Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lenin the Utilitarian

I was proud of a post I wrote earlier this month on how utilitarian justifications has caused a lot of evil in the world because proponents lack perfect knowledge of the world.

Having now read a pair of posts Bryan Caplan wrote on the banality of Lenin, I now wish I had read Dostoyevsky's
Crime and Punishment in order to make superior literary references. Caplan's point is a little different, but falls along similar lines.

Protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is an intellectual that declares great men are not restrained by morality. With the freedom to shed innocent blood they can bring great improvements to the world and should not be held accountable.

Caplan quotes Crime and Punishment at length and shows that Raskolnikov and Lenin shared many ideas. They hastily accepted utilitarianism, saw shedding rivers of innocent blood in a poetic light and praised the "extraordinary men" who is above common morality. Caplan continued:

More tellingly, if you read the entire chapter, you'll notice two typically Leninist omissions:

1. Even a token effort to show that any specific policy change would in fact have extremely good consequences.

2. Even a token effort to argue that well-targeted "terrible carnage" would greatly improve the probability of these policy changes being adopted.

The key difference between a normal utilitarian and a Leninist: When a normal utilitarian concludes that mass murder would maximize social utility, he checks his work! He goes over his calculations with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to discover a way to implement beneficial policy changes without horrific atrocities. The Leninist, in contrast, reasons backwards from the atrocities that emotionally inspire him to the utilitarian argument that morally justifies his atrocities.
I criticized some utilitarianism justifications as a false dichotomy. Caplan went beyond that and showed just how recklessly utilitarianism solutions can be picked.

Not only does utilitarianism inspire some people to commit evil in the name of ignorance, it's also applied lazily. While I stand by that utilitarianism plus ignorance equals death, when you throw in hubris and power the results are nothing short of mass murder.

1 comment:

  1. While Crime and Punishment is a technical masterpiece, it's also disgustingly malevolent, thematically. Raskolnikov is unable to become a Lenin because of overwhelming guilt from the murder he commits, and he suffers horribly. Ultimately he learns to embrace his suffering, and that of all the plebes he used to think he was better than, by accepting the Christian ethos.