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Utilitarianism Without Data

This interview with Peter Singer highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his brand of utilitarianism. On the strengths side, Singer comes off as both idealistic and pragmatic -- idealistic in setting lofty goals, but pragmatic in encouraging people to make small steps in the here and now. For example, he praises Chipotle for making efforts to improve where they obtain their ingredients, and he notes that even he sometimes eats food that is merely vegetarian (not vegan) while traveling or visiting. Utilitarianism is sometimes criticized for its unattainability -- only a saint could manage to truly maximize happiness all the time, which means everyone else is condemned to be a sinner. This criticism relies on importing into utilitarianism a deontological system in which actions are categorized as either right or wrong (with the occasional addition of a "supererogatory" category). But utilitarianism sees rightness as a scale -- the more net happiness an action leads to, the better it is. This allows Singer to encourage people to move up the scale without condemning them for not reaching the top.

Utilitarianism's greatest weakness is its dependence on empirical data. You can't maximize happiness unless you know how your actions will affect others' happiness. Too often philosophers are like social scientists who don't care about that pesky "data," and Singer is no exception. He became infamous (as opposed to being simply an eccentric vegan) when he proposed euthanizing disabled babies. This claim was based on a valid application of his utilitarian principles to a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the empirical facts about what life as a disabled person is like. He could have saved himself much trouble (albeit losing much opportunity for self-righteousness about the pursuit of supposed truth) had he spent more time listening to disabled people and less time speculating about them.

But it's not as simple as just a lack of empirical data. Singer can do the research when he wants to. For example, in the interview he gives a nuanced assessment of the pros and cons of buying locally grown food, concluding that if you do it right, buying local is good, but if you focus narrowly on localness as the be-all and end-all of your purchasing, you may end up doing more harm. This is based on an actual investiagtion of the energy use and environmental impacts of various food supply systems.

Yet in the last paragraph of the interview, Singer veers back down the road toward his disability mistake. He declares that utilitarians should be concerned about obesity, and revive the moral opprobrium associated with the sin of gluttony. Here he buys into the prevailing social perspective on obesity without bothering to consider how much of it is actually true. Obesity is not, primarily, about eating too much. And even if it was, the prevalence of both fatness and fat-disparagement in our society should be enough to convince any utilitarian that more fat-disparagement is a futile strategy. The ecological damage done by what we eat, and how wastefully we get it to our mouths, dwarfs the damage done by how much we eventually put in our mouths. A real utilitarian would recognize the immense damage done to the happiness of people (including even skinny people) by the prevailing anti-fat ideology and work to combat it, rather than perpetuating the pernicious idea that we can measure people's moral worth by their waistline.

The contrast in Singer's use of empirical data in the cases of food supply chains and animal research, versus his surrender to prejudice when it comes to disability and obesity, is not terribly surprising. In our society people are far more willing to take a humble stance and look at the numbers (indeed, to trust too much in the availability of easy and objective numbers) on environmental and technical topics. Yet when it comes to social issues, hubris kicks in. This is privilege -- to realize you don't know much about the natural world, but assume that you understand, and hence can judge, other people.

Stentor Danielson, 18:15, ,

"Because I Said So"

Here's one from the Emperor Norton school of jurisprudence. William Penn showed up and declared that his son had "king-like" powers, so therefore Thomas Penn did in fact have those powers. When dealing with a manifestly undemocratic regime, the question of substantive justice (in this case, did the Lenape genuinely consent to the terms of the deal) has to take precedence over adherence to the procedures unilaterally announced by one side. I don't know enough about the substantive issue to weigh in on one side or the other, but the court doesn't seem to even be asking the right question.

Stentor Danielson, 02:48, ,


The Cultural Clash Of Johnny Damon

Amanda's mention of Johnny Damon reminds me of a Cultural Theory post I meant to make a while ago. Damon was a central figure in the Boston Red Sox' historic World Series victory a couple years ago, but he then signed with to the Sox' arch-rival, the New York Yankees. His switch has been greeted with great hostility (and the inevitable insulting T-shirts) by Red Sox fans. I think this incident provides a good example of how different cultures depend on each other.

The issue here is the clash between the Egalitarian culture of the fans and the Individualist culture of the teams. Sociologists and anthropologists have long pointed out that the experience of a group of dedicated fans -- even those who are strangers -- watching the game together produces the same kind of experience of shared identity as a religious service. Red Sox fans are an especially Egalitarian bunch, bonded together by the team's long and storied history and the shared oppression of the "curse." Damon's championship team added to the Egalitarianism with its scruffy grooming and declarations that they were just "a bunch of idiots." The key point here about Egalitarianism is its expectation of loyalty. Mmebers of an Egalitarian group -- whether fans or players -- have an obligation to stick with the group and work for the collective good.

But as Egalitarian as many of the fans are, the actual clubs work on an Individualist basis. Players, managers, and owners are all in it for the glory and the paycheck. Damon, or any other player, would feel little compunction about ditching the Sox if another team made him a better offer. When Damon revealed his Individualism, Sox fans -- who expected him to be an Egalitarian -- were outraged.

But for all the anger expressed over Damon's betrayal, in the long run the cultural clash is beneficial to the Egalitarian fan culture. Egalitarians face an important organizational dilemma, as they demand solidarity while refusing to enact coercive rules to enforce it. A key way that they keep the community spirit in place is by pointing to threats and betrayals from outside. A defection like Damon's reinvigorates the Egalitarianism of the fans.

On the other hand, the Individualism of the clubs relies on the Egalitarianism of the fans. From an Individualist point of view, putting so much time and money into watching a game is ridiculous. Luckily for them, Egalitarians have different values, and the community experience of shared fandom adds value to the hats and tickets and so forth that the Individualists are selling.

Stentor Danielson, 22:45, ,

Affect And The Trolley Problem

Crooked Timber points to the latest media discussion of philosophical thought experiments. Such discussions inevitably end up focusing on the classic "trolley problem." In a nutshell, most people would pull a switch to send a runaway trolley down a side track, killing one person to save the five on the main track. But they would not push a fat man* onto the track in such a way that he dies but he stops the trolley from killing the five.

The first response is usually to look for rational justifications for judging the situations differently. Typically these depend on the act-omission distinction. But sooner or later someone will raise the possibility that people aren't obeying the hypothetical. They import details that make the situation more realistic (e.g. by positing that it's uncertain whether the fat man would adequately stop the trolley), or insist on finding a third option ("I'd find something else to throw on the track"). Usually this resistance to the terms of the hypothetical is interpreted as a reaction to how unrealistic the thought experiments are. Real life is complicated enough to at least present the illusion of the possibility of having your cake and eating it too, whereas thought experiments ruthlessly abstract from our experience.

But I think a glance through the risk literature shows that this resistance to accepting the terms of a moral dilemma is not limited to unrealistic hypotheticals. Social psychologists have asked people to rate the risks and benefits of various real activities, from food coloring to flying to nuclear power. And they have found that risk and benefit judgments are strongly negatively correlated -- people believe that an activity with a high risk has few benefits, but one with many benefits has little risk. What's more, presenting information that raises people's opinions of the benefit lowers their opinion of the risk, and vice-versa.

Risk perception researchers explain this with the concept of "affect." Affect is a general positive or negative feeling toward something. People derive their judgments about the details of a thing by choosing those details that will support their affect. So if you have a negative disposition toward nuclear power, you will tend to make your opinion internally consistent by evaluating the risks as high and the benefits as low.

Affect can also be an explanation to resistance to the hypothetical in the case of the trolley problem. People want to think of switching the track or pushing the fat man as either good or bad. But the way the problem is set up, either choice is regrettable, because you have to kill at least one person. Thus people search for a way to reinterpret or stretch the situation such that they have a clear choice. If you assume there's a big rock that can also stop the trolley, there's nothing compromising your feeling that stopping it is a good thing.

*Apparently all ethical philosophers are skinny.

Stentor Danielson, 18:42, ,


What's the dollar value of X?

Both proponents and critics of cost-benefit analysis are on the wrong track when they talk about putting dollar amounts on non-market values. They both ignore the fact that setting dollar values is a learned skill, and one that doesn't translate easily between domains.

Proponents of cost-benefit analysis assume that it's relatively straightforward to convert non-market values into dollars. All you have to do is ask people what they'd pay for it or how much they'd sell it for. Were one to do a willingness-to-pay survey on a market good -- say bread, or cars -- the results would not be so far off the market prices. But that is because people have learned from the market what dollar value to attach to those goods. Long collective experience with bargaining between greedy sellers and stingy buyers in the idiom of money has taught people how to make that conversion.

Opponents of cost-benefit analysis, however, make the opposite mistake. It's common for critics to ask rhetorically what the price of a life or a forest is. The implication is that it's foolish to even think of such things -- the goods in question are intrinsically unable to be expressed in dollars. But in fact the problem is not the intrinsic nonmonetariness of those goods, but rather the lack of a market in them to teach us how to assign prices. Outside the modern west, placing a dollar value on land was/is considered patently impossible. Yet in the modern west, we have a thriving real estate market. Common sense about whether and how a thing can be priced is a remarkably contingent thing.

Note that this is not an argument for marketizing everything. It's dubious whether even the market's prices represent "value" in any sense relevant to the social decisionmaking that cost-benefit analysis is used for. Rather than facile assumptions that everything can be meaningfully priced, or unhelpful declarations that certain values cannot be compared, we need to focus on ways of making an explicit analysis of tradeoffs without recourse to dollar values.

Stentor Danielson, 22:16, ,


Mother Earth

Some environmentalists like to argue that we should imitate certain hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies* in thinking of nature as a parent -- "Mother Earth." But what it means to see nature as Mother Earth depends critically on how we relate to our human elders.

Most modern environmentalists have a sort of "Medicare" version of Mother Earth. She has given us much, but now she is fragile and in need of care. It's our responsibility, as the young and strong children, to nurse her back to health. This, of course, parallels our society's view of our human elderly.

Hunter-gatherers who think of nature as a parent take a very different view. The modern trajectory -- from cared-for child, to independent adult, to care-giver in the parent's old age -- does not characterize hunter-gatherer life. Rather, the original parent-child relationship persists in some form throughout life**. So Mother Nature is like a village elder, taking care of her juniors. The respect shown toward nature is on the model of the gratitude shown to the powerful and benevolent, not on the model of the care given to the fragile and powerless.

* Often they lump all "primitive" groups together, assuming that they all had a similar pro-environment ideology. But there is great diversity in how such peoples conceive of their environment and their relationship to it -- for example, some tribes see it as fearsome, while others expect it to be infinitely resilient.

** Note that saying that someone has not progressed as far in a developmental cycle is not to say that they are doing something wrong. The idea that comparative "immaturity" is automatically a bad thing is part of the anti-youth side of our ageist culture.

Stentor Danielson, 07:51, ,