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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections

December 1st, 2007 Comments off

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In the United States today, the public debates about healthcare, Social Security, and the standard of living have reached a new level of prominence. While some of these dialogues pertain to already-existing, but failing institutions like Social Security and the minimum wage, more than ever the climate of public opinion states, “government ought to provide its people with economic security. ” Of course, the degree of the economic security to be provided varies greatly, from simple safety nets such as unemployment payments to outright socialization of particular industries. The nations of Europe are examples of affluent “democracies” (broadly speaking) which incorporate strong social programs, taxing usually between half and over two-thirds of all income to pay for (among many other things) public education, employment agencies, guaranteed housing, and most conspicuously, universalized healthcare. The ideological underpinnings of the pervasion of the belief in the need for such institutions in America have their contemporary roots in the early 20th century, which heralded the Progressive movement. The movement successfully established an essential power for the exercise of any resource-intensive redistribution scheme: the graduated income tax. With the coming of the Great Depression, the shift in the national mood was solidified; attributing the economic decline to Herbert Hoover’s inaction, Franklin D. Roosevelt attained the presidential office. His New Deal solidified, constitutionally and psychologically, the role of the U. S. government as a major actor in the economy. The subsequent creation of his “Second Bill of Rights,” and later the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, codified the supreme change in the language of rights from the Founding’s conception of formal political guarantees, to substantive economic entitlements. No longer would one simply have the Lockean rights to protection from harm, freedom to choose one’s own path in life, and the ability to acquire and hold property freely; one would also have the right to have certain kinds of property, regardless of one’s success in productive endeavors (invariably coming into conflict with traditional property rights). –more–>Changes in attitude toward laissez-faire capitalism historically have been generally defined by any or all of three major shifts: most importantly, the replacement of liberal political rights with economic entitlements; closely connected, a new emphasis on collective instead of individual good; and in effect, the belief in the use of organized coercion (government) as a valuable tool for bettering those collectives. Two contemporary thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, brought the debate about the role of government in a wealthy liberal democracy (such as ours) back to the philosophical forefront, asking the essential question: if they should at all, for what reasons should government be able to interfere with the market, beyond protecting its citizens from violence and fraud? [1] On one side, Rawls’ Theory of Justice attempts to justify a broader scope of government powers by appealing to a Kant-esque “original position,” in which agents must decide on principles of justice irrespective of what their physical position will actually be in the world. On the other, Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia sets out to construct a consistent account of the ideal libertarian state, and in the process reject Rawls’ arguments. [2] There is strong evidence both in Nozick’s writings and elsewhere that the position delineated in A Theory of Justice is a flawed justification for the liberal welfare state.

Rawls’ Equality and Difference Principles

Though the focus of this post will be on government’s role as a redistributor of wealth, a holistic understanding of Rawls’ account of government is essential to understanding his position on redistribution. His primary concern in exploring social justice is what rights and duties members of a society must have in its institutions, and in turn how the benefits (and burdens) of social cooperation should be distributed. He argues from two principles of justice: the equality principle and the difference principle. The former prescribes that each individual must possess the same level of liberty as each other individual, and the latter prescribes that social and economic inequalities should be rectified for the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. These are ordered by priority; the institutions of the first can not be surpassed by “greater social and economic advantages. ” Rawls defines these two principles are part of a larger, more general conception of social values: “all social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society (Part 4)

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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Unlimited sovereign authority is precisely that: the inconstant, uncertain, unknown arbitrary will of another man. The only form of government which is consistent with the rights of man is one which is restrained by the law of nature.

Some Problems in Locke

By contrast, we can see the comparative improvements of Locke’s political theory over that of Hobbes, though it also possesses some significant shortcomings. Among these are issues of consent to governance, in which Locke suffers from the same plausibility-versus-consistency trade-off as Hobbes does; and the inherent conflict between the idea of electing an arbitrator and government as the imposition of a single one for all. [12]

Consent is largely a problem for any political theory which treasures the independence of man, in the sense that there are numerous externalities that complicate the pragmatic feasibility of a right to secede and form governments freely. Locke somewhat resolves this with his doctrine of tacit consent, appearing the moment that someone resides in a sovereign’s territory or owns property there. However, this is at best a patchwork fix to the problem of consent, since governance should be a compact between the state and the governed, none of which directly implies territoriality or any non-consensual obligation.

Likewise, the need for a universal arbitrator as a reason for exiting the state of nature to form civil society can be contested. One might ask, “Who is to arbitrate between the people and the state? ” This creates another problem for Locke, who acknowledges it:

“Where an appeal to the Law lies open, but the remedy is deny’d by a manifest perverting of Justice, there it is hard to imagine any thing but a State of War. For wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer Justice, it is still violence and injury, however colour’d with the Name, Pretences, or Forms of Law. ”[13]

Concerns about the capture of arbitration, especially one which is practically monopolized on issues of force, severely undermine Locke’s political theory in favor of anarchistic individualism. Likely sensing that this objection was beyond the scope of his capabilities and not inclined to accept rebellion as a solution, Locke simply suggests that those dissatisfied with arbitration, with no other appeal available, “are left to the only remedy in such cases, an appeal to heaven. ”


[1] The remainder of this paper will attempt to focus on Hobbes through the lens of this interpretation, but elements of his work better served by a more mechanistic interpretation may crop up. The primary purpose of emphasizing a more “moral” Hobbes is to make him more compatible in comparison to Locke, and to make the discussion of proper governance more meaningful.

[2] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.

[3] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.

[4] Hobbes, De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory.

[5] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.

[6] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiv.

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiv.

[8] The “high road” is used in the ethical egoist’s sense, i. e. the most rational action of self-interest. This could entail even a Lockean perception of morality, connecting the two thinkers quite closely.

[9] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 19

[10] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 16

[11] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 176

[12] Locke’s Political Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/locke-political/. Accessed March 05, 2007.

[13] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 20

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society (Part 3)

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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They may, as in Locke, recognize rationally that committing an act of force to rule another essentially subjects them to a forfeiture of their own rights. Many present and past societies such as those in the United States have shown that the combination of minimal government and egoistic individuals, forming what would be according to Hobbes a state of nature, have coexisted peacefully and produced much “commodious living. ” Therefore, the greatest good for the egoist individual does not invariably reside in consent to absolute governance, as Hobbes would insist.

Locke

On the other hand, Locke expresses a different notion of human nature and, concordantly, of the state of nature. He holds that “Men living according to reason, without a common superior on earth, to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. ”[9] Because Locke’s theory is rooted in natural law, his arguments closely follow the notion of the objective rights of individuals- broadly, their freedom, equality, and independence. His portrayal of the state of nature better resembles one of anarchic individualism, an image far from the brutality and paranoia of the Hobbesian state. Locke claims, indirectly, that Hobbes fails to distinguish appropriately between the state of nature and the state of war. He also does not simply posit man in nature as a thought experiment, as does Hobbes, but he suggests that historically many have lived in such a state.

Locke asserts the transcendent reality of natural law, with reason as the tool for discovering it. In short, by initiating force, aggressors against persons or property have renounced reason (and their humanity) and are subject to force themselves. [10] Underlying Locke’s nature-war distinction, only the initiation of force constitutes a state of war, and thus a state of nature can exist in peace. While Hobbes described man in nature as primarily amoral, Locke holds the opposite as true. Besides the existentialist-like quality of morality under natural law- by which one who wills some immoral wrong has inevitably willed it universally and for himself- rationality also guides action by demonstrating the counter-productivity and destructiveness of aggression against one’s fellow man. In this way, Locke addresses the problems in Hobbes’s analysis of the violent and chaotic implications of egoism, instead arguing for the spontaneous orders caused by rational self-interested thought.

Locke’s Civil Society

The reasons Locke provides for why man might want to leave the ideal state of nature’s “perfect freedom and equality” are the “inconveniences” experienced by the majority of rational people: the costs of lack of knowledge of certain laws and an impartial adjudicator; the absence of an ultimate power for law enforcement, which allows for the strongest groups to execute what they please; and the agent’s general difficulty in judging law impartially.

For Locke, the purpose of civil society is not for the governed to be directly guided in such a way that they will survive and flourish, as Hobbes might advocate. Though survival and propagation are the preferred outcomes, the function of government is specifically to provide a framework for the protection of life, liberty, and property. Locke’s view can be summarized as one of a minimal state, whose justification requires total consent of the governed. [11] His objections to unlimited sovereignty of the kind Hobbes supports are part of an implicit undercurrent of his works, but are well-delineated in his Second Treatise in Chapter IV, “Of Slavery”:

“But freedom of men under government, is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society (Part 2)

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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Because man should endeavor peace, and because the antithesis of peace is man exercising his right to all things (i. e. war in the state of nature), man must sacrifice this right for others to do the same. This specifically includes the right of judgment, which is then transferred to the sovereign. The result is a government with absolute power, as the only rightful judge of any dispute. If the government’s power is not absolute, then a state of war persists because the government does not possess all the means to stop it.

Some Problems with Hobbes’ Sovereign

Hobbes’s explanation for the formation of civil society is troublesome, at best. The covenant (or contract) that Hobbes suggests for the empowerment of an absolute unlimited has numerous difficulties in being both plausible and consistent. When the sovereign fails to protect life, the duty of obedience lapses, but that leaves unanswered the question of what one’s obligations are during civil war. Hobbes tries to remedy this problem by placing emphasis on promise-keeping as having moral value, yet a civil war (the breakdown of government’s control) represents a lapse into the state of nature, in which there are no obligations, and a paradox in Hobbes’ thought arises. The only consistent solution is for the people to obey whoever possesses the supreme force. Also, the covenant meets difficulties when applied to those born into existing governments, to which Hobbes objects that those who did not explicitly consent to the covenant are at least responsible for it implicitly, because it is in their self-interest to do so. However, this is really an objection of prudence and can be disputed by any amount of evidence to the contrary. Overall, the contract produced by Hobbes is hardly genuine.

Furthermore, Hobbes’s account of human nature and rights leaves much to be desired. From positing a hypothetical state of nature, he semi-sensibly concludes that in such a state, each individual has a “right to all things. ” However, he incorrectly uses this single hypothetical state as the moral barometer with which he judges everything else. In other words, he fails to acknowledge any human-based moral truths that are broader than the “right to all” found in his hypothetical state of nature. Internally, this may pose no problem for the traditional mechanistic, psychological egoist Hobbes: there is no use for morality if the world is determined, and rights are determined by what one can and can not do; liberty, as he says, is freedom of motion. Thus, the right of man would be to assure his freedom of motion by any means possible, which (when unregulated) results in the destructive state of nature, and so forth.

However, for a reading of Hobbes that allows for moral error, it is precisely because the state of nature is so chaotic, dangerous, and unpredictable that humans cannot be expected to choose the “high road” while their primary concern, their own preservation, is in direct danger. The upshot is that the “high road”[8] exists, and there is no reason why it can not be taken under different circumstances. Though he provides a very compelling scientific-deductive argument for the state of nature as it results from human inclinations (to be selfish, aggressive, vainglorious, etc. Hobbes too rapidly concludes that egoistic behavior always results in a dangerous state of nature. Egoists behaving rationally can recognize that, for example, the breaking of a contract may be a plausible enterprise now, but it results in the inability to construct contracts later because of a reputation effect. They can recognize that force is not a value- it can only be used to confiscate values which can only be made by production (a rational process) and that a world of force is a hungry and poor one, with little incentive to change.

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were relative contemporaries in philosophy, so it is no surprise that their comparison has become something of a cliché (hence this? While both philosophers use language couched in the tradition of natural law, they both advocate radically different views on human nature and ideal governance, as will be seen. Since Locke and Hobbes get name-dropped by pseudointellectuals regularly, it’s probably a good idea to get a feel for the basics. –more–>

Hobbes

Firstly, Hobbes’s moral philosophy is specifically egoistic. While many of his statements point to his being a psychological egoist, much of what he says implies that he is, in fact, an ethical egoist: he believes that we ought to do what is in our individual self-interest. Namely, he suggests that humans are frequently short-sighted in their decisions, self-deceptive about their motives (e. g. altruism), and otherwise unreliable in rationally determining actions in their interests. Generally speaking, while we always act in our self-interest, we do not always act in a way that fulfills it best (though we ought to). [1]

According to Hobbes, the state of nature is defined by the absence of authority (except that of a mother over her child). All men are more or less equal. Though some may be stronger or smarter than others, each man is always susceptible to being killed by others, whether by deception, by others in unison, etc. [2] Because men are egoistic and will do whatever is in their interest, this pits mankind in a perpetual state of war of “all against all. ”

He argues that peaceful cooperation is impossible without the power of an umbrella of absolute authority, for three general reasons: first, we will compete violently for subsistence or other material desires; second, we will live fearfully and challenge others in order to ensure our personal safety; and finally, we will seek reputation, by violence primarily, to ward others off from challenging us. [3] With no guarantor of security, “the wickedness of bad men also compels good men to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud,”[4] ensuring the constant perpetuation of war.

In the state of nature, man has “a right to all things,” which is an implicit basis for the rest of Hobbes’s argument for the moral rightness of an absolute sovereign. He derives this right from the understanding that all humans seek self-preservation and are not only entitled to it, but to be the judges of what it entails. Given that, Hobbes states, “…this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place [in the state of nature]. “[5]

The Sovereign

From these suppositions and observations about human nature, Hobbes invariably concludes the requirement of an absolute sovereign. In accordance with egoism, we ought to avoid the state of nature because doing so is prudently avoiding violent death. In turn, the only thing that can allow humans to avoid the state of nature is an unlimited sovereign. Hobbes’s first “law of nature” states, “every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. ”[6] Hobbes’s second law states:

“That a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. ” [7]

These two laws are the bridges Hobbes builds to close the gap between the state of nature and civil society.

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John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism (A critique) (Part 5)

November 5th, 2007 Comments off

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While Bentham’s claims about the utilitarian climate of moral reasoning are true, its implications do not end in utilitarianism. How agents ought to behave must be connected in some way to a view of the physical nature of those agents and the physical reality in which they reside. It would, for example, be nonsensical to argue that an incorporeal being has a right to his own personal space, or a right not to be stabbed- these are all rights that implicitly depend on the agent residing in physical space. Likewise, a reasonable morality which pertains to human beings corresponds to their nature- desiring to live, existing in space and time, mortal, requiring sustenance, etc. There is no justification for a moral theory that does not consider these facts (it is either ambiguous or inconsistent). In this respect, moral theory is concerned with utility. Since rights are derived from man acting in the function of man, so it is no surprise that these rights are concerned with fulfilling man’s functions and purpose (the ultimate end), and are thus utility-related. The fundamental difference between utility in this sense and utility in the utilitarian sense is that the former more generally deals with the pragmatic satisfaction of any given purpose, while the latter is its own moral system which prescribes a specific purpose: the greatest happiness for all. In summary, Bentham’s contention can be satisfied without requiring the adoption of the specific normative guidelines of utilitarianism.

The period extending from the late 19th century to the present day could be described as “the slow death of deontological morality to consequentialism. ” Indeed, changes in the texture of popular philosophical discourse have invariably seeped into the political environment. The Progressive movement of the early 20th century changed the focus in America from political to “economic” freedoms- no longer the right to property, but the right to a decent standard of living. Social revolutions occurred everywhere in the world, to “make the lot better” of struggling groups: the proletariat in Russia, the Aryans in Germany, and the dissatisfied of Cuba. Each year, the most powerful governments of the world shift policy toward socialism and guarantees of results for the citizen, whether it is healthcare, shelter, employment, or social acceptance. Underlying this great movement is a moral righteousness endorsed by consequentialist philosophies which share the general forms of Mill’s Utilitarianism (not his political theory, however), usually with specific collectivist undertones. In any case, these belief systems have been shown, in argument, to be implausible, and even evil; whether they will work out is a question that has been and will be answered in history.


[1] Bruce Hauptli, Lecture Supplement on Mill.

[2] “Consequentialism” is used to represent the idea that the right act is one that produces the best overall state of affairs.

[3] Philippa Foot, in Pojman, 215.

[4] I will use “deontological” chiefly as a contrast to “consequentialist” for the remainder of the paper; “deontological” is meant to include all non-consequentialist theories.

[5] The objection could present a problem for a moral theory which mixes moral obligation between means and ends, but such a theory is already problematic in itself and does not merit discussion.

[6] This is in accordance with “negative responsibility” entailed by consequentialism.

[7] Bernard Williams, in Pojman, 227.

[8] Hauptli, Lecture Supplement on Mill.

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John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism (A critique) (Part 4)

November 5th, 2007 Comments off

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The alterability of the standard moral content of utilitarianism subjects it to the dangers of whim and abuse, which frequently undermine its significance as a theory of how we ought to behave. One need only examine each time historically a “greater good” was invoked in order to mobilize people to commit atrocities (the Holocaust, the Soviet purges, Rwandan genocide, etc. )

The entire discussion prior to this sentence, of course, is mostly an exercise of thought and is not essential; simply put, Mill’s Utilitarianism fails to present a valid justification for the principle of utility in the first place. In fact, it is this failure that indirectly causes the aforementioned difficulties. There is no relationship drawn between the moral theory he advocates and any believable story of human nature. The previously expressed concerns are mostly problems encountered with utilitarian principles as a given, but how these principles were derived in the first place must be addressed. Mill’s bogus proof is the first part of this failure:

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it… this, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good, that each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons.

The equivocation of the word “desirable” in his proof is clear. He intends to argue that people desire happiness, which makes it desirable (i. e. intrinsically good). However, he fails to account for the different senses of the word “desirable. ” His proof could correctly assert that if people desire happiness, it is capable of being desired, but his intended demonstration that happiness is intrinsically worthy of being desired because people desire it is fallacy. By Mill’s logic, one could simply substitute any noun- like “cats”- for “happiness,” and there would be a proof for the intrinsic value of cats! The problem with Mill’s proof is that what people contingently happen to desire does not change what is “desirable” (in the intrinsic sense); just because nobody in the 14th century desired equal recognition of the rights of women does not mean that it is not in fact desirable. [8]

Furthermore, the second part of his proof commits the fallacy of composition. While it is indeed true that the good of one individual contributes to the good of the aggregate of all persons (which is merely a sum total of individual goods), the reverse (that the general happiness is a good to the individual), which is the goal of Mill’s proof, is not true. The aggregate of all persons is not an entity in itself which possesses a good, and any increase in the aggregate of happiness is not necessarily fulfilling the desire for happiness of all its members; it could be fulfilling the desires of one, few, or many. Even supposing the reality of some kind of collective entity, Mill provides no reason why we ought to care for each other’s happiness.

Is there, yet, any defense of utilitarianism which renders it plausible? In the absence of a proof of the principle of utility, Bentham contends that all moral systems reduce to a form of utility, are ambiguous, or cannot be followed consistently.

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John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism (A critique) (Part 3)

November 5th, 2007 Comments off

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The sheer volume of particulars in the world must be considered in every case, as opposed to the fewer particulars that would be necessary in, say, a natural law framework of morality. The conclusion is that the “calculated” utilitarian choice is often wildly divergent from its ideal, morally correct choice. Contrarily, in a natural law theory, someone makes a contract and knows to keep it because, via reason, he has concluded that contracts ought to be kept, and that in this specific situation he knows that it applies (for the obvious reason that he signed his name on a physical contract with another person). In the context of the theory, there is only a miniscule chance that he has made an error in his judgment.

Rule utilitarianism is an attempt at fixing this insurmountable pragmatic challenge, but it only serves to reaffirm, as almost a utilitarian’s admission of guilt, the puzzles encountered in using the greatest happiness principle as a moral guide. Whereas deontological moral theories fix their rules as absolute, rule utilitarianism only provides its laws as “rules of thumb” which supposedly tend to bring about the greatest happiness. For the former, in practice, there is a much higher correspondence between reality and its ideal principles than the latter possesses. Though these tremendous obstacles for the greatest happiness principle do not necessarily refute it, they are evidence for the weakness of utilitarianism as a theory which represents reality.

Supposing that we can accurately calculate the greatest good, what kind of outcomes could we find? Take a society of k agents, whose utility distribution is expressed by (U1, U2, … Uk) and whose total utility is, accordingly, Ut U1 + U2 + … Uk. Compare different distributions: A (10, 10, 10, 10, 10), B (15, 15, 10, 5, 5), and C (20, 15, 5, 5, 6). Holding that any synergistic gains in benefits (elimination of class barriers, social stability, etc. are accounted for, the principle of utility should show moral indifference between A and B (both of sum 50), and ideally choose C (sum 51). Yet C, hypothetically, could possibly be a society of slaves. This does not constitute a logical objection to utilitarianism, and to contend so would be to commit the fallacy of using an external value as a standard of judgment, as I mentioned earlier. However, it is certainly an implication that a utilitarian must acknowledge when advocating this as a moral theory.

In light of this, utilitarian calculus can always be revised appropriately to face any objection or unpleasant reality. Different weights can be placed on certain kinds of suffering or kinds of action to the point that the consequentialist moral structure can be functionally isomorphic with a deontological structure. Though each revision does not make consequentialism void ipso facto, it progressively weakens the significance of using a results-oriented moral theory as an alternative to deontological theories. While Jeremy Bentham accuses moral thinking of being tethered to the notion of usefulness, it is here where the argument can be turned against the utilitarian for attaching itself to some notion of duty.

Rule utilitarianism is one such attempt to correct difficulties by combining consequentialism with a desire to adhere to traditional moral rules (promise-keeping, non-violence, private property, etc. All the utilitarian must do is hold that the pragmatic result of some rule (formerly conceived as a duty in itself) leads to the greatest happiness, or that violation of it leads to the greatest pain. For example, Mill would argue against a hypothetical slave society as posited earlier by saying that no such society could ever exist. At best, this is a very weak method of refutation and the burden of proof is on Mill to either show that the empirical facts strongly affirm the statement, or to allow that such a society is morally acceptable.

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John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism (A critique) (Part 2)

November 5th, 2007 Comments off

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An important observation here is that the actions of other agents are no greater factors in the agent’s decision than anything else, i. e. they are simply part of the environment in which he must bring about the best state of affairs.

In other words, all considerations for an agent’s decision are exogenous: his concern ought to be to take what is given, and to produce the best outcome from it. Suppose a man, a proficient utilitarian named John Stuart, is walking down the street of a very happy society. Along comes a man of great evil who is part of an alliance of reputable wrong-doers, who presents the utilitarian with an ultimatum: “kill yourself, or I will kill ten people very much like you in this very happy society. ” The evil alliance of wrong-doing does, indeed, have a strict policy of honoring its sinister promises when they are made, and has yet to break it. J. S. as a good utilitarian, knows that if he does not kill himself, he will be morally responsible for the deaths of ten very happy people, since he could have prevented it. [6]

Clearly, there is something amiss in this example. A determined utilitarian could say that the evil man is morally blameworthy for presenting J. S. with such a terrible situation, since either outcome (minus one person or minus ten people) reduces the greatest overall happiness. Nonetheless, this does not change the nature of J. S. ’s decision: he must weigh the utilities at hand, which obviously point away from his continued existence, and make the right or wrong choice. The relevant implication is that J. S. as an agent, is alienated from his own person. He is not only responsible for his own actions, but for the actions of others (the evil man and the sinister organization). As Bernard Williams states, consequentialism implies that “from the moral point of view, there is no comprehensible difference which consists just in my bringing about a certain outcome rather than someone else’s producing it. ” Because the focus of utilitarian moral action is to produce a specific end-state for everyone, J. S. (or anyone in his position) must put aside all of his projects (being happy, being a philosopher, being alive) when the ultimatum is issued to him and act as the projects of others demand. [7]

The utilitarian calculus is also the source of much trouble. How practical is it to fully integrate all requisite information (the happiness of all others, the results of an action on it, etc. into a properly weighted scale in order to make the right decision? Mill qualifies this problem by suggesting that it is a problem shared by all moral theories:

There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws by giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances and, under every creed, at the opening thus made, self- deception and dishonest casuistry get in. There exists no moral system under which there do not arise unequivocal cases of conflicting obligation.

This contention does not suffice, however. It is indeed true that all moral theories encounter difficulties, but to invoke that as an absolution of utilitarianism’s difficulties is analogous to telling an upstart typewriter company in the 21st century, “every business has trouble and needs to invest at a loss when it gets started- don’t worry, go ahead and invest. ” Utilitarianism requires a tremendous amount of input in order to properly discover the right decision, across many persons in both the short-run and long-run.

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John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism (A critique)

November 5th, 2007 Comments off

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Utilitarianism is a philosophical epidemic in contemporary social and political dialogue. In one form or another, the notion of a “greater good” above the good of individual agents has taken root in group-centric ideologies. Dictators have invoked it on nationalistic or ethnocentric grounds; leftists have promoted it in the name of “mankind”; even the most individualistic of nations, such as the United States, are overrun by policy concerns for the “national interest. ” Part of its appeal is intuitive: if happiness is good, and we want more of good things, then the greatest happiness is what we ought to look for. This looks decent enough in words, but it is only a connection of similar sounds that holds it together. What is meant by “happiness,” and what is the sense in which it is “good”? To whom does the “greatest happiness” pertain, and why “ought” we to pursue it? Utilitarianism, even in its most “complete” form, fails to address these questions with valid answers. –more–>Overall, utilitarianism is a philosophical mess. Its moral implications are strange; its practice is filled with difficulties and absurdities; and its justification arises from, principally, nowhere. Mill’s treatment of utilitarianism, in particular, is one with egregious flaws. Its essential characteristics can be listed as follows: pleasure (in the non-degrading sense) is all that is intrinsically valuable; each person’s pleasure is valued equally, with allowance for “kind”; an action’s morality is measured by its positive productive correspondence with pleasure (for all); and agents must be disinterested spectators in order to consider their decisions correctly. [1] Problems with utilitarianism can be generally summarized in three, often inter-related, categories: the alienation of agents from themselves, problems of moral calculation, and lack of justification.

The doctrine of consequentialism[2] is the principal cause of bizarre moral demands expressed by utilitarianism. As Philippa Foot notes, there is a very compelling idea behind suggesting that no one would ever consider it morally acceptable to choose a worse state of affairs over a better one. [3] Using that idea as an argument against non-consequentialist theories, however, either begs the question or causes friction with pre-existing, weak intuition, depending on the senses of the words “better” and “worse. ” If they are used normatively, clearly no deontological[4] moral theorist would reject a morally “better” state of affairs (more duties fulfilled) for a “worse” one to do so would be antithetical to having a moral theory in the first place, and thus this case is trivial. [5] If they are used supposing some usage which is non-normative but somehow value-based, then they essentially ignore the moral theory under criticism, instead imposing a standard from a foreign hierarchy of values, i. e. a floating abstraction. For example, one might criticize Ayn Rand’s Objectivism for providing no political guarantee for the care of physically handicapped (beyond protection from coercion), indicating an alleged problem with the consequences of Objectivism. However, Objectivism establishes a direct relationship between its principles (e. g. non-interventionism) and concretes (e. g. nature of reality, nature of humans, validity of the senses, etc. so this criticism merely involves some relativistic view of a “good” state of affairs being used as a standard to judge a reasoned moral theory.

Consequentialism affects the role of the agent in moral decision-making quite severely. Under consequentialist utilitarianism, an action’s morality can be defined thusly: that action is moral which brings about the intrinsically desirable state of affairs. An agent is as much morally responsible for those states which arise from his action as those from his inaction. Therefore, at any given point in time, he must decide which action will produce the proper state from that point forward, regardless of the past.

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