Utilitarianism as “moral Esperanto”?

The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.

Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.

Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:

One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.

For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?

The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.

If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.

Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like

–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?

–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?

–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?

–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?

Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.

To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.

UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.

Friday links

–Augustinian and Pelagian software.

–A John Polkinghorne lecture on science and religion.

–Batman as plutocrat.

–Korn and Limp Bizkit: the soundtrack to nihilism.

–Martha Nussbaum on John Stuart Mill: between Bentham and Aristotle.

–The disconnect between the science and economics of climate change.

–Peter Berger, who describes himself as a political conservative and a theological liberal, has some reflections on same-sex marriage.

–The trailer for the X-Men prequel: “X-Men: First Class.”

–Toward an agenda for the left.

–B. R. Meyers’ moral crusade against foodie-ism.

–Noam Chomsky on how global warming became a “liberal hoax” (and a bunch of other stuff).

ADDED LATER: Sunken ship commanded by real-life ‘Moby Dick’ captain discovered. And here’s a link to the “Power Moby-Dick” website referred to in the article.

Rights, liberties, and taxation

A point that I’ve tried to make before, but which may bear repeating since it’s Tax Day: the distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights, or liberty, is largely illusory–or at least not that important. Libertarians sometimes use this distinction to differentiate their position from “welfare” liberals. In the libertarian utopia, rights are guarantees against interference (negative) rather than claims on resources (positive). But this distinction starts to break down once you look closely at it.

As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, a right is essentially a person’s justified claim on society to protect her in the enjoyment of some good. Mill points out that personal security from physical harm or aggression is one of, if not the most, important of such rights since, without it, we can’t do much else. But note that this right, which some might clasify as “negative,” is, in fact, a claim on some portion of society’s resources. It takes resources (money, time, labor) to protect people’s security. Similar points could be made about access to courts, the protection of personal property, etc. So, a “negative” right is no less a claim on resources than a “positive” right.

So it turns out that the distinction between positive and negative rights is not an especially important one in determining the proper scope of government action. A better criteria might be the importance of the interest protected. Following Mill, we could say that physical safety from harm is one of the most important interests that should be protected by socially provided rights. But equally important–or nearly so–are our interests in having sufficient food, shelter, clothing, health care, educational opportunities, etc. If it’s legitimate to tax people to provide security, protect property rights, and ensure access to courts, why would it be illegitimate to tax for the provision of these other goods?

Free speech and corporate personhood

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t make an informed comment on the legal aspects of yesterday’s SCOTUS campaign-finance ruling (though I know plenty of lawyers who are likely disgusted with it, including some former Supreme Court clerks). But what I find wrong with it is that it contradicts the heart of one of the most compelling argument for free speech.

J.S. Mill, the grand-daddy of liberalism, argued for freedom of speech on many grounds, but one of the most important was that we can only arrive at the truth if all points of view get a vigorous airing. We need to be able to change course, to correct our views, by being exposed to a variety of competing truth-claims. This is an inherent part of what it means to be a human being realizing our nature as what Mill called “progressive beings.” By engaging in dialogue and argument with competing views, we may come to see that we were mistaken, or that we had overlooked part of the truth. At the very least, we’ll be strengthened in our own views by testing them against counter-arguments.

However, given this view of why free speech matters, the absurdity of treating corporations as “persons” with free speech rights becomes readily apparent. A corporation is not a “progressive being” that can correct its errors and come to a greater comprehension of the truth. It is an entity driven entirely by the profit motive. A corporation will propagate a particular message only to the extent that the message serves that interest: it’s not concerned with the truth.

You might say by way of rejoinder that it doesn’t matter whether corporations are interested in pursuing the truth. All that matters is that people are exposed to the widest possible range of ideas, regardless of their provenance. But this ignores that fact that, with unlimited corporate political “speech” we are no longer working with the model of a conversation aimed at truth, but with an attempt to overwhelm and drown competing points of view with a sheer volume of ads, propaganda, etc. The ideal of rational discussion is pretty much explicitly repudiated by allowing corporations to flood the airwaves with whatever “truths” best serve their interests. Free speech, by its very nature, presupposes something like reasoned dialogue; that’s what distinguishes it from propaganda, advertising, and similar endeavors, which are not good-faith arguments, but are aimed at bypassing rational dialogue.

Corporations aren’t persons: they’re money-making enterprises. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but their interests should be subordinated to and circumscribed by those of actual persons.