A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.


24 February 2018 9:39 PM (musing)

Frances Kamm, one of the more respected voices of deontology, once commented that while Peter Singer's claim that letting people die is the same as killing them suggests that everyone ought to give much of their money to charity (Singer agrees), few people actually do so. Therefore, there is either something wrong with his ethics or with his followers.

First…I wonder if Professor Kamm actually took the time to observe many of Singer's followers. Between PETA and The Life You Can Save (and the larger Effective Altruism movement), his ideas have lead directly to more concrete action than any living ethicist. But! More of them could take action and all of them could do more. Let's grant the dilemma as stated. In that case, there's something wrong with his followers. None of them come close to completely fulfilling their self-imposed moral duties.

Am I supposed to be bothered by this? Being completely moral is hard, outright impossible, for any kind of morality worth having. This is one thing the early Christians got right. They were called to give all their money to the poor, care for the sick, and be gentle and unfailingly compassionate. This is psychologically easier if you think the world is going to end Real Soon Now and you haven't had two thousand years of Real Soon Now to wear down the idea, but even then there was recognition that this demand was hard. The demands of utilitarianism are even harder, because you are called to perfect the world. There is no list of commands you could check off one by one.

Humans are lazy and selfish. Humans have lots of desires and the idea of never being able to have some pleasure for the rest of ones life, even something as trivial as a favorite cookie, throws them into a panic. I don't know how you could examine humanity without noticing that there's something wrong with all of them. There is none righteous, no not one, but it doesn't matter particularly. The punishment for failing to perfect the world is…living in an imperfect world, and I'd rather people take an expansive view of their obligations and fail to completely fulfill it than take a modest command mostly derived from the status quo that they enact perfectly.

This is one of main reasons I am a utilitarian. Kamm claims that her ethics is conservative, that it serves to clarify and encode common moral practice and intuition. I don't see the point of a conservative theory of ethics. If I wanted to follow the intuitions and social norms of present society, I could do that perfectly well without codifying it.

Immanuel Kant set out to discover the fundamental truth of ethics and found that, surprisingly, almost everything widely regarded as wrong when he was alive was wrong and that capital punishment for murder was obligatory. I find an honest enjoyment in these kinds of systems, the same sort one gets from Scholastic theology, but it's not clear that Kant's results are really good for anything.

Contrast this with Jeremy Bentham, whose thought was, from the start, not conservative. Following the basic utilitarian principle of maximum happiness lead him to, in the 1700s, argue for the tolerance of homosexuality, liberalization of marriage, the right of divorce, female suffrage and legal equality, consideration for the welfare of animals, and a rejection of retributive justice.

Bentham was no more perfect or all-knowing than any other human. His writings mentioning the terrible harm to mental and physical health done by the scourge of masturbation are ridiculous to us today. Utilitarians can, and do, argue for terrible actions. Bentham's student, John Stuart Mill, defended the barbarity of colonialism. utilitarianism is a also uniquely good framework for having such arguments, as it brings them into the real world of concrete effects and personal well-being. Others can and did counter Mill with appeals to history, factual accounts of empire, and the experience of subject peoples.

Utilitarians have not only pre-figured the morality of the future, but shaped it. Peter Singer is often credited with creating the modern animal rights movement, championing the right to die, and convincing many people to give large portions of their income away to help those in need. Brian Tomasik is a negative utilitarian (I am not) and focuses on reducing suffering rather than increasing happiness. I do not agree with him on all issues, but I admire the work he does in trying to find neglected facets of the world to consider. The problem of wild-animal suffering is unfortunately very real, and while some of his notions seem fanciful to me, trying to develop formal accounts of what it means to suffer is important in an age where we are developing ever more complex homeostatic systems.

Put another way, even if I don't agree with everything my fellow utilitarians say (particularly the negative utilitarians), they seem to be the only ones pursuing practical ethics in anything like a meaningful way. This comes down to the question of why one should even bother having an ethical in the first place. There is no absolute, objective right and wrong in the world, so why make one up? For my answer, I view the entire world as mine and every one in it as mine. I want to work toward making my world better in some way. I despise suffering. I curse it. I spit at and defy it. I don't want it anywhere near my people. I think a world with nobody to appreciate it as beautiful or understand it is tragic. So a system that makes ‘What makes the world good and how can we make it more good?’ with a notion of ‘good worlds’ that fits my desires for happy people and beautify and understanding and driving misery into oblivion is a natural match. It's something I can cooperate with other people on, since other people either have similar desires for what the world should be or close enough ones that there's a lot of overlap.

This is one reason I don't worry much about mere addition and other problems of the precise formulation of the felicific calculus. I'd certainly like a robust treatment of population ethics, but present environmental and technological realities make vastly multiplying the population a bad thing, since people would end up in terrible poverty, and creating a sustainable world for many future generations to enjoy requires limiting the size of present generations. The problem does not affect any current decisions and I am not claiming to find The Truth, but to hold an idea for guiding thoughts of what the world could be.

In many cases, I can see the appeal of a systems I don't agree with. I can understand the appeal in Virtue Ethics as asking the question ‘What is the kind of me that I want to create?” and then setting about to create it.

Trying to be charitable about it, deontological systems seem to be based around assigning some property to people: Inviolability, Respect, Self Determination, what have you, and deciding that a world where people have that property is better than one where they don't. So they try to act that property into existence by refusing to violate it. On the one hand, I'm not sure why a world where everyone is inviolate is supposed to be better than a world where everyone is happy. On the other hand, I honestly have a problem with agent-relative formulations. If I cared about inviolability to the excuse of everything else, I would prefer to violate someone than allow three people to be violated, but most deontologies make moral obligations and failures personal in a way that doesn't make sense to me. On the third hand, I have a suspicion that this isn't entirely what's going on, since their reaction when they come to a surprising result is that something must be wrong.

Fundamentally, I don't see much point in conservative ethical systems. If people like Kamm and Dworkin and Sandel discovered some surprising new ethical obligation or otherwise suggested a gradient for development and advocated pursuing it, I might feel more positively about their projects.

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