Utilitarianism, Too, Is “Agent-Relative”

R&D tirelessly proclaim that while we may talk of “flourishing” in general, any individual flourishes according to his own personal ideas. Such agent-relative flourishing

reflects the valuation of weighting (which is ultimately expressed by an individual’s time and effort) that is proper for… different persons. There is no single agent-neutral model to which each person’s pattern or weighting of these goods [intellectual pursuits, health, friendship, honor, etc.] must conform. None of these forms of flourishing is inherently superior to the other. Each has the necessary generic goods, but their proportions or weightings vary. The proper proportion must be worked out by practical wisdom in light of each individual’s nexus, community, and culture. (147-8)

I’m not so sure that our authors understand what they mistakenly call “agent-neutral” theories correctly. Utilitarianism aims to maximize the good over the entire society or impart it to the greatest number, but it does not deny that each person’s good is individualized and unique to him. Utilitarianism does not attempt to distill the maximum possible amount of utility serum and inject it into the masses to make them swoon with orgasmic pleasure. It says: let us structure the social institutions in such a way that people’s pursuit of their own happiness (or indeed flourishing), in whatever it consists for them, is most successful. It’s true, it does not privilege any particular man’s welfare over all others. But everyone counts, equally but still each as an individual. Utilitarianism aggregates good, but wills to each individual exactly what he wills to himself.

2nd-Order Desires Are Subjective But Not Arbitrary

1st-order desires, such as a preference for sushi or ambition to become a race-car driver are subjective and arbitrary.

2nd-order desires, such as to be a certain kind of person or to cultivate a virtue or some great-making character trait, are not, contrary to R&D, objective. They are still subjective, but unlike 1st-order desires, also not arbitrary. To say that temperance is a virtue is to propound a true and useful idea. But the choice to practice temperance is still entirely one’s own, to be balanced with all other concerns including 1st-order desires, unlike the injunction “you shall not kill” which one is commanded to obey by the indeed objective moral law.

Interpersonal Justice Enables Soul-Making

One sense of justice, they say, is “regulation of conduct so that conditions might be obtained where morally significant action can take place.” (162) This is an unfortunate formulation, because committing murder is also morally significant in being immoral, morally evil.

Perhaps we can repair this by changing it to “morally constructive action,” as in constructive of one’s own flourishing. They mention that this “type of moral requirement… must be both something everyone’s form of flourishing requires and something that everyone can, in principle, fulfill.” This suggests (though I can only guess) that they agree that not committing murders is an essential prerequisite to embarking upon a pursuit of flourishing. It is pretty hard to flourish in prison with terrible sins weighing on one’s soul. But I wish they were more explicit.

The second sense of justice is “rendering each his proportionate due,” and this, too, R&D argue, “requires practical wisdom. … Knowledge of circumstance, the other person’s character, and how a possible course of action integrates with the other actions that one’s flourishing requires is needed.” Well, at the most this establishes the unity of the two virtues: neither justice nor prudence are valuable in isolation of each other. But in addition, very often, justice takes very simple forms: if I am buying a loaf of bread, must I really be especially wise to figure out that I must pay the price agreed-upon?

Can Justice Be Impractical?

R&D argue that “deciding on a particular course of just conduct might not be the practical thing to do. … Regardless of how worthy a course of conduct may be separately considered, it must be a proper course of conduct for oneself. Giving others their appropriate due is a basic virtue, but the conduct that this virtue requires must be compatible with the other basic virtues and goods of human flourishing.” (163)

They finish this with:

“It is simply not true that one has an absolute and unqualified obligation to right every wrong and fight every evil.”

Well, I don’t know who has ever defended or seriously entertained the opposite conclusion.

Here’s an example. A while ago I was buying a dozen or so bags of beef jerky at Walmart. I pay, leave the counter, examine the receipt, and see that the cashier charged me for one less bag than I actually got. There is a sense in which an injustice had occurred. Moreover, I benefited from it. But it’s not the case that I was unjust. I weighed my options and decided that I was not going to spend 20 minutes standing in line at customer service to fix their mistake and give them back $3. I deemed justice impractical.

In general, though, you still have to pay for the stuff you buy, regardless of how “practical” it might seem to steal.

Rationality and Thinking Are All-Important

Human beings are unique animals in being rational. But the uniqueness of a feature in an animal is no guarantee that its use is its most exalted function. For example, whales communicate in a peculiar manner; that does not mean that making sounds is their most defining feature. Humans differ from all other primates by having hairless skin; that does make shaving into the be-all and end-all of being human.

However, it is a straw man to object that we derive the importance of the mind from its uniqueness.

It’s simply that it is through acts of the intellect, i.e., thinking, that all other goods of a human life are attained and enjoyed. Even if thinking is not the best thing to be doing as an end, it is indispensable as both a means to and essential constitutive part of “flourishing” or true happiness in all three of nature, virtue, and narrow happiness trinities.

Flourishing As Individualistic and Agent-Relative

In evaluating John Gray’s “dismissal of perfectionism,” R&D get everything right.

To use my own terms, intrapersonal virtues are (1) cognitivist, (2) (2nd-order) desire-driven, (3) externalist.

Thus, “courage is a virtue and an important human good” is truth-apt and in fact true. At the same time, there is no inherent necessary connection from realizing this truth to being motivated to cultivate courage. Everyone determines for himself which virtues to focus on and how to combine self-making with pursuit of narrow happiness. Regarding the former, R&D point out that “a person with a career in the military might require greater emphasis on the virtue of courage than would be the case for a civilian.” (173) Regarding the latter, perhaps excessive concern with courage would interfere with my personal pleasure of doing philosophy, and I may need to ease up on my martial training. R&D’s view “accepts emphasis and unequal weighting as central to its very identity.” (179)

Gray claims that good lives considered as bundles of virtues are incommensurable. Au contraire, they are 100% commensurable, not only between themselves but even between ends belonging to narrow happiness. They become so in the process of choice:

Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option.

All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another.

Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference. (HA, 3)

Remember that both virtue and narrow happiness are desire-driven, so Mises’ quote applies to these levels. Nature is duty-driven, and Mises took his theory too far. Nevertheless, one becomes who he wants to be and “flourishes” in the manner as per his own choice.

Innate qualities matter, too: e.g., St. Thomas writes that “by reason of a disposition in the body, some are disposed either well or ill to certain virtues… In this way one man has a natural aptitude for science, another for fortitude, another for temperance…” (ST, II-I, 63, 1)

R&D also correctly note that human beings are not omnipotent, and many ways of flourishing are simply closed to them by their inborn traits and external circumstances. A hideously ugly or miserably poor person’s options in life are not pretty. Neither are a person’s in locked up in prison. To reuse a quote below, “the foremost social means of making man more human is to fight poverty. Wisdom and science and the arts thrive better in a world of affluence than among needy peoples.” (HA, 155)

R&D’s insistence that flourishing must be “self-directed” is now also clearer. Perhaps they mean the following: suppose Smith is a doctor, but he was forced to learn the skills and to practice medicine under penalty of death for disobedience. Can we call Smith flourishing or happy? I doubt it very much. It is really silly to deny that “the absence of choice diminishes the value of human relations or the displays of excellence in technical skills, physical ability, spirit and enterprise, leadership, scholarship, creativity, or imaginativeness.” (181) Presumably, we are talking about humans who acquire and use these “technical skills,” etc. for their own fun and profit, not about robots. A calculator can crunch numbers way faster than I can, but I scarcely would praise it for its moral perfection.

I would demur though regarding R&D’s elevation of practical wisdom to the chief and master of all virtues. If by practical wisdom we mean prudence, then all that prudence does is churns out means to arbitrarily chosen narrow-happiness ends. On the level of virtue, prudence is replaced with justice in the metaphorical sense — as integrity; and remember that wisdom for nature, justice for virtue, and prudence for narrow happiness are human powers of judging. They therefore share a property, but their jobs are very different.

Enterprise vs. Civil Associations

R&D consider the nature of the common good as follows:

Descriptions of the nature of the common good are often given in examples involving clubs, enterprises, organizations, and the like… In all sorts of common enterprises, a person’s more immediate interest clearly may have to be subordinated to the “good” of the whole. When we are part of a group, it is not so difficult to recognize times when our own preferences may have to be set aside or compromised so that the group might flourish. (203)

Wait, what? If Smith works for company X and is paid wages, then the fact that owes his boss an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay has nothing to do with self-subordination but derives from the most basic and obvious justice in buying and selling. Both Smith and X benefit from the exchange; there is no need for any self-sacrifices, unless Smith figures he can cheat and do shoddy work. But the possibility of such ubiquitous theft or fraud is always extant, and it’s hard to see what “common good” specifically has to do with it. Smith’s good and X’s good are both promoted via the contract between the two. I outline the reasons why Smith ought to work hard earlier.

The problem, however, goes deeper. R&D conclude:

the perspective that political society is essentially like other common enterprises, with a good that can override the goods of individuals when the two conflict, is essentially defective. (205)

I agree, but not for the reasons R&D adduce. For a “political society,” such as a city or country, is not a common enterprise at all. As Gene Callahan points out, an enterprise or enterprise association is

a group formed around a common purpose to achieve specific ends, and in which one must either work to achieve the stated ends or cease to be a part of the group. …

Further, in so far as an individual is acting under direction of the enterprise as a whole, whether that direction is arrived at by a vote or by command from the top, the entire enterprise is responsible for the action taken. …

However, an entire society… is not an enterprise association, but a civil association, united not by a single common purpose but by adherence to a lex, a system of law. It is an error to ascribe to the entire society blame for some particular activity undertaken by a group within that society.

For example, the federal government is an enterprise organization. When the President asks a lower bureaucrat to do something, he issues a command, an executive order. The bureaucrat must obey or quit his job. Routine disobedience would simply destroy the government.

But when the Congress passes a law, it issues to me not a command — because I do not work for the government in any capacity — but merely an incentive. It orders rather the judges and the police to punish me for specified behavior if I am found out.

It is a mistake to imagine a government incentive in the form of a threat of punishment for doing something whose persuasiveness the citizens evaluate at leisure to be like a command of a general to a soldier that is obeyed unfailingly and without question.

Man Can Choose His “Identity” and Relations

MacIntyre argues that

we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son…, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations.

These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my life its own moral particularity. (231-2)

How dreadfully tedious. Let’s start with the greatest absurdity: MacIntyre is a citizen of some city. Must he stay his entire life in the city he was born in? This is an especially laughable claim for an intellectual like him; scholars always tended to the most mobile and cosmopolitan of people, traveling freely to seek patronage of and income from whichever noble, billionaire, or university had an interest in their ideas.

He is a member of a profession. Was this profession foisted on him by the “community” or did he choose it voluntarily? Is he in favor of forbidding people to change careers or occupations during their lives? Does MacIntyre permit one to seek a better job? What about entrepreneurs who hop from one venture to another? Must they, too, be repressed?

It’s true that MacIntyre is someone’s son whether he likes it or not; is he also someone’s husband by the “community’s” decision? Was his marriage arranged? Divorce may indeed be morally dubious; but is it to be proscribed by force of law?

What about perhaps the most significant issue of one’s religion? I became Catholic in 2004; was that a crime in his eyes because I abandoned the “community” of people who had no idea what God is? Ought the Church to curtail its missionary efforts?

Well then, what is MacIntyre talking about?

Even if the relations one is born into are one’s “starting point,” they hardly must be his point once he reaches the age of reason. It is certainly true that severing existing ties, especially familial ties, is a very big deal and is not a decision to be made lightly. But let’s not go full retard in proposing to empower the state to interfere into such matters.

In short, the liberty to choose one’s community may for a person devalue his existing particular community, but it does not devalue community as such. The right to enter and exit civil associations at will, to associate yourself with new people and to disassociate yourself from others does not make relationships fickle; on the contrary, knowing that people are free to abandon you for being a jerk is a huge incentive to being friendly and just with all.

Communitarian Filth

MacIntyre continues in a passage quoted by R&D: “What the good life is for a fifth-century Athenian general will not be the same as what it was for a medieval nun or a seventeen-century farmer.” (231)

But come now, that one is a nun is a contingent fact; it does not guarantee that she ought to have become or continue to be a nun; perhaps she’d eagerly change her vocation to general if she had the chance. Maybe later she’ll have a change of mind and leave the convent to pursue commercial endeavors or marry and start a family.

The goodness of a nun may indeed consist in different things than the goodness of a general; but the choice of the vocation itself cannot reasonably be imposed by force. Again, the skills of an acrobat differ from the the skills of a philosopher, and it is true that a certain commitment to one’s line of work is requisite; but to have the “community” (i.e., the state) coerce one into a particular trade is a monstrous injustice.

The freedom to choose a specialization or personal identity is distinct from the specialization or personal identity freely chosen or given immutably by nature. Consider that feminists have gone so far as to propose the elimination of the domestic division of labor. Let both the husband and wife devote equal time to earning money and doing each chore around the house. I don’t know if such a policy is “fair,” but it’s certainly extremely stupid and inefficient. Karl Marx babbled about how the communist society “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” MacIntyre makes the opposite error. One’s “social identity” conferred upon him by the circumstances of his birth and childhood is allegedly permanent, inviolable, and even sacred.

R&D counter effectively by pointing out that “the particular cultural and social manifestation of human nature or the human good should never be taken as defining or constituting human nature or the human good itself.” (234)

MacIntyre disappoints completely a few pages later: “There may have to be self-imposed limits to labor mobility for the sake of the continuities and the stabilities of families and other institutions.” If he means that uprooting oneself and moving can be costly and even heartbreaking, then I fail to see how anyone could deny an observation so obvious. R&D comment:

…if some individuals in a small town should on their own judge economically it is best for them to no longer shop or work at the stores in the center of the town, but should instead travel to stores outside of town to make their purchases of find employment, then such activity might have to be limited or subordinated.

Possibly, such individuals would, and indeed should, judge that such a decision might be contrary to the community life they enjoy, and that the savings or increased salary from traveling to the stores or jobs outside of town are not worth possibly destroying the community life that is so vital to them. (237)

Is it really my duty to subsidize inefficient businesses “in the center of the town” who dare to demand my patronage despite offering inferior goods at high prices, selfishly hoping that their vile propaganda about “community life” will allow them to profit at my expense? I am not prepared to satisfy such outrageous delusions and self-conceit. There is no moral principle that bids me to forsake a better and more exciting job elsewhere and instead keep toiling away for a failing company under a bad boss earning peanuts just in order not to upset some folks with whom I have once or twice engaged in “giving and receiving.”

Speaking of which, is MacIntyre talking about sucking dick while having one’s own dick sucked? We are to “give and receive” what? There are relationships based on self-interest and relationships based on charity. Business transactions like which food to buy or where to work are instance of the former. Such relations are not marked by “union, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal,” all effects of love according to St. Thomas (ST, II-I, 28); instead, they are simply a network of useful contacts, business partners, customers, allies, and acquaintances. They depend entirely upon immediate expediency and mutual profit right here right now. That today I make an exchange of goods with Smith does not mean that I have acquired a “relationship” with Smith. Each of us is free to forsake the other the moment another person offers us a sweeter deal. And that’s a good thing: it keeps every producer on his toes. A mere business or employment contract differs from a life-long covenant like marriage. It seems therefore that MacIntyre has fallen victim to an elementary error of conflating naturally impersonal relationships like between business owner and employee with personal relationships like between family members.

R&D continue that for MacIntyre, “it is the individual reasoning and acting apart for the process of communal deliberation that destroys the relationship of giving and receiving. This cannot be countenanced.” (237) But if I am part of the community, am I not supposed to contribute to the “communal deliberation” my own notions? Or must I simply obey the council of elders or the majority or whatever? Perhaps he means that I ought to consider the common good and not just my own good in my actions. But it is a fact that almost the entirety of the common good is simply the total sum of the private goods of the members of a community. The most efficient way to maximize the overall welfare is to take care of one’s own, including indeed shop and work wherever one wants.

R&D conclude: “Individuals making choices about which communities to belong to and about their degree of involvement therein is not ipso facto a denial of community. It is only a denial of communities where the role of the individual, and most of the significant choices of the individual, is decided collectively, rather than by the individual himself.” (238) Well put. To say that I prefer America to Cuba is not to deny that there are such things as nations or to assert that nations are mere figments of the imagination; it is only to reject the Cuban-style socialism where I am not allowed to migrate at all.