Scott Sumner  

Is the rise of utilitarianism unstoppable?

PRINT
Yanis Varoufakis as a media st... Robert Conquest RIP...

If I might be allowed a bit of armchair philosophical speculation, it seems to me that the advance of technology and utilitarianism are two of the most relentless trends in world history. The growing importance of technology is easy to see, while utilitarianism requires a bit more explanation.

Over time, people in developed countries have become more aware of the need to show compassion to other races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, and even to some extent animals. Today it seems obvious to many people that gays should be allowed to marry, but I'm old enough to recall a time when most people, even most progressives, regarded the idea as preposterous.

What is the next frontier of this growing circle of inclusiveness? Perhaps foreigners. First let's recall that even many progressives haven't accepted the idea of treating foreigners equally, much as their forerunners couldn't wrap their minds around gay rights. Here are a couple examples, first from the New York Review of Books:

Some US drone operators have resigned because of the physical and psychological stress of conducting these attacks. They are a potent symbol of American exceptionalism; as Wittes and Blum ask, would the US tolerate the Assad regime targeting Free Syrian Army members in the US on the ground that the US was unwilling to detain them?

As long as the administration defies any accountability for its actions, they will never be deemed legitimate. And it's worse than that. The Obama administration seems to have adopted a policy on accountability most likely to incur resentment in others: the only strikes it acknowledges are those that kill Americans. In 2013, the administration admitted that four Americans had died in drone strikes. It has never offered a figure for foreign victims, which others have reported number in the thousands. And in April 2015, President Obama publicly apologized, as well he should have, that a January strike in Pakistan had killed two Western hostages, US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni Lo Porto.

But why apologize only when we kill Western innocents? Are not Arab and Muslim innocent victims equally deserving of apologies? This practice of selective accountability is surely the worst double standard of all.


And then from an interview of Bernie Sanders by Ezra Klein:

Ezra Klein You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing ...

Bernie Sanders
Open borders? No, that's a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein
Really?

Bernie Sanders
Of course. That's a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. ...

Ezra Klein
But it would make ...

Bernie Sanders
Excuse me ...

Ezra Klein
It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn't it?

Bernie Sanders
It would make everybody in America poorer --you're doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that.


I'm not trying to argue that President Obama and Bernie Sanders are particularly nationalistic; indeed you see significantly more nationalism in some GOP politicians. And of course it's difficult to succeed in politics without being at least somewhat nationalistic. Rather, I find it interesting to see the split between generations on this issue. Ezra Klein is much younger than Sanders (or Obama) and so is Dylan Matthews, who responds as follows to the Sanders comments:

Bernie Sanders's fear of immigrant labor is ugly -- and wrongheaded

If I could add one amendment to the Constitution, it would be the one Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley once proposed: "There shall be open borders." There is no single policy that the United States could adopt that would do more good for more people. An average Nigerian worker can increase his income almost 15-fold just by moving to the United States, and residents of significantly richer countries like Mexico can more than double their earnings. The humanitarian gains of letting everyone who wants to make that leap do so would be astounding.

So I was disappointed, if not surprised, at the visceral horror with which Bernie Sanders reacted to the idea when interviewed by my colleague Ezra Klein.


Then after arguing that open borders would benefit Americans, Matthews discussed the implications of viewing all humans as having equal moral worth:

The second problem isn't a matter of facts, but of values. As a US senator, Sanders believes he is obligated to put the interests of the United States -- and of Vermont in particular -- ahead of the interests of any other country. That means, for him, heavily discounting the interests of people in other countries.

Even if you think this makes sense, it doesn't make restricting immigration acceptable. Privileging the interests of Americans doesn't mean that US policymakers have the right to needlessly hurt foreigners. Not even the most ardent nationalist would say that the US has a right to, say, massacre 10,000 foreign civilians to save a single American life. And make no mistake: Using force to restrict access to the United States hurts foreigners dramatically.


Just as young people find it much easier to accept gay marriage, the young also seem more open to viewing foreigners as being equally deserving of respect.

This is not to suggest that a majority of the young favor open borders, far from it. Right now Americans probably value the life of one African lion more highly than 1000 victims of Boko Haram, or 1000 victims of the West's restrictive immigration policies. But things are beginning to change, and the gay rights experience teaches us that ideas viewed as unthinkable by one generation might be viewed as blindingly obvious by the next.

The following story (also by Dylan Matthews) shows how this is affecting philanthropy:

But if putting countries on a sustainable growth path is hard, making them less poor is easy: You can just send over money. And that's exactly what more and more philanthropists and aid organizations are starting to do. Case in point: Good Ventures -- the foundation founded by Facebook and Asana cofounder Dustin Moskovitz (net worth: $9.6 billion) and his wife, Cari Tuna, who oversees its day-to-day operations -- just gave $25 million to GiveDirectly, a charity that sends unconditional cash grants of about $1,000 each to desperately poor people in Kenya and Uganda. Of their gift, $16 million to $19 million will be part of those transfers.
That seems more consistent with utilitarianism than giving the same sum of money to Harvard, or the Met. It appears that the logic of utilitarianism has especially strong appeal to tech entrepreneurs. I can imagine that Bill Gates thinking to himself, "Where in the world can my money do the most to reduce human misery" leads one in a different direction than if Bernie Sanders asks himself: "How can I tax billions of dollars away from Bill Gates and give it to the bottom half of the income distribution in America?"

In this post I'm not trying to argue that open borders is or is not a good idea (an issue I've addressed in other posts). Rather I'm trying to understand the likely future evolution in our view as to which people are deserving of equal consideration, and which public policies are ethical. Elsewhere I've argued that both left and right wing liberalism are fundamentally utilitarian ideologies, and that the best way to understand their evolution over the past few centuries is to assume that over time we have achieved a different (and probably better) understanding of what utilitarian values ask us to do.

PS. There is one important distinction between equal rights for foreigners and the other gains in liberalism cited above. Open borders might (and I emphasize "might") require substantial sacrifices by the population of richer countries. That's less true of some of the equal rights gains achieved by gays, blacks, religious minorities, etc. And this makes me somewhat less confident about the prospects for open borders in the near future.


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (37 to date)
Vivan Darkbloom writes:

I would think the logical next step would be to expand NAFTA to allow freedom of movement among Canada, the US and Mexico. Who would have thought, 50 years ago, that there would now be freedom of movement and employment among 28 European countries?

But, I think Matthews is confused when he writes: "Privileging the interests of Americans doesn't mean that US policymakers have the right to needlessly hurt foreigners." So, failing to open the borders is "hurting" foreigners? I guess that's one way to look at it. But, where does *that* stop? Is my failing to open my wallet to a panhandler "hurting" the latter? After we eliminate countries and borders, shall we then eliminate private property, too, so as not to "hurt" people?

david condon writes:

Nothing in your post requires adopting a utilitarian outlook. Lots of different belief systems will make cost comparisons. Maximizing the value of charitable contributions is called effective altruism. And I really hope our future robot overlords don't adopt a policy of utilitarianism between existing and potential life. Biological organisms are quite inefficient.

B.B. writes:

Bernie Sanders recent comments on immigration are rather surprising considering his record on the issue. The immigration restrictionist outfit Numbers USA has given him an F- rating.

Anonymous writes:

I have a hypothesis that, as nations become wealthier, stances justified in cautious cost-benefit analyses become weaker, while stances justified in emotional appeal don't, with the result being that the latter win out over time.

My justification for this is: an argument along the lines of "this change would have dispersed costs that are on net larger than the concentrated benefits" loses rhetorical impact the smaller a proportion of our total wealth the dispersed costs are. This happens even if, as is usually the case, the benefits have shrunk in proportion with costs such that the change would still be net negative. On the other hand, the argument from the other side - the emotional appeal, usually in favor of something with concentrated benefits - is a heart-wrenching yarn that does not state the actual scope of the problem. A story "look, there are people in this situation, isn't that awful? Look at how bad it is!" is about as powerful whether the number of people in that situation is ten or ten thousand. Increasing wealth means that fewer and fewer people are actually in this situation, but as long as the number remains above zero, the argument for that side stays about as strong, while the argument for the other side - the logical cost-benefit analysis - diminishes, even if it is correct.

Until now I had been assuming that this was always a bad thing. It seems to apply to the minimum wage, workplace safety laws, and other similar emotionally appealing but, as far as I can tell, bad ideas. I had not considered the possibility of it happening the other way round - when the emotionally appealing side is also correct - but I think that might be what you describe here.

If there is any truth in this theory, then I would not describe the trend as rising utilitarianism, but the opposite: decreasing utilitarianism, as sober weighing-up of net benefits is replaced by emotional appeals, whether in support of good or bad laws, as and when we can afford to do so.

Andrew_FL writes:

Good God I certainly hope not.

MikeP writes:

Like david condon, I think you give too much credit to utilitarianism.

Exactly the same conclusion about open borders is drawn by essentially the opposite of utilitarianism, namely, a principled belief in equal inalienable individual rights. The fact that both paths lead to the same conclusion is evidence for the correctness of the conclusion. But I strongly suspect more people -- including Matthews, given the way he bases his stance on values -- come to this conclusion by the way of equal rights rather than any utilitarian path.

Retired Child of Immigrants writes:

This is a very insightful article. Perhaps younger people are more accepting of open borders because there has been much more interaction with foreigners in school, on the job and in online social networks. With more familiarity, people are evaluated for their contributions more accurately and meaningfully based on their behaviors, values, and goals rather than country of birth. Instead of opening the borders completely, it may be better to weigh the entry criteria more on demonstrated values and goals, and gradually relax the "per country" immigration quotas. I get giddy thinking of all the tax dollars all the new immigrants will generate!

Mike Sax writes:

While you were in Costa Rica I was visiting England-my nation of birth.

As far as compassion for foreign immigrants it's not just American vanity to say that we as a nation are way ahead of England-to say nothing of France and the rest of Europe on this issue.

It's shocking how jingoistic and anti-immigrant the mood is in Europe.

In England right now they are in crisis mode over refugees coming in from Callios. Cameron is promising to build a fence and send out more dogs.

I don't think there is anything that Trump has said that would offend people in Britain right now. I wonder if he wouldn't get elected. He'd be taken seriously at least.

http://lastmenandovermen.blogspot.com/2015/08/trump-really-could-win-in-britain.html

I'm not trying to quibble but I do have to defend Obama a little. Yes, you can question him about the drone strikes but he is a lot more progressive on immigration than Sanders.

He has done what he can to get some kind of immigration reform done. The Senate had a bipartisan agreement and when it got to the GOP House, it was put on the shelf and has stayed there gathering dust every since.

Scott Sumner writes:

Vivan, There is a big difference between opening borders and "eliminating" them. My town of Newton, Massachusetts has a border. I favor keeping that border, while continuing to allow nonresidents of Newton to travel through the city, and even buy property here.

Anonymous, Supporters of things like minimum wage laws and workplace safety regulations are often motivated by utilitarian considerations.

MikeP, I'm skeptical of that view. For instance the huge growth in support for gay marriage has not been accompanied by support for the "right" to engage in other unpopular types of marriage (polygamy, incest, etc.) I see utilitarian arguments as being far more persuasive than natural rights arguments, at least with most people.

Retired Child, That's an interesting idea. I do think that completely open borders is politically infeasible at the moment, but that's no reason not to push for greatly increased immigration.

Mike, I did not "question" Obama's drone strikes.

Dan W. writes:

The thing about borders is they don't matter until they do. Those who suppose a borderless world are ignorant of the past and naive of the future. It is perhaps better not to think of borders but to consider cultural values. There are values that matter. What happens when those values are diluted? Can they be enriched again or is the one culture displaced by a new one?

A review of the nations deemed most friendly to immigration shows an interesting pattern. Such nations may be accommodating of immigrants but they (a) expect immigrants to be educated, literate and to provide a valuable skill and (b) they are very unforgiving of illegal immigration. Australia and Canada are such examples.

Lastly, I would be careful about assigning much weight to the opinion of young people. Young people don't know much and their opinions are as a malleable as jello. Consider that the "open minded" "free-thinking" hippies of the 1960s have become totalitarian, anti-free-speech, anti-free-love college administrators. Their opinions changed according to their economic incentives. In other words, they have no backbone and no principle. Are the young people of today principled or just going with the flow? If the latter, where does the flow lead and who is directing it?

Mike Sax writes:

Ok, you criticized his attitude regarding American vs. foreign deaths of the drones. That wasn't the main point of my comment in any case.

Philo writes:

"If I might be allowed a bit of armchair philosophical speculation . . . ." (1) Who's gonna stop you? (2) I think all philosophical speculation is best done from an armchair, though some (e.g., Descartes) have preferred their beds, while others like to be up moving around.

(But your post turned out to be more sociological than philosophical.)

1. Open borders talk is cheap moral posturing. All human behavioral traits are heritable. Cultures and nations which instill responsible parenting (have no more children than you can afford) will get swamped by people from nations without such an ethic. See Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons".

2. (Scott): "Over time, people in developed countries have become more aware of the need to show compassion to other races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, and even to some extent animals. Today it seems obvious to many people that gays should be allowed to marry, but I'm old enough to recall a time when most people, even most progressives, regarded the idea as preposterous."

What does "compassion" have to do with gay marriage? I know next to nothing about nearly all of the Earth's 7 billion + human inhabitants. Any expression of compassion from me would be phony. My give a damn's busted. Millions die every day. If you say that keep you awake, you're a liar.

Any two adults may keep house together, use each other for sexual purposes and call themselves "married". We have free speech in this country; you may call yourselves a flock of sparrows if you like. Advocates for homosexual marriage want more than that. One of the plaintiffs in the original Baer, et. al. versus Miike suit against the Director of the State of Hawaii Department of Health for the State's refusal to grant marriage licenses to homosexual couples gave as her cause for action that the State's refusal denied her partner access to State-mandated, tax-subsidized group health insurance (Ninia Baer was a University of Hawaii employee).

Customs evolve. Traditional marriage surrounds children with a protective network of relatives and benefits. That rationale does not apply to people who are far less likely to have children and are far more at-risk of an expensive medical condition. Expansion of the definition of "marriage" to include homosexual couples is a tax increase on single homosexuals and all heterosexuals.

Cost-benefit policy analysis goes out the window when empty posturing about bogus equality earns brownie points from idiots.

Sieben writes:

How does this square with trends towards immigration restriction in the last century? Certainly in the early 1900s, immigration was a lot easier than today. I don't know the specific history, but wealthy European states seem to be like rich white country clubs with a smattering of "this one time we let some Ethiopians immigrate".

MH_DC writes:

[Comment removed pending for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

jj writes:

A quote from Milton Friedman is apropos (in honor of his 103rd birthday):

It is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both. If you have a welfare state, if you have a state in which every resident is promised a certain minimal level of income, or a minimum level of subsistence, regardless of whether he works or not, produces it or not. Then it really is an impossible thing.

(Scott): " There is one important distinction between equal rights for foreigners and the other gains in liberalism cited above. Open borders might (and I emphasize "might") require substantial sacrifices by the population of richer countries."

Open borders --will-- spell the end of nations and cultures which instill reproductive responsibility on members of that culture, as these nations and cultures get swamped by immigrants from countries without such an ethic. All human behavioral traits are heritable.

(Scott): " ... That's less true of some of the equal rights gains achieved by gays, blacks, religious minorities, etc."

Homosexual marriage also requires sacrifice by (of) heterosexuals and single homosexuals. Redefinition of "marriage" to include homosexual couples is a tax increase on heterosexuals and single homosexuals. State-mandated spousal benefits are not cost-free.

MikeP writes:

A quote from Milton Friedman is apropos (in honor of his 103rd birthday):

Indeed it is apropos. And given the theme of this post, it is even more apropos to quote the next two paragraphs:

Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal.

That’s an interesting paradox to think about. Make it legal and it’s no good. Why? Because as long as it’s illegal the people who come in do not qualify for welfare, they don’t qualify for social security, they don’t qualify for the other myriad of benefits that we pour out from our left pocket to our right pocket. So long as they don’t qualify they migrate to jobs. They take jobs that most residents of this country are unwilling to take. They provide employers with the kind of workers that they cannot get. They’re hard workers, they’re good workers, and they are clearly better off.

The utilitarian would say that illegal immigrants are better off being legal immigrants without welfare than not being immigrants at all, so we should not wall up the borders but wall up the welfare system. The principled proponent of natural rights would say that prohibiting where an individual may travel, live, or be employed is a violation of his inalienable rights while no one has a right to welfare, so again we should open the borders and close the welfare system.

(Scott): "Over time, people in developed countries have become more aware of the need to show compassion to other races, religions, genders, sexual preferences, and even to some extent animals."

Perhaps the cost of compassion falls as societies increase in wealth and the benefits of compassion increase as societies increase in size (up to a point).

Morality is a result of biological and cultural evolution. Equality (i.e., envy) apparently feels like a moral imperative to the envious (e.g., a Piketty fan). If you're one of five or so males of reproductive age in a 30-person extended family which lives in a state of permanent low-level war with neighboring groups and if all the females would prefer to bear the children of the strongest hunter, then you may enhance your chances of reproductive success if you arrange a little accident. In a mass society, cutting the face of Tom Cruise entails much risk for little reward, since you'll get caught and there will remain thousands of males prettier than you. Here, evolution favors tolerance. A sort of blessing (inverse tragedy) of the commons.

Vivan Darkbloom writes:

"There is a big difference between opening borders and "eliminating" them. My town of Newton, Massachusetts has a border."

Yes, I agree. And, I used "eliminate" in the second paragraph of my comment. But, it was in the sense of eliminate the borders as we now know them to open them up to free immigration and employment, a la the EU, as should have been evident from the first paragraph of that comment. And, "opening" borders may be the first step to "eliminating" literally them. Whether it is the former or latter sense, it doesn't really affect my disagreement with Matthew over the concept of "hurting" people.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

You won't find a lot of philosophers agreeing with you: Utilitarianism is deemed to have far too many difficulties.

But you really don't mean big "U" Utilitarianism, you mean small "u" utilitarian humanism--grounding ethics in human wants and needs and treating all folk as equally moral agents.

johnleemk writes:
So, failing to open the borders is "hurting" foreigners? I guess that's one way to look at it. But, where does *that* stop? Is my failing to open my wallet to a panhandler "hurting" the latter?

Would you say that segregation along racial lines hurt people barred from seeking jobs or homes outside the boundaries that society/government confined them to? Or did abolition of racial segregation constitute some kind of subsidy to people previously barred from these opportunities?

I just don't see how removing a legal bar to people from paying good money to rent homes or apply for jobs in the ordinary marketplace is analogous to giving people free stuff. And likewise, I really don't see how barring people from paying good money to travel and settle where they like purely on account of the condition of their birth isn't some form of harm. It might be justified harm, but it's still harm nonetheless.

ivvenalis writes:

Well, one difference between tech and open borders is that if I invest in tech and you don't, I can curbstomp you in a war by doing things like having killer robots bomb your citizens with total impunity. I'm not sure that letting as many foreigners move into a country as possible confers the same type of advantage.

Rajat writes:

Maybe it's less about youth and more about skilled people like Klein and Matthews having less to fear from an influx of unskilled workers than people like Sanders, who feel they represent working class Americans.

Scott Sumner writes:

Sieben, I believe that the perceived costs of unlimited immigration rose as the US got much richer than other countries. But even in the 1800s we restricted immigration from low wage China.

JJ, If the US opted for open borders, I don't think we'd be able to afford providing them with welfare benefits. This may well be one reason why we don't have open borders. If the US did have open borders, I believe we'd be pushed to become more right wing.

Malcolm, You could argue that gay marriage helps heterosexuals by extending the marriage tax to gay couples.

Vivan, I have to agree with Matthews--using police powers to prevent people from entering the US is hurting them quite severely.

Lorenzo, Yes, I've read many of the critiques of utilitarianism, and find them unpersuasive.

Rajat, Good point.

Floccina writes:

Bernie Sanders:

-you're doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that.

  • So Bernie Sanders does not believe that USA was a country until the exclusion act of 1924.
  • I believe that Argentina does allow anyone to immigrate. So that is one country. I keep telling my in laws in Honduras that they might consider migrating to Argentina.
  • So to Bernie Argentina is not a country.
Kevin Vallier writes:

Hi Scott: I think the business about utilitarianism isn't helping you. To say that people care more and more about the utility of an ever broader circle of people (and animals) is not to say that utilitarianism is spreading.

Every moral theory of any worth builds in a concern for utility (broadly understood, but usually taken to consist primarily in welfare).

Utilitarianism says that ALL THAT MATTERS MORALLY is utility. It claims that no other factors have *ultimate* moral import. So utilitarians can care about rights, but only because rights promote utility.

But all you're saying is that we're starting to care more about the utility of all. These are not the same thing.

johnleemk writes:
Well, one difference between tech and open borders is that if I invest in tech and you don't, I can curbstomp you in a war by doing things like having killer robots bomb your citizens with total impunity. I'm not sure that letting as many foreigners move into a country as possible confers the same type of advantage.

Actually, there is a case that open borders helped the US in WWII:

Today about 17% of Americans claim German ancestry. Since there was only low immigration of Germans after World War II compared to other groups, the fraction should have been even higher in 1940. Assuming a quarter of US population in 1940 was of German descent, US population in the counterfactual would go down by 33 million to 99 million. Add the 33 million to the German population and you get 112 million. So now Greater Germany is 12% more populous than the US. The effect would have been like another major power of 66 million had entered the war on the side of the Axis.

And it gets worse: Forget about General Eisenhower, and get used to Generalfeldmarschall Eisenhauer. Same for Chester Nimitz for the Navy (now: Generaladmiral Nimitz) and Carl Andrew Spaatz for the Air Force (now: Generalfeldmarschall Karl Andreas Spatz).

City borders are also a good analogy to how nationalistic we should want our politicians to be even if we are good cosmopolitans who think that people's value shouldn't be weighted by where they (or their ancestors) were born: I expect my local mayor to generally favor the interests of her citizens over those of other towns, but I'd be aghast if she said that, from now on, she was ordering the town police to beat up anybody from the neighbouring town who tried to come over for a job.

Justin D writes:

Scott, in the past you've denied that there are such things as the self and free will, and that are actions are deterministic. How does that square with even the possibility of a normative system of ethics like utilitarianism, let alone that it would have any causal power? If there is no 'me', or if my actions are entirely determined by physical processes, how does an ethical theory accomplish anything? To be more precise, how would the immaterial and abstract concepts of an ethical theory meaningfully change the chemical and physical processes of my body such that my actions would align with the theory?

Wouldn't it be more likely that we simply act as we do and instead end up believing whatever ethical theory seemed most consistent with our actions? As an analogy, perhaps it is like saying that we ought to be "beautitarians" and enjoy beautiful things, but ultimately we would enjoy things like art and sunsets and beautiarianism does no actual work?

ivvenalis writes:

"Actually, there is a case that open borders helped the US in WWII"

There's also a case that Germans are not the same as Africans, or Mexican stoop laborers, but I wasn't going to go there. I suppose if you believe in the uniformity of all human populations, and disbelieve in any sort of principal of diminishing returns, that doesn't matter.

I also notice that the presence of ethnic German populations in e.g. Poland didn't aid them much in that war.

(Scott): "Malcolm, You could argue that gay marriage helps heterosexuals by extending the marriage tax to gay couples."

One could make that argument. The difference between two incomes taxed separately and a joint return is one item in the cost-benefit calculation. Other items include State-mandated access to employer-provided health insurance plans, to one's partner's Social Security benefits, and to tax-exempt inheritance.

Perhaps courts will release non-government organizations from employment contracts which offer health insurance to spouses (redefinition of marriage is a material change in the contract), but I don't see governments rewriting their own employment contracts. Taxpayers will bear an increased cost of health care for people who are far less likely to have children and far more at-risk of a very expensive medical condition.

"When someone says "It's not the money; it's the principle' it's the money."

Anonymous writes:

@Scott:

Anonymous, Supporters of things like minimum wage laws and workplace safety regulations are often motivated by utilitarian considerations.

True. But they're also very often motivated by emotional yarns. On the other hand, those arguing against things like minimum wage laws and workplace safety regulations are almost always arguing from utilitarian considerations, because the emotional argument just doesn't really work for that position.

My point is not that utilitarianism is used by one side only, but that heart-rending stories are used mainly by one side but not the other - at least when it comes down to questions like this, where there's the obvious argument for one side, intended to help a few people in a bad situation, and then the less emotionally satisfying response, which points out that the first side's idea has more negative outcomes than positive.

This is of course Bastiat's Seen and Unseen. I am not trying to suggest that the unseen is obviously more important than the seen, but that the seen gets to enjoy an emotion-based support that the unseen doesn't - and that this kind of support is to an extent independent of the actual scale of the issue.

"There are people DYING because their workplace isn't safe enough! We have to do something!" says nothing about how prevalent this problem of people dying in their workplace is. The problem can shrink greatly and the argument remains the same, because it's a story about an unspecified number of people suffering a bad outcome. The number of people isn't what's important, the badness of the outcome is. But arguments involving costs and benefits and scale and so on do become weaker if the costs and benefits become smaller in proportion to everything else - as they do when people become richer.

Anonymous writes:

@Justin D:

Personally, this is why I reject incompatibilism but not determinism. The problem with incompatibilism is that it prevents you from being able to make any statement of what 'should' be done. It's a conclusion that you cannot use to inform any further decisions without rejecting the conclusion itself.

I don't think this applies to straight determinism, though, because we clearly have something free-will-like, whether or not you want to give it the name 'free will' or not.

Justin D writes:

@Anonymous

Can you elaborate on what 'free-will-like' means? I don't see a whole lot of daylight between the following two views:

1) Physical facts fix all the facts, and that includes everything we end up doing. Everything is the result of fundamental particles interacting according to the laws of nature, and our experiences are like getting to watch a movie from a first person perspective, but we're not directing the character or writing the dialogue. There is no free will, nor is there any such thing as "shoulds" - things just happen and that's that. It's as meaningless to talk about how the complex set of chemical reactions that are us "should" behave as it is meaningless to talk about how potassium "should" behave when thrown in water, or how Pluto "should" orbit the sun. We can make noises that sound like "you shouldn't steal" but if you end up not stealing that's merely the result of complex physical processes, and not some 'you' that agreed with the statement and decided not to steal as a result.

2) There really is such a thing as a self which can grasp concepts and make decisions independent of anything going on in physical reality. At a fork in the road, I can choose to go left or right regardless of what is going on with the physical particles that make up my body. If this is true, then we do have the freedom to make one choice instead of another, and there could potentially be "shoulds" that influence how we act.

Anonymous writes:

@Justin D

Well, did you choose to write that post? Am I choosing to reply? It certainly feels like it. I'm picking the words I want to type, deleting phrasing that I think sounds clumsy, spell checking it all. From my perspective, it seems like I have free will. Of course sometimes I notice I don't, if I've planned to do something and then found myself unable to make myself do it. But it feels like I'm in control of most of my actions most of the time. I believe from what I've heard that the same is roughly true of almost everyone else in the world.

That's my description of what it feels like to have sort-of-free-will-ish. I suppose it's analogous to the phrasing I've seen people use to describe evolution as having 'as if designed' us. The effect is similar whether or not the terminology accurately reflects precisely what's going on.

My problem with incompatibilism is, as I said, that it prevents any further decision making. Any sentence starting, "Incompatibilism is true, so we/you/they/the government should..." has already failed, because if 'we should' do something in light of incompatibilism, then incompatibilism is being implicitly rejected. It cannot have any implications on how people ought to behave, or what the laws should be, or anything else. It's an entirely useless theory.

John Cunningham writes:

So Prof. Sumner, you would completely favor the migration into the US of 300 million people this year from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, and Bolivia? This would make for an interesting social experiment.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top