Monday, September 21, 2009

Utilitarianism and intellectual dishonesty

This is what I'm talking about: A position so far wrong that mere mistake fails as a plausible explanation; the only conclusion one can come to is that an academic philosophy student is either being intentionally intellectually dishonest, or (more probably) simply has no conception whatsoever of what intellectual honesty actually means.

I'm speaking of Rob Jubb of Consider Phlebas, soundly thrashing a tired straw man version of "crude" Utilitarianism. There is no plausible conclusion but that Jubb is a liar or an idiot.

We can see his intellectual dishonesty in his attribution of "crude" Utilitiarianism to the article he responds to, This is the greatest good by Richard Layard. First, Jubb says,
Let us do him the charity of assuming that he actually means what he says. Presumably then he thinks it noble to discount the suffering caused by injustices, like say rape, against any pleasures that those who inflict them gain...
Generally, when you preface a comment with "assuming he means what he says" you should criticize something the author actually says. But of course Layard does not actually say that it is noble to discount the suffering caused by injustices. This subtle but vicious misrepresentation ought to decisively discredit Jubb's intellectual honesty.

Layard makes only one point that might support Jubb's critique, if you squint and ignore the context and any charitable interpretation of the actual text (making entirely hypocritical Jubb's comment that he's doing Layard a "charity" by "assuming he means what Jubb wants him to be saying he says):
[E]ven some sympathisers prefer the term "flourishing" to "happiness". Why is this? I fear it reflects a streak of puritanism – that happiness ought to come from some sources rather than others. But in the world's great literature, people discuss whether they are happy, not whether they are flourishing.

Saying that happiness is happiness, regardless of its source is not to say that suffering is not suffering; by refusing to discount the happiness (to use Jubb's example) of a child molester as authentic happiness, one does not thereby discount the suffering of the child. Jubb is criticizing a position that Layard does not actually take, and has the dishonest gall to assume he's criticizing what Layard actually says.

It is in fact true: a child molester is indeed authentically happy when he's molesting a child; it's moronic to believe otherwise. The utilitarian critique of child molestation is based precisely on the suffering caused to the child, not on the "authenticity" or legitimacy of the molester's happiness. More importantly, all serious proponents of utilitarianism have recognized conflicts between the happiness of one person and the suffering of another; addressing such conflicts is the meat of utilitarianism. Jubb is not only criticizing a view that Layard does not take, he's criticizing a view that no one (at least no one with a triple-digit IQ) takes.

But this is not just about one lying moron. I see this approach all the time, even (to a lesser degree) in philosophers I ordinarily like and respect. There's rarely attempt to get at the truth, especially subtle truths; I see only an endless series of legalistic wrangling, trying to bend — sometimes to the breaking point — the opponent's meaning to discredit his position. This is yet another rhetorical fallacy, an ad hominem fallacy: the flaw in an opposing argument does not support one's own. Much worse, of course, when one, as does Jubb, manufacture the supposed "flaw" out of whole cloth.

If any academic philosophers I've talked with are reading this, yes, I mean you: I have yet to meet a single academic philosopher who actually cares about the truth. They say they care, but this concern is at best superficial and usually hypocritical. Even if they (unlike Jubb) do not commit egregious, contemptible sins* against intellectual honesty, they are all too willing to tolerate others' dishonesty, and rebuke any direct and explicit criticism of dishonesty and egregious bullshit.

*The truth, of course, has immense utilitarian value.

The same is true in politics and social commentary. It's not that there's honest disagreement among the moderate and radical left about how we can best make a society where people can be happy. The discourse simply never gets there. The truth be damned: it's all about defending the doctrine du jour, come what may, and scoring points against the heretics, infidels, and iconoclasts; the closer the opponent's position to one's own, the more vociferous the criticism and egregious the offenses against truth and plain, ordinary honesty.

Is it any wonder I just don't give a shit anymore about philosophy or politics? Fuck it. If you do sincerely and deeply care about the truth, you don't need my superficial and trivial commentary to learn it. But if people don't realize only the truth will make them happy, if even some educated people such as Jubb resist the truth with every fiber of their being (and the rest simply don't care), who am I to force it on them?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Patently infantile

The whole thing [religion] is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.

— Sigmund Freud

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Famous dead white guys

There is a hallowed tradition in certain scholarly circles of simply quoting famous dead white guys who agree with you in order to lend your words some authority that reason cannot bestow on them...

PZ Myers