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July 05, 2007


Dave Iverson

Who Decides?

Like others, I have been intrigued from time to time by Peter Singer's Utilitarianism. But unlike Seth's assessment (above), I'm more inclined to want to write, once I retire and take time,"Why I am not a Utilitarian", rather than "Why I am a Utilitarian." (Here I am likely deluding myself, thinking that I might actually write something, sometime, beyond blog posts.)

Admitting some ignorance of the type Utilitarianism Baum and Singer talk about, a big problem for me is figuring out "Who decides?". And who decides what, when, where, how, and why? Of course these are questions of culture-forming.

If you follow the Seth's first link (above) you will get to a "Critique of Utilitarianism" and find this: ". . . utilitarianism is problematic because it conceives its fixed end, the promotion of over-all happiness, in terms of the sums of private pains and pleasures. Thus utilitarianism contributes indirectly to the exaggerated individualism that has long distorted political thinking in the United States." (Here is the link: http://www.wku.edu/~jan.garrett/dewethic.htm#critutil )

In grappling with the question we led off with, "Who Decides?", Dewey throws the problem back to the "people" both as legislators, judges, intellectuals and scholars, and common-sense thinkers/writers/deliberators. Dewey asks us – we the people – to talk it through, work it through in custom, practice, law, and policy. Who decides? Dewey says "we the people" (and our various appointed and elected representatives). Who would Peter Singer suggest do the deciding? I'm asking. I really don't know.

And how are we going to discriminate, Seth, between "egoistic" (individual OR sum of all individuals) v. "collective" utility? (Seth refers to "egoistic hedonism" v. "utilitarian hedonism" which may be something different than the utility frame I am talking about. Help?) How does one go about adding up utility in the real world? Where does one start? How does one, or does one craft a welfare function? And why is "welfare" even a desirable end? Seems like some, e.g. Nietzsche, like to view life as struggle, pleasure is complimented with pain, and neither by itself can be viewed as an unmitigated good. How is "welfare" (as framed by Utilitarianism) intertwined with pleasure AND pain? Again, I'm asking, not just trying to debunk. Here I’m struggling with the "willingness to pay" and "exchange theory of value" stuff that biases my thinking into all being reduced by utilitarians to some bizarre "commodity fetish" – which likely has nothing to do with Peter Singer type Utilitarianism.

This response is too fast, too sloppy, and so on. But that is my life. Finally let's throw this out, as I have done before, just for fun: If we are going to deal with Bentham's "The greatest good for the greatest number in the long run" (and even if we broaden the "good" to include such for all creatures great and small), how are we to decide? In particular, how are we to decide: Which good is to be made greatest? What number is deemed to be 'greatest' (or best; which species, how many of each, etc). How long is the long run? If the long run is not deemed to be "forever", we also have to ask Garrett Hardin's favorite question (from Filters Against Folly: How to Survive Despite Ecologists, Economists, and the Merely Eloquent): And then what?

To continue with "too fast, too sloppy" let's work on Seth's question: "What confuses me most is how intangible Dewey’s notion of the good is. Does he actually think that action based on “foresight and reflection” is intrinsically good? What if such action lead to horrendous outcomes, like, say, genocide?"

Dewey, I think, wants us to grapple with "all" based on "foresight and reflection" and to do so in various ways by various means (legislative, administrative, judicial, and public discourse in other venues that sets social policy). Sometimes we will get it wrong. We will then have to deliberate further and try to get it right. In a way it is similar to Jack Nicholson's classic line from "As Good As It Gets". Maybe Dewey's pragmatism is as good as it gets. If not, "Who Decides?"

Seth Baum

Who decides? Technically, everyone that is capable of making decisions. In practice, utilitarianism probably supports a modest amount of specialization and technocracy, but ultimately it seems as much an art as a science. How do I know I'm doing the best thing by typing these here words? I don't. But spending all of my time calculating what the best thing to do with my time is a waste of time. This gets into a discussion of decision procedures- see
My impression of Dewey was that he was quite sensitive to this matter himself, even if from a different notion of ultimate good.

"Thus utilitarianism contributes indirectly to the exaggerated individualism that has long distorted political thinking in the United States."
It is possible to implement utilitarianism incorrectly, such as if it leads to more individualism than would make us collectively better off. I'm quite sensitive to this excessive individualism myself. You'll note, for example, that my main online project is Felicifia, online utilitarianism *community*. I don't think utilitarianism and communitarianism are at all incompatible.

"Dewey asks us – we the people – to talk it through... Who would Peter Singer suggest do the deciding?"
I can't speak for Singer, but given the great lengths he's gone to to educate the public to help them make better decisions for himself, I can only assume he's a strong supporter of public discourse- as am I. However, I hope we can all agree that we the people are wise to take certain expert advice.

By "egoistic hedonism" I meant the ethical view that I should try maximizing my own pleasure. This is a hedonistic version of ethical egoism
By "utilitarian hedonism" I meant the ethical view that I should try maximizing everyone's pleasure. Here my own pleasure counts for no more than anyone else's in my own decision making.

"why is "welfare" even a desirable end?"
That welfare is a (the) desirable end is the intuition upon which utilitarianism is built. For me, the intuition came through introspection: I enjoy being happy, and as far as my own life is concerned, nothing else really matters. (This is using a very broadly defined "happiness". See below.) Utilitarianism to me is just trying to help us have the most happiness/welfare/etc.

"How long is the long run? If the long run is not deemed to be "forever", we also have to ask Garrett Hardin's favorite question (from Filters Against Folly: How to Survive Despite Ecologists, Economists, and the Merely Eloquent): And then what?
The long run: As long as possible, so, yeah, forever. :) The possibility of infinite time horizons has produced some interesting work in the economics and philosophy literatures. See for example
in particular the comment
That I made such a big mistake there does make me more generally tentative in my recommendations. Even within utilitarianism, further study remains very important.
What exactly is meant by "And then what?"

Dave Iverson

Thanks for the ongoing conversation, Seth.

Personal Clarifications:

When I say "I am not a libertarian," I suspect I need to clarify a bit. On a personal/family level, I do try to evaluate certain choices, weighing such choices in a "common sense" cost/benefit (or "winsomes"/"irksomes") way, while hoping to avoid "common nonsense". Note that I am avoiding the "pleasure/pain" frame since I find it, (perhaps naively) even more problematic that the former two. This is as close to utilitarianism as I get. I do not, however, find any closed-form analytical (or "formulaic") way to do such. If I were a government administrator or legislator (instead of a government advisor to such) I would be forced to make such choices for 'beyond-family' law, policy and program decisions. Again I could not, with good conscience, make such decisions via any formulaic methods.

My 'beef' with some utilitarians, is the felt 'need' to reduce all to 'utility', as if it were somehow "out there" to be added up in analytical frame. Maybe this 'beef' is only with economists. Perhaps utilitarian ethicists do not require such a formulaic approach. True? False?

Seth: "I hope we can all agree that we the people are wise to take certain expert advice."

Which "expert advice" ought we to "take"? Here again we see the need for public deliberation, reflection, and so on. I have 'my list' of experts to whom I defer. Some are theorists, some are practitioners. I believe we all ought to have such. I also believe that "we the people" ought to talk about who we agree with (as individuals and in groups) and why. We also ought to talk about who we disagree with and why.

Here are a few books on my shelves dealing with what one author calls "Democracy and Disagreement" (I am sure I missed some, and hope others can augment the list):

Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know? 2005. Philip. E Tetlock

Systems Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life. 1997. Robert Jervis

Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. 1997. (Revised 2002.) Deboarah Stone

Democracy and Disagreement: Why moral conflict cannot be avoided in politics, and what should be done about it. 1996. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson

Contested Commodities: The Trouble with trade in sex, children, body parts, and other things. 1996. Margaret Jane Radin.

Democratic Governance. 1995. James G. March and Johan P. Olsen.

A Primer on Decision-Making; How decisions happen. 1994. James G. March.

Value in Ethics and Economics. 1993. Elizabeth Anderson.

Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reforms. 1991. K.S. Shrader-Frechette

Coming to Public Judgment: Making democracy work in a complex world. 1991. Daniel Yankelovich.

The Power of Public Ideas. 1988. Robert B. Reich, ed.

The Politics of John Dewey. 1983. Gary Bullert.


Stone's "Policy Paradox" opened my eyes to a bit that I now hold dear: "politics" is not a dirty word, but something that naturally emerges out of people negotiating. In my mind, this negotiation is critical, and includes voices distributed through all sorts of ways: through family, through educators, and through the media. It's what strongly influences culture and values, shaping images of what means and ends are desirable, what "experts" we listen to, and so on. I think it is understandable for some people to be suspicious of this respect for various cultures, as it suggests that postmodern "make your own truth" set of ideas. I think that for most issues of values, however, it's difficult to prescribe a set of values that people -should- adhere to. Consider what was said here:

> "why is "welfare" even a desirable end?"
> That welfare is a (the) desirable end is the intuition upon which utilitarianism is built.

I might take a slightly different lens to peer on that statement. And that is this: you, Seth, are a utilitarian because you believe that maximization of welfare is a worthy moral foundation. I use the word "foundation" because it is a first thought; I think you may be hard-pressed to convince some people in the world that they should be this way. Quite simply, you found utilitarianism the way some people find religion: it resonated with you. I believe that this is the way we all come to our systems of ethics, because if we are honest, we see that there are many ways of looking at this universe and the answers to some questions will never be known.

Building on that, I very much appreciate Dewey's suggestion that "that the character and value of means and ends [is] reciprocally determined." I think that the practice of constant inquiry and open-mindedness is very important, as what seems to work in life today may not work tomorrow. I think it also speaks to the issue of sustainability, which deals inherently with the passage of time. Our prescriptions, negotiations, and even our perspectives must change as the world changes.

I've skipped over some issues where the value of utilitarianism seems to shine through, in particular things like genocide and catastrophic climate change. One might think of a mixed system of ethics which focuses on the common good (utilitarianism) for large-scale problems but is less strict for more daily issues. Note that I'm not being academic in the least here... however, I think that in practice, almost everyone employs mixed systems where they don't often stick to some of the ideals they profess to value.

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