Monday, September 14, 2009

On Blond Beasts

Richard Layard apparently thinks that there is "no nobler ideal" than crude utilitarianism. Let us do him the charity of assuming that he actually means what he says. Presumably then he thinks it noble to discount the suffering caused by injustices, like say rape, against any pleasures that those who inflict them gain, or that if I could make myself happier by stupifying myself, doing so would be noble. Whatever one might say in favour of crude utilitarianism, the thought that treating all pleasures, regardless of what they are pleasures in, as equally significant would be noble is not usually one of them. Assuming that Richard Layard doesn't actually think that it's better if child molesters enjoy themselves whilst molesting children, perhaps he should leave doing philosophy to philosophers, rather than economists who are apparently neither familiar with the rather long history of philosophical critiques of crude utilitarianism nor capable of understanding the basic implications of positions they advocate.


badconscience said...

I like the counter-example of child molestation in order to defeat Utilitarianism for a number of reasons.

Firstly it can be used as the intellectual staging point for thorough-going critiques:

Let's suppose that (somehow, though nobody knows how) the "utility" experience by the peadophile can be aggregated and calculated, then comensurably compared with the "disutility" of the child.

Then let's further suppose that a caculation can be made between them ( in the world of fantasy we go).

Now let's assume that, overall, utility is best served by allowing the molestation to continue. And let's further assume that there is some fundamental reason why that fact means the correct thing to do is to allow the molestation...even though no utilitarian has ever been able to offer an explanation as to why utilitarianism and not the law of the jungle is the correct moral theory at root.

But given all of that, we can still as: what's wrong with this outcome, namely allowing a child to be molested because that's what "maximised utility"?

We could go down the technical route: it disregards the suffering of the child as something that matters in itself and not simply something which contributes to a calculation, for a start.

Furthermore, there seems to be something very worrying about an ethical decision-making process that takes something as complex and emotionally/socially/mentally horrific as child molestation and thinks it fitting to reduce it to a calculation of utilities. This applies even if the calculation is simply done in principle, because the utilitarians say that via rules of thumb (or some other fudge) they just know that molestation won't maximuse utility. They still have to concede that, in principle, the entire debacle is amenable to a utility calculation...which looks like a worryingly narrow take on human moral interactions, especially given that the child's suffering loses value in itself, and counts only insofar as it is part of the mythical calculation.

But then, the molestation example is a powerful one because we don't even really need to go the technical route and lumber through those well-trodden maneouvres.

We can just remember Bernard Williams' dictum: "the only thing required to resist utilitarianism is a sufficient willingness not to be bullied".

And here we have a case in point: with the molestation example, we say to the utilitarian: your moral system is profoundly messed-up because it cannot recognise the depths of human morality that this example throws up, and (in principle) would condone the molestation of children based on a mythical calculation, should the sums come out that way. That's an unacceptable possibility for the morally well-atuned. Now sodd off, I refuse to be bullied by you (you frickin' sociopath).

ian said...

"Assuming that Richard Layard doesn't actually think that it's better if child molesters enjoy themselves whilst molesting children..."

Levelling down is, like, so full of fail.

Rob Jubb said...

Insofar as levelling down is FAIL, it is full of FAIL where it involves levelling down of a morally relevant good. I deny that happiness and certainly the happiness of paedophiles produced by paedophilia is a morally relevant good.

Insofar as utilitarian bullying goes, the weak point really is the pleasure-pain criterion I think. Impartial maximization is more difficult to resist, although I think it should be.

badconscience said...

"Insofar as utilitarian bullying goes, the weak point really is the pleasure-pain criterion I think."

But that can't be right, because nobody since Sidgwick has defended the pleasure-plain criterion.

Modern utilitarians are all "preference" utilitarians or some other such fudge. Much of this was done to get away from the pleasure/pain criterion which, amongst other things, was implausible and rested upon a crap psychology of mind that nobody could take seriously.

Utilitarianism is weak on a number of core points, but the commensuration and calculation ones aren't the weakest: integrity issues*, inability to appreciate intrinsic value, and complete lack of underpinning secondary/meta moral arguments for why utilitarianism and not any other moral theory (the Paul Sagar Gets Whatever He Wants moral theory, for example) are what really bring it down.

* cf Rawls in Theory of Justice, incidentally: a key complaint Rawls has about Utilitarianism is, essentially, that it does not respect the value of persons and will sacrifice them in the great calculation. Justice as Fairness explicitly rejects this, e.g. by making the difference principle lexically secondary to the principle of equal compatible liberty for all, which is a way (amongst others) of enshrining the principle that people matter as people and have irreducible value in themselves, and cannot be reduced to mere calculations and in turn used as mere means towards ends (i.e. here the Kantian aspect of Rawls' thought is spot-on, though IMO for maybe the wrong reasons at root). Right?

Rob Jubb said...

Well, I seem to remember J. C. Smart defending a pleasure/pain criterion in that book with Bernard Williams, but that might be wrong, and it's certainly broadly right that people don't defend the pleasure/pain criterion for exactly the reasons I gave in the post. So fair enough on that, although I'm not sure that a shift to preferences really does them any good; why should we care about the satisfaction of preferences to torture or rape, for example? But I don't think it's a problem about commensuration or calculation. We don't even need to go as far as wondering how to balance certain pleasures or pains against each other: some of them just shouldn't be counted at all. Although you're right about what Rawls says, I suspect that there are things wrong with utilitarianism separately from ignoring the boundaries between persons - it's not, as he says, an appropriate way to live a single life (if not banal).

badconscience said...

"We don't even need to go as far as wondering how to balance certain pleasures or pains against each other: some of them just shouldn't be counted at all."

Hmm, but the sincere utilitarian will claim that you are simply begging the question against her.

You need to do more work than that...

Rob Jubb said...

I don't think I do. Utilitarians make a general claim about the value of pleasure and pain/preference satisfaction/whatever. I think of a counter-example to that general claim. I can't see why that is problematic question-begging; it's one of the fairly familiar ways that philosophy works. Of course sincere utilitarians may think that that's not enough, but so much the worse for them.

badconscience said...

Well, maybe.

But surely if they are sincere utilitarians, it's rather rude of you to just say "so much the worse for you, unable to see the truth, fools!"

Seems to me that the right thing to do is point out that they are begging the question in the first place, and that's what you are objecting to...rather than just dismissing them.

But again, that requires a bit of argument, not just out-of-hand dismissal


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