Archives for category: consequentialism

I want to take issue with some remarks made by Russell Blackford in the context of a review of Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life. I believe that he misunderstands the utilitarian project. He writes, for example:

Once we question the burden of utilitarianism, any attempt to justify it becomes circular.

It is true that utilitarianism has no a priori foundation; this is true of all moral systems. I share his resistance to Singer’s suggestion that we avail ourselves of “the point of view of the universe”. It’s close to obvious that the cosmic point of view is tout ça m’est égal — nothing we humans do can make much difference to the sum total of everything existing.

But this does not mean that every argument for utilitarianism is circular, only that, as Wittgenstein said, every explanation comes to an end somewhere. The idea that there could be an objective justification for any moral system is a myth. Religious apologists tell us that they have such a system; in their case, the claim is risible, but the idea of such a possibility has caught on. We need to discard it. There is no a priori basis for any ethical system; that’s not how life works. But it doesn’t have to be a priori to be convincing, practical, or beneficial.

The justification for utilitarianism is utilitarian. But this is not a circular argument. It starts with the factual observation that we are conscious beings with desires and aversions. One can imagine a universe in which this were not true, so it is not true a priori; still, for us humans on this planet it does happen to be true. Call it contingent if you wish, but in this world it is a fact. Now, the observation of this fact is easiest in the first person, but one sees routinely, indeed one cannot help seeing, that it is true for everyone else as well. I am clearly a conscious being with desires and aversions, and just as clearly I am surrounded by similarly configured beings. This means that everyone in the world divides experiences and situations into preferred and rejected; sought and avoided; enjoyed and detested. Everyone in the world can sincerely say, “From my point of view, temporarily putting aside everyone else, I prefer a world in which A, B and C happen, and not-A, not-B and not-C do not.” This means that it is at least conceivable that there exist (potentially) worlds in which everyone on Earth is happy, is satisfied, has no reason to complain.

OK, right away, several hands go up. And, yes, dozens of philosophers have devised hundreds of clever cases, designed to show either that the utilitarian proposal is incoherent, or that it would not have the positive results that are claimed for it. What if, for example, some people are only happy if their neighbors are suffering (sadists) — or when they themselves are suffering (masochists)? Such hypotheticals miss the point. Any system is going to have gray areas, edge cases and outliers. Such problems are not special to utilitarianism. Let’s stick to the basics for a bit.

What is the utilitarian principle? What does it tell us to do? It says that when deciding on a course of action, it is best to take account of your actions’ probable effects on all the sentient beings around you, and to choose those actions which will maximize (to whatever extent this is possible) the satisfaction of the preferences of those beings. Why is this the “best” thing to do? Because it maximizes utility. Do we know that maximizing utility is a good idea? Not “objectively”, but not a single person whose utility is getting maximized is likely to object! And if everyone who is affected is in favor, isn’t that pretty much all the approval one could ever need?

Here is what I take to be a second misconception. In the same piece, Blackford writes:

Utilitarianism’s burden would destroy our freedom to live our own lives, turning us, in effect, into slaves of the general utility of all others. … Utilitarianism requires us to treat ourselves and other individuals as mere instruments in the greater cause of maximising general utility, which is incompatible with having loving relationships where we care for other individuals for their own sake. … A utilitarian must suppress the dispositions to show love or loyalty, or friendship or tenderness, if ever she believes they are detracting from her goal of maximising general utility.

It seems to me that this description ignores the symmetry of the utilitarian ideal. I am no more a slave to others’ utility than I am to my own. Besides, how on Earth would maximizing general utility be incompatible with having loving relationships? There’s a heck of a lot of utility in loving relationships. Under what conditions would there be a genuine conflict between my loving someone and my being kind to others? That sounds like a very special situation, which means that the considerations mentioned earlier apply. First, there will always be puzzling cases, and second, all systems will have them, not only utilitarianism. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet describes a world in which to help one person is inevitably to harm another. And the playwright’s explicit moral is: that world is far from optimal.

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.

Arguing that utilitarianism is wrong-headed strikes me as perverse — like insisting that “aim for the best result possible” is not known with certainty to be good advice. What the heck is the alternative? Utilitarianism is not so much an argument about how things should be as it is an observation of how things are. People do suffer, and you can sometimes prevent it. And if you can, you should probably want to. That’s what it is to be good. The typical counter-proposal seems to amount to, “You can’t tell me that I have to care about other people.” Well, that’s true. You don’t have to care — but not caring hardly constitutes a coherent framework for moral action.

The idea that religion brings meaning into people’s lives is absurd. You can’t get meaning from any book. Neither can any person give it to you. In fact, there is only one place that this kind of meaning can come from. You put it there, you bring it out, you make it happen — if you choose. And the method, as many wise people have pointed out over the years, is to give it away. If you can give your care and your attention to someone or something real, that’s when meaning will enter your world. When you do something for people because you sincerely want them to be happy; when you make something beautiful just because beauty is a good; when you’re kissing your lover or child and meaning it, there is meaning in your life.

Many people have requested a one-page summary of the new book. This one is under 400 words. [Slightly revised 8 June 2010.]

Roy Sablosky: NO ONE BELIEVES IN GOD (second draft, November 2009)

  1. It’s not about belief
    1. That religion has to do with beliefs becomes implausible when you look at the behaviors it evokes. For example:
      1. Their “beliefs” challenged, people are often enraged, as if you had threatened not their opinions but their safety.
      2. One joins a group, not its beliefs. Self-described Catholics may differ profoundly with their church elders on important issues; they are Catholics despite their beliefs.
      3. Notoriously, church elders routinely flout the “beliefs” they most fervently espouse.
    2. Claims of belief are implausible where the tenet in question is nonsensical.
      1. Religious propositions are incoherent. (This is probably by design. A slogan is catchier if no one knows what it means.) In the sentence “Jesus loves you” for example, both the subject and the verb are impossible to characterize or observe. Such a statement is perfectly empty: it is a pseudo-proposition.
      2. Since they are without meaning, religious statements can be neither meant nor believed. Thomas Jefferson: “I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” Ludwig Wittgenstein: “one cannot mean a senseless series of words.”
    3. Therefore, no one really believes in the teachings of any prophet or the existence of any god. It cannot be done. It does not happen. People who think they are doing it are mistaken.
  2. Religion is made of memes plus authoritarianism
    1. Religious “beliefs” are memes. Just like germs, they are contagious; and just like germs they evolve through natural selection. The religious memes circulating now have evolved over thousands of years to be very, very good at what they do.
    2. People are naturally deferential to authority figures.
    3. Authority and memetic self-replication combine to form religion.
  3. What we should do
    1. Admit no religious exceptions to any legislation. A few examples:
      1. End all tax breaks (that is: subsidies) for religious organizations and their personnel.
      2. Eliminate chaplaincy programs at all levels of government, including the armed services.
      3. Remove legislative impediments to abortion and birth control.
      4. Outlaw the teaching of antediluvian codswallop in public school.
      5. Government should ratify only civil unions, not “marriages”. Anyone willing and competent to sign such a contract should be allowed to.
    2. Revise the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No proposal having a religious rationale or using religious terminology should become a law.

Really inspiring news from the FFRF.

The national Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with 21 of its California members, has filed a nationally-significant federal lawsuit in Sacramento, challenging tax benefits for “ministers of the gospel,” commonly known as “the parsonage exemption.”

Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, also may deduct their mortgage interest and property tax payments. Under both Federal and California law, allowances paid to “ministers of the gospel” are not treated as taxable income, unlike the situation for other taxpayers. Only “ministers of the gospel” may claim these benefits, so the statutes convey a governmental message of endorsement, unconstitutionally favoring religious employees and institutions over all others, the Foundation maintains.

Read the whole news release.

I swear to you I will never go there, nor will I buy any products made there, nor will I be friends with anyone who lives there, until this law is overturned.

Think about this law when people tell you that on the whole, religion is a Good Thing. You have to have serious chutzpah to say that anymore. People are starting to wise up.

Well, maybe not in Oklahoma. But soon Oklahoma will be a smoldering wasteland, with no one left but religious zealots fighting over who loves Jesus more. Let’s make D.C. the 50th state and call Oklahoma the District of Not OK.

BoingBoing has a post called Are Muslim Women Oppressed? Ask One. In it, guest blogger Aman Ali quotes Mariam Sobh saying things like:

Oppression is such a loaded word and it conjures up all sorts of negative images

Both of these observations are beside the point. The point is that oppression is bad, and you are a victim of it.

I’m not harming anyone by wearing a piece of material on my head so what’s the big deal?

You are validating a system of oppression. It has not harmed you — yet — but it is harming millions of other women. How can you not understand that?

it’s something I believe is mandated in my religion. No one is forcing me

Listen to yourself! It’s mandated by your religion, but no one is forcing you?

It all comes down to personal interpretation and understanding

No, it comes down to grievous harms being perpetrated against millions of women in the name of religion.

It’s a testament to myself that I want to be a better person

Better in what way? — more compassionate, perhaps? Is that what you’re going for?

If people try to use Islam as a way to manipulate women then those individuals are sick and twisted.

Yes. So turn around and look at who is manipulating you. They are sick and twisted — and they must be so happy.

I’m thankful that I have the life I do, where I can practice what I believe and not worry about anyone forcing me to do something against my will.

Sooooo happy!

I submitted a comment for this post and it got disemvoweled, even though it was perfectly civilized. Here’s what it said:

“I do so because it’s something I believe is mandated in my religion. No one is forcing me”

You missed it. Listen to yourself. Your religion is forcing you.

Comments from Muslim women are not more valuable than comments from anyone else. This is because Muslims have been brainwashed. If you have not been brainwashed, you will not declare yourself to be Muslim. There is nothing in it for you. Nothing. Being Muslim is of no benefit to the believer. However, in strongly Islamic areas if you refuse to be Muslim they will kill you. Most Muslims accept their religion for exactly one reason: they have no choice.

So, BoingBoing published a hideously disingenuous article — and then trashed my dissenting comment, which contained not a single misstatement of fact (and no swear-words). I am therefore deleting BoingBoing from my reader list. I can no longer trust it not to be stupid, so I do not plan to read it ever again.

I wrote to President Obama today (via the White House “Contact Us” page). I said:

At a recent town hall meeting, you estimated that your national health care plan would cost $90 billion over 10 years. You also estimated that “about two-thirds” of it could be obtained by things “like eliminating subsidies to insurance companies.”

I’d like to remind you of the “elephant in the room” that is always standing there when the federal government seems to be strapped for cash. The budget for FY2010 includes $533.7 billion for the Department of Defense. This is a staggering number: about $1,800 for every man, woman and child in the United States; $7,000 for a family of four.

In one year.

If there are sources for two-thirds of the $90 billion that the new plan will require in its first year, the remaining $30 billion can be obtained by trimming the DoD’s allocation by six percent. Six percent! And think of the symbolism: we’re moving toward the well-being of all citizens, by stealing just a tiny bit from the Department of Death. It would be one of the most beautiful, humanitarian decisions our country has ever made.

Dan Hind, author of the brilliant The Threat to Reason, has a new, short book on the recent economic crash and our government’s sickening attempts to rescue us from it by giving all our money to the guys who caused it.

This once broadly welcomed project, to put an end to financial turbulence and the miseries it brings with it, you know, unemployment, political extremism and global war, became increasingly controversial in intellectual circles in the decades that followed [the Bretton Woods conference]. Some felt that the maintenance of peace and prosperity came at too high a price in terms of freedom for capital. What good was peace and prosperity, if capitalists had to make do with less than a license to do what the fuck they wanted all the time, everywhere?

I’m not an expert on financial matters, but some of the aspects of our situation seem inarguable. It’s possible that the global financial markets performed valuable functions at one time, but they now appear to be deliberately contrived to siphon money from those who could have used it to those who already have too much. But it’s worse than this. They are set up to skim off so much money that the people who are forced to use them can go broke. That is, the markets can destroy people — except for the people who designed and maintain the markets. Somehow, the architects of the system continue to collect their staggering fees, no matter what. Why do we allow this?

This then was the accident waiting to happen — debt was deployed as the solution to flat buying power. Debt counteracted the effects of stagnant real wages for as long as it expanded. As a result economies could continue to grow even as they grew more unequal. Notional gains in asset wealth encouraged workers to borrow ever more money.

So there was only one problem with the organization of political economy in the period after 1970; it was always, eventually, going to end in disaster. Other than that it was a great idea.

Jump! You Fuckers! is available as a free download.

The constitution of Iraq was written by theocrats. Here is the result.

Article 1:

The Republic of Iraq is a single federal, independent and fully sovereign state in which the system of government is republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic, and this Constitution is a guarantor of the unity of Iraq.

Article 2:

First: Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation:

A. No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.

B. No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy.

C. No law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this Constitution.

Points A and B are completely incompatible. Right here at the start, the constitution adopts a rule that cannot be followed, no matter how hard you try. This document is guaranteed to cause interminable problems for its country. That’s what you get when you let the imams call the shots – because they don’t actually mind if everything goes to hell around them, as long as they stay in charge.

On the front page of the Times, David Barstow spins the murder of George Tiller into An Abortion Battle, Fought to the Death. A subhead reiterates the false dichotomy:

Protesters tried to close the abortion clinic of Dr. George R. Tiller; abortion rights advocates celebrated him.

In the daily-email version of the front page that I received, the subhead reads:

What thousands could not achieve in three decades of relentless protest, a gunman accomplished on May 31 when he shot Dr. George R. Tiller in the head.

I swear to God. That’s what they said. I just copied and pasted it. The first clause refers to anti-abortionism as a form of protest. Consider that fanaticism, repression, or even terrorism would have been more correct, and you get a glimpse of how misleading this piece is. The second clause turns a premeditated murder into an accomplishment, echoing the word achievement in the first clause.

In what the Times misleadingly calls a “battle, fought to the death” only one side was trying to kill people: the misleadingly named “pro-life” side. They wanter Tiller dead, and they got what they wanted. Tiller, on the other hand, was performing abortions. That’s not the same thing.

Remember that the anti-abortion “movement” wants to make abortion illegal. Not safer, or rarer, or more carefully considered. Illegal. They want to give the fetus more protections under the law than the mother has. After all, the fetus is an unborn person; the mother is just a woman.

[F]or more than 30 years the anti-abortion movement threw everything into driving Dr. Tiller out of business, certain that his defeat would deal a devastating blow to the “abortion industry” that has terminated roughly 50 million pregnancies since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

This misleading number comes straight from the anti-abortionists. The whole article is full of distortions like this.

His willingness to abort fetuses so late in pregnancies put him at the medical and moral outer limits of abortion. Yet he portrayed those arrayed against him as religious zealots engaged in a campaign whose aim was nothing less than to subjugate women.

But that is precisely what they are, and precisely what they aim for.

When an abortion provider in Florida was assassinated in 1994, Dr. Tiller spent the next few years under the protection of federal marshals. By 1997, he had been labeled “the most infamous abortionist in the United States” by James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

Barstow quotes Dobson’s epithet as if it’s a matter of public record. For the record: the word ‘infamous’ is a moral judgement, not a fact.

Several years ago it became clear to anti-abortion leaders that they needed a new strategy to shut down Dr. Tiller.

See the language? Instead of “it became clear to anti-abortion leaders that they needed a new strategy” he could have written, for example, “the radical clerics altered their strategy”.

“God has his own way,” Mr. Gietzen [chairman of the “Kansas Coalition for Life”] replied, “but you can’t say our prayers weren’t answered.”

They prayed that someone would kill George Tiller. And God heard them! Allahu Akbar!

Yet later, Mr. Gietzen said his feelings were more complex. [He would say that, wouldn’t he?] Many years ago, he explained, he had wrestled with the question of whether it would be moral to kill Dr. Tiller. [That is so kind of him!] Only after months of reading and praying, he said, did he conclude that violence could never be justified. [He kept praying for it, though.] Killing men like Dr. Tiller, he said, will only put off the day when abortion is outlawed altogether.

And then we’ll all have the benefit of a truly loving and gentle society. All of us, that is, except the women.

Here’s something the founder of all Protestantism wrote on this topic.

Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for. [Martin Luther, Works 20.84 (I haven’t been able to verify this quote. It’s all over the Web, but I couldn’t find the original.)]

No scripture can ever justify such an attitude. The fight over abortion comes down to this. Who do we want to write our laws — theocrats, or people who have a conscience?