risks, costs, and benefits" that anti-natalism-for-reasons-of-global-warming must deal with but moral suasion. We are at war with global warming; in war people must make sacrifices; and the government must be continuously reminding them of that fact. "Preference adjustment" seems like petty and intrinsically deceptive brainwashing, or morally objectionable re-education or gaslighting which are unnecessary anyway to the extent that "many of the world's poor are becoming richer." In other words, if the Africans are fuckin' animals and breed mindlessly like rabbits, then it may be a worthy endeavor to teach them some moral restraint, thereby reducing population. But such instruction would be for their own private good, to make the individual Africans wiser and richer, not for the sake of mitigating global warming. It won't do to try to hypnotize an African after his lesson is concluded into believing that he "does not want" children, when he has clearly indicated that he still does, very much.
On the other hand, if this is an enormous and all-encompassing conflict where private self-interest must (according to the authors) give way to the common good, then let the people steel themselves and do their duty to fellow men as they already must.
Now the fact that people ought not to kill does not entail that there should be no punishments for killing. But to most people it does not occur in their everyday lives 10 times per day to kill their neighbors, it's just that their actual utility calculations every time happen to come out against committing the crimes. Moral norms are internalized. That is the most reliable way of preventing anti-social actions. So, while coercive measures may undergird population control, ultimately, there has to be a recognition of the duty to abstain from having children, if, of course, such a duty exists in the first place.
I'm not suggesting that the approach of leaving decisions to procreate to individual moral consciences in the face of an assumed global catastrophe is unproblematic. It leaves the total population numbers centrally unplanned; it encourages free riding on other people's solicitude; etc. That's why I am saying that coercion, such as indeed taxing children, is unavoidable. But I am objecting to "preference adjustments." Look, suppose for the sake of argument that it is true that in 2100 if the world population is 8 billion, then those descendants of ours will endure and prosper and be in fact much richer than we are; but if it is 10 billion, then they all burn and the survivors tumble down into barbarism and total war. Well then, let us restrain ourselves somewhat. But in that case, we have an end; we have selected the means; let's get it done without messing with people's heads.
A paper hosted by the National Public Radio operates from the premise that because of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, "Earth cannot sustain a significantly larger population of wealthier individuals." Unwilling to keep people in poverty (and arguing admirably that "the world's poor... ought to become richer"), the authors (HRE) suggest lowering the total population.
How? The authors show some unwillingness to use coercive government schemes like "forced abortions and sterilizations." Softer methods are recommended instead, especially government mass media propaganda "to sub-rationally influence citizens by suggesting ideas, role models, and narratives which emphasize and de-emphasize certain risks, costs, and benefits of procreative decisions." That, however, is only for "developing" nations whose people are presumably stupid enough to fall for such propaganda.
The authors' moral scruples are commendable, but I wonder why they are needed. If we are, in fact, all going to fry from global warming, then drastic actions are needed, including possibly brutally coercive policies. For example, there are
instances of interventions aimed at adjusting preferences that would violate autonomy rights. Those that use outright misinformation, deception, or manipulation to accomplish their goals are likely candidates. This could involve anything from concealing informational sources, exaggerating data, withholding important information, preying upon morally problematic biases, etc. ... In addition, subtle forms of manipulation in such campaigns might raise moral concerns if they result in shaming or stigmatization.
But what is the "truthful" propaganda fails to work? What if it is actually the case that the far greater costs of children to the rest of society outweigh the private benefits of these children to their parents? How can considerations as mundane as basic morality stand in the way of achieving a goal as glorious as saving mankind from self-destruction?
For the Western nations, the proposal instead is mostly taxes on children to reduce fertility to "1.4 expected births per woman." Notice that this number, 1.4, is well below replacement levels, so HRE want to save humanity by destroying it. In fact, they believe that "more effort should be directed toward reducing fertility in developed nations than in developing nations, since developed nations will emit more GHGs in the near-term."
The most interesting thing in the paper is the moral principle, "carrots for the poor, sticks for the rich," i.e., "the greater a would-be procreator's wealth, the more appropriate it will be to target that person with interventions to the right on the coercion spectrum." But is it really the case that a person loses his rights to the same extent that he becomes more successful in life? The paper defends this view on the grounds that "since wealth is a fairly reliable proxy for individuals' GHG emissions, and so for their carbon legacy, it is morally justifiable to exert greater pressure on wealthy people's procreative behaviors."
My judgment of this whole business is that the authors exhibit the fatal conceit of daring to invoke "models" that "predict" the states of both the future human society and the weather in 2100 and beyond! Such central planning is uncalled for: the HRE's models are mere computer games, but our authors are playing them with seriousness unbecoming a scholar.
Moreover, if, that is, assuming that this problem is real, it is global in scope, and coordinating "propaganda" or child taxes on such a huge level is a hopeless task.
Thanks to Yuri Maltsev for the link.
Note that pursuing evil ends can be a sign of insanity in two ways.
If Smith thinks that an actually evil end he is pursuing is in fact good, then he is insane for not knowing the basics of morality. That's how the legal system defines insanity, as well.
If, however, Smith does know that the evil end is evil yet for all that proceeds to realize it in action anyway, then he is mad for not being afraid of punishment either in this life (such as imprisonment) or in the life to come (such as hellfire) and so again is a crazy motherfucker.
This could actually be an exam question in an Intro to Ethics course. The answer is that, on the contrary, it is a reason precisely not to murder redheads.
This is because pleasure after an act is performed increases both its merit and demerit. If you feed the hungry and feel happy afterwards, then by that very fact your holiness is increased. If you murder someone and feel happy afterwards, then, since you rejoice in evil done, this time the happiness increases your guilt and corrupts you still further.
So, if indeed "general happiness" in a community increases after it cleanses all the redheads by murdering them, then this fact intensifies the hair colorists' guilt, and so more punishment is by justice due to them to counteract and negate the alleged happiness.
If a community's murdering all the redheads in it would in fact increase general happiness, is it a reason to go through with the murder, even if it is perhaps outweighed by other, perhaps stronger, reasons?
Or is it no kind of reason at all?
Geoffrey Thomas wonders about utilitarianism: "... there is no obvious ground on which your valuings give me a reason for acting. Why should I value your valuings being satisfied? But utilitarian morality as a social institution requires us precisely to value one another's valuings in such a way as to promote the general welfare."
Well, Smith should value Jones' "valuings" if Smith happens to love Jones. Charity unites the wills, such that the lovers' spiritual hearts indwell in each other. As I write in my book, "It is a good piece of advice that if you love a friend, then give without further thought: the profit to the beloved is your profit. And if you are loved, then take without fearing that you will need to repay the favor: your profit is the profit of the lover, as well." (SAtK, I, 38)
But utilitarianism does not require love in order to be serviceable when rightly understood. It can work full well in a society of mutually disinterested persons.
Again, utilitarianism is a guide not to the individual citizen but to the legislator. Harmonizing an individual's search for his own profits with the welfare of society at large maximizes utility, so far as any reasonable calculation showcases. Let the laws be such that, on the one hand, no man is prevented from discovering and traveling to a position in which he can best serve society; and on the other hand, social cooperation serves each individual better and better with time. Enacting such a regime is then the task of a wise utilitarian.
There is perhaps a simpler way to think about it. In a big world where labor is scarcer than land, with moderate overall scarcity of gifts of nature, people produce and exchange their goods. But any economic exchange benefits both parties, whereas any political violent expropriation and confiscation necessarily harms one party. If we continue to disallow interpersonal utility comparisons (assumed by our mutual disinterestedness), then only the former unequivocally increases utility. Such society should be built that encourages production and mutually beneficial trade, in particular, laissez-faire capitalism.
Whether we are dealing with a small society (in which immoral behavior is immediately irrational) or large society (where the connection is less obvious if still solid), we let people worry about and pursue their own good rather than the impossible general welfare, and entrust this latter to the care of judges and lawmakers.
The intuitive point is that a society in which everyone is a rule-utilitarian in the classical sense may be preferable to a society in which everyone is an act-utilitarian, but no individual has any control over the moral views of other people.
To illustrate, let's consider the formulaic "good" done by a person expressed in utils. To keep the analogy with the standard prisoner's dilemma, let us postulate a heavenly reward due to an individual proportional to the good he does.
|Society is RU||Society is AU|
|I am RU||I) 5||III) 1|
|I am AU||II) 10||IV) 2|
Case I. If everyone is RU, with each person following the rules of common morality, things are fairly decent and happy, and I, along with everyone else, produce 5 utils of overall happiness and gain the same as the reward.
Case II. However, I can do still better in the same case, if I change my stance to AU. For everyone will still act predictably, yet I, assisted by superior cleverness in calculating the consequences of my actions and being unbound by secondary rules, will be able, through deft maneuvering and seizing opportunities to do good in surprising ways, to create (and hence earn) a greater amount of total happiness, in this case, 10.
Case III. If, however, everyone else is an AU, then my sticking to rules is highly unwise. If I stupidly and blindly abide by moral rules, while everybody is breaking them whenever they feel doing so yields better results, then the rules in my case cease to be utilitarian at all. They become a hindrance; obeying them may even lead to pain and suffering. 1 util is optimistic.
Case IV. If everyone, both me and everyone else, is an AU, in the resulting chaos, due to the unpredictability of everyone's behavior (in the realistic situation of bounded rationality), it will be hard to know what to do, though I am still in a better position than in the previous case. It's sink or swim; hopefully, I'll swim and do 2 utils worth of good.
We can now see that "I am AU" dominates "I am RU": II > I, and IV > III; that is, regardless of what society is like in its ethics (and I have no control over that), I can do more good and garner for myself a greater reward by being an act utilitarian.
But: every member of society thinks this way. Hence, everyone will end up an act utilitarian, and everyone will produce 2 utils of happiness, as opposed to the superior case of everyone's being a rule utilitarian and producing 5 utils.
Thus, a society of rule utilitarians is unstable and will inevitably devolve into a society of act utilitarians, losing overall happiness as a result. Utilitarianism then fails to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, contrary to its intent even in practice.
They are: of knowledge, love, and power. The problem of knowledge has already been dealt with:
Act-utilitarianism suffers from the crushing objection that "total happiness" is spread over billions of people for a million years in the future. What do I know of such things?
The problem of love is as follows. In order to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, I have to will or desire that good. But that good, though maximized overall, is imparted into individuals. I thereby will good to those individuals, which is the definition of love. Thus, utilitarianism requires me to love people; moreover not any specific person by mankind as a whole. What kind of love is that?
It is clear that even the most outgoing person will have only a few "dear friends" whom he loves with a full-bodied love of friendship. Everyone else is a stranger to him, capable of eliciting only general "disinterested benevolence." Again, what is the nature of this love? Consider Mises' understanding of the proper emotions of the economist: Subjectivism, he says
takes the ultimate ends chosen by acting man as data, it is entirely neutral with regard to them, and it refrains from passing any value judgments. ...
If Eudaemonism says happiness, if Utilitarianism and economics say utility, we must interpret these terms in a subjectivistic way as that which acting man aims at because it is desirable in his eyes. ...
At the same time it is in this subjectivism that the objectivity of our science lies. Because it is subjectivistic and takes the value judgments of acting man as ultimate data not open to any further critical examination, it is itself above all strife of parties and factions, it is indifferent to the conflicts of all schools of dogmatism and ethical doctrines, it is free from valuations and preconceived ideas and judgments, it is universally valid and absolutely and plainly human. (HA, 21-2)
In short, an economist and now any utilitarian in regard to an arbitrary stranger proclaim:
I will to you those goods that you will to yourself. Whatever it is you want, perhaps as long as it's not criminal or especially vicious, I also desire for you, and I even root for your success from a distance.
But when interpreted so broadly and innocuously, utilitarian love ceases to have any action-guiding clout or imperative. It devolves into "I enjoy watching people strive and seek their happiness; I cheer when they find it, and grieve when they, sometimes tragically, fail; but that is all part of the work and way of the world. For each good desired by a person, call him Smith, there is already someone, namely Smith, who is pursuing it single-mindedly. I have nothing to add to this; the greatest good is already being promoted without my assistance. The world works; all is well with it; I am content; though, like all others, I, too, seek my own happiness." If one is content, where is the motivation to thrust himself into action to start maximizing overall good?
Suppose now that I were for some reason motivated to promote greatest overall good. What exactly am I supposed to do according to utilitarianism? I mean, do I help people? To do their jobs, say? Do I approach a random janitor cleaning up in a corporate building after hours and say, "Hey dude, I want to help you vacuum the floor. I don't actually care about you, but helping you will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and I am commanded to do this." Isn't this more than a little absurd?
More plausibly, I might need to do Catholic works of mercy: feed the hungry, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, etc. If utilitarianism demands that these be done unto utter exhaustion, then it is an awfully ambitious doctrine. No Catholic saint probably measured up to an ideal that rigorous. The fact then that there are no actual utilitarians in the world should give pause to those who advocate utilitarianism.
Further, regarding "helping," I cannot forsake my own life and become a tool of others who will use me, quite selfishly, to pursue their own aims. I am a man, not a robot or slave whose purpose it is to serve its owners. I cannot disappear as a person and turn myself into an appendage of other people. Imagine if everybody was this sort of a helper; then everyone would be an instrument for others; and no one would have a life or his own goals or interests. There would be no one whose goals could be furthered by help from others, because everyone would be just a helper to others. Utilitarianism seems self-refuting.
This is the problem of power. We can see that all 3 problems are rather severe and undermine classical utilitarianism. As I have suggested, utilitarianism rightly understood is defensible, however.
Classical utilitarianism demands that one act in such a way as to produce the best consequences on the whole. Unfortunately, "on the whole" means for all human beings who live now and will live in the future until the end of time. Call this the "till kingdom come" requirement or TKC. Obviously, utilitarianism thusly understood is an impossible ideal. I will now prove that this is precisely what makes it so useful.
Logically, there are 4 possibilities for any human action: one does
- good; and good will come out in TKC;
- good; and evil will come out;
- evil; and good will come out;
- evil; and evil will come out.
Clearly, (4) is utterly wrong.
But so is (3) from the actor's point of view: as I pointed out, if one does evil, yet good comes out of it in TKC, then it is shame to him, and glory to God. But, one shall reason, "God already has enough glory, and I, very little; surely, it will not diminish God's greatness if I take a little of it for myself even at His expense."
It follows that it is only rational to do good. But one is powerless to ensure or even know in this life that (1) will come to pass as opposed to (2). But the only way to inner peace is to hold that there is such thing as divine providence that will make sure that doing what seems good immediately will also produce good in TKC. Otherwise, man is not only a tragic figure who acts blindly without knowledge or prudence but a contemptible, disgusting one. For example, how can the doing of good be rewarded if it yields evil on the whole in TKC? Such a thing may be forgiven, but it cannot be praised or glorified.
If God loves His children, then He has to, lest those children suffer ignominy and be branded worthless fools, harmonize plausible basic calculations of common morality and remote consequences of following it all the way up to TKC.
Atheism or even deism which deny divine providence then sabotage the moral enterprise, as deists cannot be sure that their doing good is of any value in the TKC.
Deists then may be "good people" who do not kick dogs, but they can never be sure that abstaining from kicking a particular dog is not a terrible mistake.
Utilitarianism traditionally understood is a moral doctrine that bids one to act in such a way as to maximize total happiness if it's act-utilitarianism, or at least to act according to those rules the recognition of which promotes total happiness if it's rule-utilitarianism.
Act-utilitarianism suffers from the crushing objection that "total happiness" is spread over billions of people for a million years in the future. What do I know of such things?
Evil can come out of good, and good out of evil in a bewildering variety of ways. No man is God, capable of calculating the consequences of his actions perfectly.
Moreover, at every moment for each person there is presumably a single best thing he can do. Failure to do that one best thing is then immoral. But then individual liberty disappears 100%. There is no such thing as choice of pleasures, if the best action can be objectively determined (such as by some impartial observer).
Then there is the difficulty comparing utilities intersubjectively.
Rule-utilitarianism (RU) seems more plausible at first glace, but further digging shows it to be worthless.
The first problem with RU is that no moral proposition, such as "murder is wrong" can be proved by showing that it's contrary to the precepts of rule-utilitarianism. (Recall my proof of self-ownership, e.g.:
Where am I weighing lives or pleasures against each other?)
The second problem is that the laws informing any actual society do not command anyone to do anything. They do not compel any specific action to be performed.
Even the "you shall not do X" type injunctions are not demanded of the individual but take the form "if you do X, then you will be punished."
Consider now a society with private property and a free market. We all agree that this society is, if not the happiest of all, then at least grows in happiness faster than any other. This society says, for example: "Anyone can become a successful entrepreneur." But it merely provides incentives to people to become entrepreneurs! It does not say: "You, Henry Ford, ought to become an entrepreneur." The utilitarianism for a community consists in so structuring property rights and incentives as to make it attractive for people to contribute to society. Utilitarianism commands not an entrepreneur but a voter to create a society in which an individual's creative initiative is harmonized with the common good. Then the voter sits back and watches the theater of the world unfold its play. The laws and incentives, having been set up, await people to be affected by them.
Utilitarianism has no advice to give to Henry Ford as to his choice of vocation.
RU then is not a moral doctrine, because a moral doctrine prescribes duties to individual human beings, yet the RU-moralist's job is done as soon as the correct laws (such as those made with good will and full awareness of economics) are in place; these laws modify the citizens' behavior; who then yang-act while affected by the yin-laws in quantitatively unfathomable ways.
In addition, classical RU seems to hold that maximum total happiness is fixed. If we are good people, then we'll squeeze the most out of the "world resources" or some such thing. This is the neoclassical economistic delusion that focuses solely on the equilibrating part of the market process. In fact, under free markets, there prevails constant and utterly unpredictable improvement in total consumer happiness. It's therefore not overall happiness that we need to maximize but the speed at which overall happiness increases. This, however, too, can be attempted only on the level of general laws that foster economic progress without compelling any specific action on anyone's part.
Utilitarianism then cannot reasonably demand that entrepreneur Smith act (either generally or in any specific way) to maximize total happiness; it can only demand that congressman Jones make such laws that Smith and his fellow market actors are gently steered into acting for the sake of society while pursuing their own self-interest.
Besides the nature of man, also the nature of his environment should be considered next.
Suppose there are so few exploitable resources on the island with Crusoe and Friday that only one man can survive on it for any length of time. Then it seems that the two men do have a reason to fight to the death. It may be unjust, but it is at least utilitarian, as the victor will get to live, as opposed to both dying from hunger.
Alternatively, in a land of Cockaigne, Crusoe will not miss Friday even if he dies.
These problems are avoided in the real world where there prevails moderate scarcity.
That a world of super-abundance or extreme dearth will not serve up the right incentives for social cooperation does not give the lie to this fact.
Under moderate scarcity, the forces of life, sustaining and nurturing man, and the forces of death, adversarial to him, challenging him to fight and improve his conditions, are in a rough balance that is most conducive to economic development. Insofar as the world contains plenty of moderately scarce environments, it is wisely designed.
It may be asked why man is supposed to do good and avoid evil.
The first point is due to self-love, and one naturally wills good to himself out of such love.
Is it man's nature to love others? I think it is, but a much weaker version of this statement is available, namely that it is man's nature at least not to hate others and through that hate, will evil to them.
Any kind of action is a costly exertion, to be resorted to when the benefits or revenues outweigh the costs. But harming another human being is such an action, yet it benefits the aggressor not at all, as suggested.
No man has any reason to hate another in the state of pure nature. If Crusoe finds Friday, it is insane for him to decide out of nowhere that his good consists in hating and for that reason killing Friday. He pays the costs of such an action (in fact puts himself in grave danger due to Friday's self-defense) but reaps no recognizable benefits. But such an irrationality entails precisely that Crusoe hates himself, which we have just seen cannot be the case.
Suppose it is objected: Smith may want to kill Jones in order to take his goods.
But Jones likely values his life far more than his material possessions and would to that extent be willing to defend himself more ferociously. Smith puts himself in more danger if he tries to kill Jones rather than merely rob him (say, by quietly burglarizing his house).
The killing is, ahem, an overkill. Again killing seems in the interest of no one at all, an act of pure destruction, and for that reason is unequivocally morally prohibited.
Assault is proscribed for similar reasons as murder: Jones feels pain from an attack on his body, but Smith receives no pleasure as a result. The evil of being hurt is accompanied by no plausible good and is to that extent 100% morally wrong.
Rape is more difficult to outlaw on this argument alone. For the rapist may say: "My good is promoted by the sexual pleasure I receive and by the child I beget." Here we may need to use further argumentation.