Chris Bertram’s recent post on responsibility got me started on what I plan to be the final instalment of my attempts to analyse the ethical justification for war. Comments much appreciated.
Chris Bertram’s recent post on responsibility got me started on what I plan to be the final instalment of my attempts to analyse the ethical justification for war. Comments much appreciated.
Continuing on a European theme, and on recycled debates, the hardy perennial issue of Heidegger and the Nazis has re-emerged.
Back in the Pleistocene era of Australian blogging (2002), there were some interesting discussions of how we should react to the political mistakes and crimes of philosophers. Examples included Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism, Hayek’s support for Pinochet and Sartre’s adherence to the Stalinist French Communist Party . Don Arthur (site long gone, alas), Tim Dunlop (can’t find a link, but maybe still in the archives), Jason Soon and Ken Parish all had some interesting things to say.
Most contributors to the debate were more willing than I was to separate thought and action. I donâ€™t think the idea that the arguments of a political theorist or philosopher can be treated in isolation from their life and work as a whole is, in general, sustainable. There are exceptions to this: a philosopher might collaborate with a dictatorial regime out of fear or ambition, even though this was the opposite of the course of action implied by their philosophical views. But that doesn’t appear to be the situation in any of the cases I’ve mentioned.
Much closer to the centre of the action, controversy over Heidegger has been reignited by the publication of Emmanuel Faye’s Heidegger, l’introduction du nazisme dans la philosophie, which also includes an attack on Carl Schmitt, another thinker associated with the Nazis but now popular on the left (Mark Bahnisch gives some background here). Not surprisingly, Faye’s book has produced a reaction, in the classic form of a manifesto (in 13 languages!). The manifesto announces this site, with many contributions (all in French), , with lots of references to to rprevious contributions to the debate, but without a systematic organisation, which makes it all a bit hard to follow. Some of the arguments focus on the details of the historical evidence, and others on the more general question of whether this kind of attack is legitimate.
I haven’t read Faye, and it sounds as if he pushes his case too far, but I’m not ready to acquit Heidegger of collaboration with the Nazis or to conclude that his philosophical views are untainted by his own apparent interpretation of them as a guide to action. Comments appreciated.
Slate runs a good debunking of romantic popular misinterpetations of Godel’s theorem. Key quote
The precise mathematical formulation that is Gödel’s theorem doesn’t really say “there are true things which cannot be proved” any more than Einstein’s theory means “everything is relative, dude, it just depends on your point of view.”
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen dubious appeals to intuition or claims about chaos theory and the like supported with reference to Godel’s theorem, but I have derived the following proposition:
Quiggin’s metatheorem: Any interesting conclusion derived with reference to Godel’s theorem is unfounded.
Feel free to evaluate with reference to the post title.
Thanks to Bruce Littleboy for pointing me to this complete translation of Hayek’s 1981 interview with the (pro-Pinochet Chilean) newspaper El Mercurio in which he stated
Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic
government lacking liberalism.
As the interview makes clear, Hayek supports the Pinochet dictatorship, on the assumption (correct in the end) that it would eventually give way to a more liberal regime. Of course, many supporters of dictators make this assumption and all dictatorships, like all governments, pass away sooner or later.
Plenty of people have made worse political mistakes than backing Pinochet, most obviously those sections of the left who supported Stalin, Mao and their lesser accomplices. Still, the fact that both the Mont Pelerin society and leaders of the free-market right like Thatcher and Reagan gave their enthusiastic support to this mass murderer should be remembered when they, and their followers, try to claim the moral high ground as against the moderate left.
There’s a new version of the MT Blacklist program out, fixing a critical error in which deleting one weblog could cause you to lose another. Users of MT & Blacklist will be pleased to know that, in the process of fighting off comment spammers and abusive morons, your intrepid host discovered this critical error the hard way. Jason Hoffman at Textdrive not only saved my bacon with a near-perfect backup file, but reported the bug which Jay Allen has now fixed. I think the grip of the law is gradually tightening on comment spammers, but no doubt they’ll be with us for some time, and morons will be with us always.
A while ago, I looked at the ticking bomb problem and concluded that, whatever the morality of using torture to extract life-saving information in emergencies, anyone who did this was morally obliged to turn themselves in and accept the resulting legal punishment. Reader Karl Heinz Ranitzsch has pointed me to a real-life case, reported by Mrs Tilton at Fistful of Euros. The case involved a threat of torture, rather than actual torture, and the deputy police commissioner involved was convicted and fined. Without detailed knowledge of the circumstances, I tend to agree with Mrs T that this was about the right outcome.
While we’re on the interface between religion and politics, here are a couple of questions I’ve been wondering about for a while.
The first one relates to my memories of the late 1960s, when most people of my acquaintance gave at least some credence to the belief that there would be a revolution of some kind, sometime soon. At about the same time, I encountered the Revelation-based eschatology of people like Hal Lindsey. Thirty years later, there’s been no revolution, and I don’t know of anyone who seriously expects one. As I recollect, belief in the possibility of a revolution had pretty much disappeared by 1980.
Revelation-based prophecies have similarly failed time after time, but they seem to be more popular than ever. What is about apocalyptic Christianity as a belief system that protects it from empirical refutation? I assume there’s heaps of research on this kind of thing, but I hope to get readers to point me to the good stuff.
The second point is that, as can be seen from Lindsey’s site, he and other apocalyptic Christians have strong political views, which could broadly be summarised as favouring a vigorous military response to Antichrist (variously identified with the Soviet Union, the UN and so on). How does this work? Do they think that another six armoured divisions could turn the tide at Armageddon? If so, wouldn’t this prevent the arrival of the Millennium and the Day of Judgement?
And how does all this affect believers in rapture? Do they install automatic watering systems for their gardens and arrange for unsaved neighbours to feed the cat? Or do they just pay into their IRAs as if they expect the world to last forever?
fn1. There’s a genre of horror movies (The Omen, The Final Conflict and so on) that takes pretty much this premise.
Here’s a guest post from regular commenter Brian Bahnisch, on the philosophy behind our stance on asylum seekers. It raises some important (though not entirely new) questions about the adequacy of utilitarianism in contexts like this.
According to this report, Louis De Branges claims to have proved the Riemann Hypothesis. If correct, it’s very significant – much more so than the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by Wiles.
It is also, I think, the last of the big and well-known unsolved problems in mathematics, and its nice to see the search ending in success. Some of the other big problems have been closed, rather than solved. The classic problems of the Greeks such as squaring the circle were shown to be insoluble in the 19th century, and the Hilbert program of formalisation was shown by Godel to be infeasible. And the four-colour problem (not a really important problem, but a big one because it was easily described, interesting and very tough) was dealt with by a brute-force computer enumeration.
Almost instant update Commenter Eric points to Mathworld which says “Much ado about nothing”. On the other hand, the same page reports a proof of the infinitude of twin primes which has been an open question for a long time, though not a problem in the same league as those mentioned above.
Following up my three-way classification of paradoxes, I want to argue that paradoxes involving infinity are always of type-3, that is, the result of ill-posed problems or inappropriate ways of taking limits. (Much the same position is defended in the comments thread by Bill Carone). In fact, I’d argue for the following general principle, applicable to all models relevant to human decisionmakers.
Whenever a result, true for all finite n, is strictly reversed for the infinite case, the problem in question has been posed incorrectly
To defend this, I rely on the premise that we are finite creatures in a finite universe. If a mathematical representation of a decision problem involves an infinite set, such as the integers or the real line, it is only because this is more convenient than employing finite, but very large bounds, such as those derived from the number of particles in the universe. Any property that depends inherently on infinite sets and limits, such as the continuity of a function, can never be verified or falsified by empirical data. Since we are finite, any result that is true for all finite n is true for us.
Suppose you have encountered Zeno’s Achilles paradoxfor the first time. Zeno offers a rigorous (looking) proof that, having once given the tortoise a head start, Achilles can never overtake it. Would you regard this as
# A startling new discovery in athletics;
# A demonstration of the transcendent capacity of the human spirit – although the laws of logic forbid it, Achilles does in fact catch and overtake the tortoise; or
# A warning about how not to take limits?
Via Juan at Philosophy617 (who doesn’t think much of the proffered solutions, and probably won’t like this one) I came back to this version of the two-envelope problem put forward by Brian over at Crooked Timber last year.
In this case, once you observe that Brian’s angel is giving you faulty theology, it’s easy to show that you should reject his mathematics, and his offer. At the end of the problem, the angel says “It’s purgatory,” says the angel, “take all the time you want.” But the whole point of Purgatory is that it’s finite – you purge off your sins one at a time until they’re all paid off. Since we now have a finite problem, the solution is straightforward.
Is Costello’s budget good or bad for Australian democracy? I’ve been critical of the exceptional reliance on lumpsum payments, which certainly looks like bribery. But this is a presentational trick Australians ought to be able to see through (if not, the adage about getting the government you deserve applies). Leaving this trick aside the Budget is clearly based on the premises that:
* what people need is money in their pockets rather than better publicly-funded health and education
* we need to redistribute income towards households with children and away from those without
* at least for households without children, tax cuts for ‘middle-income earners’ (that is, everyone with incomes over $50 000) are more important than for those with incomes less than $50 000.
Labor will presumably accept the second of these premises, and merely argue that it could do a better job of implementation. But that leaves plenty of room for disagreement on the first and third points. So, if Labor takes up the challenge, we might for once be faced with a real choice, something we haven’t really had for many years. I’ll post on what some elements of that strategy should be in the near future.
fn1. As the scare quotes around ‘middle-income earners’ indicate, only around 20 per cent of all income-earners make this much money. And to get the full benefit of the tax cuts, you’ll need an income of at least 70 000 in 2005.
fn2. Neither Beazley in 1998 and 2001, nor Howard in 1996 nor Peacock in 1990 offered positive alternative to the government. Hewson certainly put up a radical strategy in 1993, but his radicalism consisted largely in being more Keatingesque than Keating.
In response to the exposure of widespread torture of Coalition prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere, it’s inevitable that the “ticking bomb” problem should be raised. As Harry Clarke asks in the comments to this thread
‘You hold a terrorist who knows the location of a defusable bomb which, if exploded, will kill x million people. Do you have the right to torture him/her to find the bomb?’
Instead of offering an answer to this question, I’m going to look at a question that follows immediately, but doesn’t seem to have been asked. Suppose that you have used torture to extract information from a prisoner in the belief (correct or not) that doing so was justified by a “ticking bomb” situation. What should you do next?
My answer is that you should turn yourself in, and plead guilty to the relevant criminal charges. I think this answer can be defended from a wide variety of perspectives, but I’ll take an intuitive one first. If the situation is grave enough to warrant resort to torture, it’s certainly grave enough to justify losing your job and going to jail.
In consequentialist terms, it’s desirable in general that laws against torture should be obeyed. Since few people will want to follow your example (particularly if they can’t plead a ticking bomb in mitigation) your action in such a case will undermine the law less than if you committed torture and got away with it. Other theories will, I think, give the same answer.
Turning from individual ethics to law and public policy what this means is that laws against torture should be enforced in all cases. A plea in mitigation might be considered in cases like the one described above – an urgent and immediate danger, followed by a voluntary confession. In any case where a confession is not made, no claims about mitigating circumstances should be admitted.
Since, to my knowledge, no torturer has ever made an immediate and voluntary confession, the practical impact is that the ticking bomb scenario should be disregarded in any consideration of the legal and political response to torture.
I’ve been meaning to post more on the situation on Iraq, but the complexity of the issues, and the rapid alternation of good, bad and ambiguous news makes things difficult. I’ve decided the best way to deal with things is to start with the big picture, and work down. At this stage, I don’t see any reason to change the prediction I made last November that the most plausible stable outcome in Iraq is, in fact if not in name, a two-state solution, with an Islamist Shiite majority government for Iraq as a whole, and the Kurds maintaining effective autonomy in the areas they already control. The recently-announced constitution contains various measures that are supposed to constrain this, but it’s already clear that they will be ineffectual. The Shiite leaders, most notably Sistani, have already stated that a document drawn up by an unelected council can’t constrain a democratically elected government. In any case, as long as they don’t challenge the regional autonomy of the Kurds, the Shiites will have all the votes they need to make the changes they want, particularly an enhancement of the role of Islam and the removal of requirements for power-sharing at the national level.
A second problem, pointed out by Alan at Southerly Buster is the attempt in Article 59 to maintain US military control until a permanent constitution is ratified, and a government elected pursuant to that constitution. This is the same kind of thinking that brought us the proposed regional caucuses. Faced with an elected government demanding the repudiation of this article, what are the Americans going to do? The article will fail in its intended purpose, but may cause a lot of trouble in the meantime. I predicted such an attempt, and its failure when I looked at the situation some months ago , and I see no reason to change this view now.
Despite these difficulties, and the still-real risk that the situation will collapse into civil war once it becomes clear that the historically-dominant Sunnis have been demoted to, at best, a subaltern role, I think the odds are in favour of a reasonably stable outcome.
Does this mean the war was justified? To answer this question, we need to ask two others: Compared to what? and Justified for whom?
Howard’s sudden announcement of a proposal that the Commonwealth should take over the hospital system may be the result of desperation for a “Big Idea”, as some say. Still, since I have long advocated this idea myself (see the AFR article below), I’m happy to endorse it. The mixture of state and commonwealth funding for health is a recipe for cost-shifting and administrative duplication. If the Commonwealth took over health completely, and somehow managed to hand the GST properly to the states, it would also largely resolve the problem of vertical fiscal imbalance.
While we’ re in the business of tidying up spheres of responsibilities, I’d suggest getting the states out of the university and TAFE sectors (although they get almost no state funding, most universities operate under state acts of Parliament) and the Commonwealth out of school funding.
Update: It appears that I overstated the definiteness of this proposal. Here’s a semi-denial from Howard. In the current quasi-campaign environment, it’s increasingly hard to tell what’s policy and what’s not.
I thought I’d said my last word on voting systems, but it’s a topic that’s hard to exhaust. The comments thread to Brian’s latest post raised the notion of Approval voting in which you cast a vote for all candidates of whom you approve, the candidate with the largest number of votes being elected. I suggested that “the appeal of approval voting is mainly to people who can see the inadequacies of plurality (first past the post) but are worried about the supposed complexity of preferential” and the site linked above, with its frequent references to simplicity, supports this view.
I now want to make a stronger point. Approval voting is, for nearly all purposes, dominated by the “optional preferential” system, in which voters can list in order all the candidates whom they wish to give any support, leaving the remaining candidates unranked. In effect, optional preferential is an approval voting version of the preferential system, with the desirable property that voters don’t have to give any support to candidates they dislike. Given the data from on optional preferential ballot, it would always be possible to implement approval voting by disregarding the rankings given by voters, but its hard to see when this could ever be desirable.
Brad de Long picks up my post on opportunities and outcomes in which I argued that the achievement of meaningful equality of opportunity in a society with highly unequal outcomes would require extensive government intervention to prevent the development of inherited inequality, and says that I’m falling into Irving Kristol’s trap, which he describes, accurately enough, as
an ideological police action designed to erase the distinction between Arthur Okun and Mao Zedong, and delegitimize the American left.
I agree that many people, particularly critics of social democracy like Kristol ,use the outcome/opportunity distinction in a dishonest way. This is particularly true in the American context, since anyone honestly concerned with the issue would have to begin with the observation that the United States performs just as badly on equality of opportunity (as measured by things like social mobility) as it does on equality of outcome (see the book by Goodin et al, reviewed here for one of many demonstrations of this). So if Kristol were genuinely concerned about equality of opportunity he’d be calling for at least as much intervention as the liberals and progressives he’s criticising.
On the other hand, there is a genuine debate within the social democratic/socialist movement which I was addressing. On the basis of fairly limited knowledge, I identified Blair and Brown as proponents of equality of opportunity and outcomes respectively. In a long comments thread, no-one picked me up on this point, so maybe my judgement on this was accurate. My comments were addressed to the fairly large group of social democrats who genuinely think that, as long as you equalise opportunity, for example by providing good-quality schools for all, it’s not a problem if income inequality increases. To restate my point, that might be true for one generation, but in the second generation the rich parents will be looking to buy a headstart for their less-able children, for example by sending them to private schools where they will be coached in examination skills and equipped with an old school tie. Given highly unequal outcomes in the previous generation, it’s much harder to prevent the inheritance of inequality, and the achievement of equality of opportunity requires more, and more drastic, intervention rather than less.
In the real world, no-one advocates either perfect equality of outcomes or perfect equality of opportunity. My point is that, in the same real world, these two are complements, not substitutes. The more progress you make on equalising outcomes in one generation, the easier it is to equalise opportunities in the next. I don’t expect Irving Kristol to embrace this insight with hosannas, but then it’s a long time since I expected anything positive from Irving Kristol.
fn1. I’ll post more on this distinction soon, I hope.
Leafing idly through Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I came across this interesting quote (p 683 in the Unwin paperback edition)
Kant gives as an illustration of the categorical imperative that it is wrong to borrow money, because if we all try to do so there would be no money left to borrow
Russell seems to see nothing wrong with this, but it is obvious that the same argument applies to trade of any kind. If I engage in trade, I must be a net buyer of something, say bread. But if everyone tried to be a net buyer of bread, there would be none left. Hence the categorical imperative requires everyone to be self-sufficient.
I assume this constitutes a reductio ad absurdam for Kant’s argument against borrowing. But is it possible to reject the argument against borrowing while accepting the categorical imperative from which it is derived? Any Kantians among the readers of this blog are invited to set me straight on this point.
Update In the comments thread, James Farrell points out that, contrary to the quote from Russell, Kant was talking about borrowing money without the intention of repaying it.
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Andrew Norton responds to my brief post on neoliberalism and free speech, joining a longstanding debate I’ve had with his Catallaxy colleague Jason Soon, in which I’ve criticised neoliberals, and particularly Hayek, for a lack of commitment to free speech. A few of my posts are here, here and here (if you want the comments threads you’ll need to go through the archives of the old Blogspot site). Here’s one of Jason’s responses.
I’ll say more on this soon, but before the brickbats start flying, I thought I’d throw a bouquet. Norton’s post mentioned that he’d written on political correctness and I found this piece, in what appears to be a preblog precursor of Catallaxy, in the old Geocities domain. Given that, as he says, Norton shares many of the views of the anti-PC brigade on political issues, his rejection of the anti-PC line shows a robust commitment to free speech.
Catallaxy Blogger Andrew Norton has an article in the Oz arguing, among other things that labels like “neoconservative” aren’t really applicable in Australia. In general, the piece is both informative and accurate.
There is, however, one characteristic error. Norton suggests the use of
liberalism or classical liberalism to describe the free marketers who, in the old line, want to keep the government out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom.
This definition omits the crucial preoccupation of classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, freedom of political speech and thought. The problem is illustrated by, say, Jeff Kennett, who fits Norton’s definition perfectly, but would certainly not have been recognised as a liberal by Mill in view of his sustained, and largely successful, efforts to intimidate and silence his critics. A lack of concern with freedom of speech and political thought is the main distinguishing feature of neoliberals, as compared to classical liberals.
Jason Soon has settled down in London and written a long response to my post on libertarianism. I agree with his conclusion that
the non-purist libertarians can be seen simply as a species of utilitarians/consequentialist who have arrived at different results from their fellow utilitarians/consequentialists who end up as left-liberals or social democrats because of different interpretation of history/policy/economic paradigms.
and I didn’t intend to say anything inconsistent with this. My point, perhaps not stated clearly enough, was that acceptance of the liberal/consequentialist position of say JS Mill doesn’t imply a conclusion one way or the other on free markets vs social democracy, and Jason clearly agrees with this.
It’s clear from reading our blogs that, even though our views on policy issues are usually different, Jason and I are working within a common philosophical framework, and can therefore engag with each other’s arguments. By contrast, as I said in my critique, I find the claims of ‘purist’ libertarians to be fundamentally incoherent. And conversely, although I often agree with the postmodernist left on specific issues, I find it difficult to engage in any sort of debate in this framework.
There’s a bit more on libertarianism, from a newish member of the ubersportingpunditempire, Objectivist John McVey.
With the exception of Chris Bertram, participants on all sides of the debate over libertarianism kicked off by Ken Parish seem to regard refuting Robert Nozick as being a bit of a cheap shot. As Perry de Havillard says in Brian Weatherson’s comments thread
Nozickâs are the weakest arguments for the whole libertarian edifice so donât congratulate yourself all too much on hitting such a large slow moving target.
So I think this is a good time to move on to more serious objections to libertarianism.
Ken Parish links to various critiques of Nozick’s arguments in support of libertarianism. Broadly speaking, Nozick claims that libertarianism is right not because it produces good outcomes (he doesn’t argue one way of the other on this) but because a requirement for just process implies that property rights should be inviolable. Nozick’s position has been criticized in various ways, often focusing on the fact that he never specifies a just starting point. I want to present a different argument: that given any plausible starting point, Nozick’s approach leads to the conclusion that the status quo, including taxes, regulations and other government interventions is just. I illustrate this point with a story.
Brian Weatherson links to a paper he’s written with the title ‘ imaginative resistance”. It’s about the fact that, whereas it’s easy to imagine fictional events, people and so on, or to imagine real people and things having properties different from those they actually have, it’s very hard to imagine things as morally right if we believe them to be morally wrong.
It seems to me that there’s an ambiguity here and that it’s precisely this ambiguity that is being used in the majority of the fictional examples that are presented as arguments against consequentialism (and, in particular, utilitarianism). The way these examples work is that we are asked to imagine a situation in which a given action has good consequences (when we know that, in reality it has bad consequences). Since this kind of factual shift seems like what we normally do in fiction, it’s assumed [falsely, I claim] that we can do this without damaging our capacity to reason intuitively. But now, it’s pointed out, acceptance of consequentialism would imply that the action is good, when our intuition tells us it’s bad. Hence, consequentialism must be wrong.
All of this is telling us more about the limits of intuitive moral reasoning than about the reasonableness or otherwise of consequentialism.
Jason Soon alerted me to this obituary for Sir Bernard Williams in which he is said to have refuted utilitarianism, or rather consequentialism, with arguments such as the following
Williams pointed out, a very quick way to stop people from parking on double yellow lines in London would be to threaten to shoot anyone that did. If only a couple of people were shot for this, it could be justified on a simple Utilitarian model, since it would promote happiness for the majority of Londoners.
I guess one shouldn’t try to refute an obituary, but it’s better for an intellectual to be criticised than ignored, so I will respond with the observation that I hope this wasn’t really one of Williams’ strongest criticisms of utilitarianism. Does anyone really think such a policy would actually work in the way claimed?
I mentioned recently the gratuitously violent nature of lots of philosophical examples. Here’s another one quoted by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and also alluded to by Eric Tam in his criticism of one of my earlier posts
Another problem for utilitarianism is that it seems to overlook justice and rights. One common illustration is called Transplant. Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while killing the “donor”. There is no other way to save any of the other five patients (Foot 1966, Thomson 1976; compare related cases in Carritt 1947 and McCloskey 1965).
We need to add that the organ recipients will emerge healthy, the source of the organs will remain secret, the doctor won’t be caught or punished for cutting up the “donor”, and the doctor knows all of this to a high degree of probability (despite the fact that many others will help in the operation). Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the “donor” will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life. If so, then classical utilitarianism implies that it would not be morally wrong for the doctor to perform the transplant and even that it would be morally wrong for the doctor not to perform the transplant. Most people find this result abominable. They take this example to show how bad it can be when utilitarians overlook individual rights, such as the unwilling donor’s right to life.
I don’t know if it’s been pointed out before, but this example doesn’t work as claimed. The proposal of killing the test patient is dominated by the following alternative: With the agreement of the five needy recipients, draw lots. The unlucky one is cut up (but of course, they would have died anyway) and their healthy organs are transplanted into the others. The number of lives saved is the same as in the proposed case, no rights are violated, it’s a Pareto-improvement on the status quo ante and so on. We even save one transplant operation relative to the proposal.
Of course, you can impose some sort of ad hoc assumption to rule this out, but this just points up the other flaws of this example.
One of the big questions in the debate over economic growth is whether it enhances human happiness. One of the sources of information commonly used in this debate is derived from answers to questions of the general form ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?’. This and similar questions have been asked in many countries and over a period of some decades. The ‘stylised facts’ (this is economists’ jargon for the generally accepted summary that characterised the data) are that at any given time and place, people with high incomes are, on average, happier than those with low incomes, but that there’s not much difference between poor countries and rich ones and no significant trend in happiness levels over time.
This evidence has been used to support two kinds of claims
(i) Growth in economic output has been offset by losses in other, equally important sources of happiness such as clean environments or social cohesion
(ii) People’s happiness is primarily determined by their relative position rather than by absolute levels of consumption
I don’t want to debate the merits of these claims right now, but to point out that data of the kind I’ve described is of no use in assessing them. Starting with the second claim, some sort of relative assessment is forced on respondents by the form of the question. The only sensible way to answer the question is to assign 10 to the happiest people you know or can imagine, and compare yourselves to them (the point at which you would consider yourself better off dead arguably provides a natural zero).
So, if I go from a place where everyone is gloomy and depressed to one where everyone is happy (and adjust so that I no longer think about the gloomy people I used to know) my stated score is likely to decline. This will be true even if I’m actually happier myself – apart from the fact that I’m altruistically happy that other people are happy, I just find that gloomy people get me down. That is, the form of the question makes it look as though people are concerned about their relative position, even if they’re not.
So, if the measure provided is inherently local and relative, it can’t be used for comparisons over time or between groups of people with different reference points.
Jason Soon recently cited a piece by Richard Layard in which he tried to bolster the status of claim (ii) by observing that the results of happiness surveys were consistent with ‘objective’ measures obtained by brain scans. This argument doesn’t work, at least in the absence of time-series measures of brain scans. All it shows is that self-reported assessments of happiness give a local and relative answer consistent with the local and relative answer given by brain scans.