Monday, March 5, 2012

Utilitarianism for the greater evil

Good ideas have a tendency to crash and burn when they move from the textbook to the streets.

Like every former Philosophy 101 student, I accepted utilitarianism's call to commit a limited amount of evil in order to vanquish a larger evil. The classic case is the "innocent fat man" where a group of people are stuck in a cave that is starting to flood from high tide. An innocent fat man becomes stuck in the only exit, and the only way to save the lives of the innocent people is to dynamite porky.

There's also the trolley problem, where five people standing on railroad tracks are oblivious to a speeding train, and the only way to save them is to throw the switch and redirect the train to another track where it will kill one person instead of five.

Of course, it's never that simple in real life. These fables assume godlike knowledge of the situation. What if the cave was only going to flood knee-deep levels and there were small holes to breath from? What if the five people on the train tracks weren't oblivious to the train or were planting a bomb?

They also assume a dichotomy of actions. Do nothing, or kill. There's no option to swim out of the cave, wait for rescuers or warn the people on the tracks.

Case in point a video posted this morning of far-left leaders discussing rioting and violence as ways to achieve their goals. This wasn't a collection of ground level recruits who said something idiotic or atypical. This was a public meeting last month at the New School in New York City about what the goals and tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement should be. After some generic anti-capitalist nonsense, activist leader Yotam Marom said:

Why are we, like harassing ourselves about broken windows and bombs when we should be talking about police brutality... I don't even want to get into the questions of whether it's ethical or not ethical to use violence in such and such. That's why I said earlier that it's about context... This system is incredibly violent and no amount of broken windows will ever add up to the misery of loss of human potential that these systems of oppression have yielded.
Marom and several other speakers at the summit invoked utilitarianism as a justification for violence. They believe that the system, man is so evil that it's excusable to use violence to reach their political goals.

If there's one lesson we can take from the Soviet Union, it should be how much evil can be heaped upon the innocent in a bloody quest to rid the world of an imagined devil. There is no one alive who can evaluate the suffering caused by murderers like Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin and say that was a better society than one that would have existed under capitalism.

And just like those communist murderers, the violent far-left is eager to spill blood to fight capitalism because they believe it causes more evil. This is what utilitarianism has brought the world.

This is the secular version of holy genocides carried out by religious men who committed atrocities in the name of a peaceful god. Every religious war is an exercise in utilitarianism. People who consider themselves good and just will become butchers when fooled into believing their actions are justified because of words written in a book, be it the Bible, the Quran or Mao's Little Red Book.

These utilitarian thugs assume they understand how the world works perfectly. People like Marom are so confident that capitalism is an evil that they are willing to injure or even kill people. Utilitarianism plus ignorance equals innocent victims.

When you ask people if a violent action would be justified to stop the Nazi war machine in World War II, and then turn that logic to stopping a peaceful system like capitalism, you end up creating evil in the name of a greater evil.

Utilitarianism also assumes false dichotomies, such as violent actions or peaceful protests are the only options. They think their violence will be more effective than peaceful actions and haven't considered that there is a world of other ways to reach their goals.

The same fallacies apply to the few cases of abortion doctor assassinations and the idea that we should torture a suspected terrorist to prevent a future attack. How do you know for sure he's a terrorist and that he can provide information to stop an attack? Torture use sounds great on paper, but it gets murky when you factor in the potential innocence of the suspect.

In theory, utilitarianism is a compromise for the greater good. It can do good things like help the poor and save lives. But in practice, it becomes the ultimate act of hubris. It justifies human sacrifices in the names of false gods. We are all flawed thinkers, but it assumes perfect information.

Utilitarianism carries a great potential for evil and should be handled like plutonium. It can improve things when used responsibly, but when combined with ignorance it makes the world far worse.


  1. Also, on the torture issue, most skilled interrogators find confessions/information obtained via torture to be suspect, at best. If you inflict enough pain on anyone, they'll tell you just about anything.

  2. Do you think utilitarianism has any more traction than the libertarian cousin, anarchy?

    And how do you respond to idea that folks such as Miltion Friedman used utilitarian-like (Consequentialist) arguments to justify libertarianism?

    Isn't the tolerance of short term job losses in favor of technological progress and the creation of more jobs in the future a type of "means justifying the ends?"

    Granted they're not violent means, but the rationale is the same.

  3. The trolley and cave cases are used to help people draw conclusions based upon a number of philosophies. Libertarianism can be applied to them just as easily as utilitarianism; they are not exclusive to one ethical theory.

    I find your jump from speaking about Marom's ideas about violence towards property to Stalin's violence towards humans to be highly flawed. See my italicized words for why.

    Your claim that utilitarianism has brought violence upon the world (or at least in your example) is flawed. First, you aren't disagreeing with utilitarianism, but rather the justification. You disagree that the current system of capitalism is flawed enough to merit violence. Second, libertarianism could be used just as easily for a reason for violence here. Of course, since you disagree with the justification, you would not be one to take to the streets. For an example of where you might personally use libertarianism as a justification for violence, see the Revolutionary War.

    Not only is it false to say that every religious war is an exercise in utilitarianism, but it is false to say that any war is such an exercise. In fact, no religious war has ever used a universal ethical theory as justification; in-group thinking is incompatible with universal principles.

    I have no idea why you think utilitarianism uses false dichotomies. The best I can figure is that you're jumping off your earlier claim that the trolley and cave examples only give two options. Again, those are not utilitarian examples - any ethical theory can be used for them.

    You're right that utilitarianism can apply to things like the murder of abortion doctors, but there are two issues here. First, you're assuming that it is true that fetuses are human lives. If that is the case, then libertarianism can be applied as well - and with the same result: Abortion doctors are infringing upon the autonomy of other humans, so it is justified defense to stop them. Second, rule utilitarianism can get around the matter entirely. For instance, "It is best to work within the confines of the legal system so long as the system is not corrupt." That means no murder for legal actions.

  4. Correct. This:

    ...but it is false to say that any war is such an exercise.

    Should read as:

    ...but it is false to say that any religious war is such an exercise.

  5. Jeremy, this is what I meant by saying it should be handled like plutonium. It can still be used, but very carefully and there's still a risk.

    I completely disagree with this summary that Marine and others were merely talking about property damage. The video is linked. The quotation clearly shows he used the word violence and we need look no further that a far-left protester riot to see how serious this is.

  6. Remember all those violent right wing protestors that ended up causing and participating in riots?

    Neither do I.

  7. The video you posted is a Breitbart production. It can't be trusted in the least.

    As far as the quote goes that you posted, I'm getting generally tired of teaching people basic fucking grammar - not just here, but everywhere. When he mentioned "violence", he did not discuss its use in an ethical context. In fact, he explicitly said he did not want to discuss that. Then he talked about a violent system and broken windows. So first,

    1. He refused to discuss the ethical use of violence. You cannot rightly conclude from this that he therefore supports violence.

    2. He referred to capitalism as violent. You cannot conclude from this whether he means physical violence or only other types of violence. One piece of evidence for the former is his reference to police brutality, but he does not indicate that he believes that is exclusive to capitalism. One piece of evidence for the latter is his reference to broken windows. What these two things mean is that he may be advocating physical violence, but your quote does not support that. On the other hand, he does appear to endorse property damage. (Or, at the very least, he thinks property damage is not as bad as capitalism.)

    Finally, would you be writing articles about the dangers of the civil rights movement because of the Black Panthers if you were a journalist in the middle of the 20th century?

  8. You can see the clips for yourself. There were others as well. He said he was opposed to talking about if it's wrong to use violence for political gain. This is the same thing that happened at the anarchy convention where they refused to talk about the ethics of tree spiking when they were teaching people how to spike trees that could injure or kill loggers.

    You need to stop looking at this issue through rose-colored glasses, such as comparing the organized tresspassing mobs to the civil rights movement. You have a very naive view on this issue.

  9. You failed to prove your case with your quote. What I've already said still stands.

    I'm not convinced that you have a grasp on what utilitarianism is. You're confusing it with anarchy, making arguments against it that could be made against virtually any ethical theory, and you're substituting the need for facts with instances of subjective judgements gone awry. Taken together, you may as well condemn any movement - including the civil rights movement - based upon its bad apples. Or, rather, based upon the people you have arbitrarily decided to attach to utilitarianism.

  10. Was it The Virtue of Selfishness I bought for you? There's an essay in there called The Ethics of Emergencies which argues at length that ethics must be designed for normal human life and not tested against every conceivable emergency scenario.

  11. This is why people need to take philosophy courses. Thought experiments like the trolley example are specifically designed to explore particular principles. If those principles do not hold up under extreme conditions, then they may need to be reevaluated.

    I would say that those who devalue thought experiments - an absolute foundation of philosophy - remind me quite distinctly of the people left behind in Plato's Cave, but then, I doubt anyone here has the least bit of familiarity with that allegory.

  12. Mark, I'm currently reading the book and have not read that essay yet.

    Hawkins, I know this is the internet but you don't have to treat every thread like a Warcraft forum thread about the latest patch changes.

    Utilitarianism, in its most basic sense, is committing an evil act to counter a greater evil. This is basic philosophy. You should follow the link I provided if you still don't understand it.

    The post said the issue classic examples involve perfect godlike knowledge of how the world works and what the consequences will be of ones actions. In real life, you have people who don't understand how the world works and they end up committing evil needlessly.

  13. Actually Michael Hawkins, having read The Republic in it's entirety more then once and owning a copy, your doubtfulness is as usual misplaced.

  14. Michael, first, I have written about the importance of thought experiments a number of times. Unlike you, I have a deep appreciation for how philosophy works. Don't get upset when someone comes at you hard on a topic you decided to write about with such little care.

    Second, this is like when you wrote that article promoting intelligent design. You're ignorant. You have entirely failed to even come remotely close to describing utilitarianism. I don't see how you think you can go further and also analyze it. Christ, I took down the majority of your points and all you could do was quibble over the interpretation of a quote (which didn't come close to supporting you anyway) that you took from an edited video by a discredited source. Have you even read a single bit of philosophy? Have you even taken a philosophy course? I know college is evil and liberal and a bad investment and all that, but it would serve you well to at least search iTunes or some other medium for some real lessons. The fact that you obviously have no idea how philosophy even works, much less what various ethical theories say, reflects poorly on you in light of your insistence to write on the subject.

    Yes, Nate, very good. You took a piece of hyperbole and responded to it literally. Cicero would be proud.

  15. Thank you. I only did it because it seemed to me to be a sneaky attempt at an Ad Hom.

  16. M-Hawk, let me provide you with an appropriate link for your sparse knowledge of this subject.

    You can't seem to grasp how some subjects can be boiled down to something simple. Advanced information in a subject does not overturn the basics; it sharpens them. Such as advanced physics doesn't overturn Newton's laws. As I said in the second paragraph, this is the simple version of utilitarianism taught in Philosophy 101, such as the one I attended and have read up on since. You have retained some sparse details from later courses and forgotten the basics, and your points fail to address any of the issues in this piece.

    You remind my of Max Cady in the DeNiro version of Cape Fear after he fends off the thugs.

  17. I find it incredibly frustrating how much of a coward you are when it comes to engaging a topic, Michael. You pick one point out of a whole host of issues, throw out something you have no intention of defending anyway, then run off.

    Utilitarianism is not committing evil to prevent greater evil. If you had any idea what you were saying, you would know that you aren't even making sense. You're assuming what is good and evil - the very point of utilitarianism is that the good is what minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure. By assuming that there is good and evil before you apply utilitarianism to the situation, you are necessarily looking at the theory through some other framework. You may as well just say that you think utilitarianism is bad because it isn't something else.

  18. If you want someone to respond to each and every one of your 30 points, then you should number them and start by saying "please."

  19. The fact that you have once again gone about dodging making a response just now only supports my contention.

  20. Even if he is using unfitting terms (from within the utilitarian framework) that doesn't mean his overview doesn't follow the same rules. As long as the relations are maintained it doesn't matter.

  21. Are you responding to me KP? If so, Michael assumed what was good and what was bad from the outset. That's called begging the question.