Saturday, July 31, 2021

Political and ethical philosophy

Ian Welsh is almost always politically on point, and the politics in his post, Rationality Is Not A Way Out Of Group Action Problems like Climate Change and Covid, is a good example. Solutions to problems of public goods just do not emerge from the politics of individualism and individualistic "rationality".

Welsh's position has some precedent. Hume writes that it is "not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," and Mel Brooks puts the sentiment  mordantly: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." And the first lesson of game theory is the Prisoner's Dilemma, where the "rational" choice leads to the least desirable outcome for everyone.

In theory, we could (maybe) get optimal outcomes by making everything a private good in a pure free market economy, but in the real world, the Arrow-Debreu model fails on the same computation problem that kills the omniscient central planner problem. It's not particularly helpful to declare, however correctly, that everything works perfectly in a perfect world.

But Welsh is mistaken at a fundamental level by arguing that virtue ethics is preferable to utilitarianism and instrumentalism. According to Welsh, our poor reasoning abilities undermine utilitarianism: we cannot act to improve the world if we cannot accurately predict the consequences of our actions.

He's definitely correct that utilitarianism can easily degenerate into justifying apparently horrible actions for the supposed "greater good." (I've been reading a lot of trash superhero/supervillain fiction lately, and the trope of the supervillain perpetrating horrible actions for the greater good" trope is ubiquitous; indeed the "antagonist is just pure evil" trope has entirely ceased to be entertaining.)

Welsh constructs virtue ethics to mean that there are actions that are intrinsically bad, and these bad actions are absolutely unjustifiable, regardless of even the actual outcome, much less the supposed outcome. Moreover, we know these action are intrinsically bad directly without mediation:

We know that being greedy, or selfish, or cowardly, or sadistic are bad. We know that rape is always bad. We know that killing people is bad. We know that beating people is bad.We know that hunger is bad. We know that homelessness is terrible. We know lack of water kills. When the IMF removes food subsidies we KNOW more people will go hungry. When we sell bombs to Israel and Saudi Arabia, we know they’ll be used to murder innocents.

I definitely agree with Welsh: I think that "being greedy, selfish, cowardly, or sadistic are bad;" however, I just don't think my opinion is true. I don't know that they're intrinsically bad; all I know is just that I don't like them.

The problem with utilitarianism, that doing utilitarianism stupidly will fail, is not a problem with utilitarianism per se; stupidity and poor reasoning is a problem with human beings. Literally anything can be done stupidly to bad effect.

If we have to reason out what is virtuous, then virtue ethics is susceptible to the same problem: we can stupidly or fallaciously come up with the wrong virtues. Welsh just handwaves around the problem, supposing that we have some sort of mystical knowledge about what really constitutes virtue. At some level, unvirtuous people don't disagree about virtue; instead, they ignore their intrinsic knowledge of true virtue. But we can just handwave around the problem for utilitarianism: people who do horrible things supposedly for the greater good are just ignoring what they mystically know is the true greater good for the same reason a person might ignore what they know is true virtue.

Welsh speculates without evidence that a fundamental social problem is that the elites have used utilitarianism to rationalize behavior they know is unvirtuous. I don't want to disparage Welsh for speculating, but we could just as easily speculate that our elites have failed because they have a different conception of virtue than Welsh and I both have. The elites might well see themselves as paragons of virtue and the suffering of the common people as not a result of elite's actions but rather a consequence of the common people's lack of virtue.

We can say that rape and murder are across the red line. Fine, but what do we do about it? What do we do about the person who will rape unless they are killed or imprisoned? Are killing or imprisonment (and imprisonment is torture), across the bright line or not? What do we do about millions of people who demand to keep slaves and will die before they free their slaves? Do we force them to release their slaves under threat of death, torture, or impoverishment? Virtue ethics, I think, suffers from the same sort of sophistry as I've long accused Libertarianism of. Immoral actions are only immoral when we don't agree with the end.

I think the latter theory has more support. Corey Robin's The Conservative Mind, Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians, or really anything in the present conservative media. Conservatives and authoritarians fundamentally justify their position by appeal to virtue and only secondarily by an appeal to utilitarianism.

Remember, to many conservatives, the fundamental argument against homosexuality is that homosexuality is just as intrinsically wrong as rape or murder. They know so with exactly the same conviction and sincerity that Welsh claims to know that rape and murder are wrong. The fundamental argument against helping poor people is that they deserve their poverty as a result of their vice, and it is just as much a vice to alleviate poverty as it would be to procure new victims for a rapist. The poor should suffer as much for their poverty as rapists should suffer prison for their crimes.

Utilitarianism, instrumentalism, and pragmatism does not have the same fundamental flaw. Again, I concede that utilitarianism done stupidly will have bad effect, but, again, anything done stupidly can have bad effect, and (absent magical knowledge) virtue ethics can be done just as stupidly. However, I claim that utilitarianism can be done intelligently and that virtue ethics cannot be done intelligently, unless we construct our virtues on utilitarian grounds.

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