Saturday, December 17, 2005

Reframing utilitarianism

Fellow thoughful bloggers:

A new thread for conversation. I would like to propose a reframing or extension of utilitarianism. Consider the following four-principle alternative; supporting comments follow.

1. Maximize suitably crafted preference satisfaction. When the inevitable conflicts occur…

2. Resolve the conflict by striking a fair balance of ‘satisfaction sacrifice’, or by …

3. Redefining the conflicting party’s preferences so that principle #1 applies again.

4. Kill all uncooperative adversaries.

I added Principle #4 to give urgency to the other principles, i.e., taking #2 and #3 seriously is the way to avoid #4. Unfortunately #4 lends descriptive power to these principles.

Principle #1 is plain vanilla utilitarianism. I won’t elaborate beyond clarifying that ‘suitably crafted’ means long-term interests. Below I discuss whether different kinds of interests should weigh more than others. (The Socrates and pig matter.)

Principle #2 is the first divergence from utilitarianism. I say tactical oughts involve maximizing utility, while moral oughts involve the prevention and resolution of conflict. Moral claims should be considered effective or ineffective, not true or false. Moral discussion is more about who must carry the burden of sacrifice rather than who gets how much satisfaction. By definition, when there is a conflict someone thinks the system of benefits and burdens that generates the largest aggregate of utility gives them an unfair share of sacrifice relative to the possible alternatives. A fair sacrifice of utility might mean an equal distribution of sacrifice for all participants, or it might mean minimizing the largest sacrifice, etc. But note the point: maximizing utility itself will not do as a solution. If it did, #1 would be satisfied and #2 would remain irrelevant.

Can morality as conflict prevention and resolution be justified? This is too large of a topic for me to address here, but I can make two quick comments. First, whatever else we want, we want our conflict to be the fuel of the expansion of opportunities, not their destruction, which they could become if #4 is reached because #2 and #3 failed. I can not imagine a consistent utilitarian arguing with this assumption.

Second, note that it is impossible for me to persuade you that persuasion has no force. This is a foundational loop that stops an infinite regress of claims and counter-claims in the same way that “I think, therefore I exist” stops a chain of doubt. Persuasion is an attempt to resolve a conflict on the level of conversation, and consensus is proof of persuasion’s success. Thus it is logically odd to argue that striving for a moral consensus, the resolution of conversational conflict, is irrelevant or has no moral force.

Principle #3 involves two ideas. The first is to get back to #1 because the satisfaction of utility is better than the sacrifice of utility. Second, it acknowledges the possibility of moral surprise, i.e., that our interests have simply been wrong, and that conflict resolution was necessary to realize this. Our higher interests now weigh more than our previous interests, making us better off in a way that principle #1 or #2 alone could not. (A satisfied Socrates is better than a dissatisfied Socrates.)

5 comments:


  1. Moral claims should be considered effective or ineffective, not true or false.

    Moral discussion is more about who must carry the burden of sacrifice rather than who gets how much satisfaction.

    By definition, when there is a conflict someone thinks the system of benefits and burdens that generates the largest aggregate of utility gives them an unfair share of sacrifice relative to the possible alternatives.


    I'd have to say that I agree very much with those points. That is a major point in understanding much of ADR.

    Nice post.

    Steve
    http://adrr.com/

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm struggling a little here:
    "I say tactical oughts involve maximizing utility, while moral oughts involve the prevention and resolution of conflict"

    What do you mean by a 'tactical' ought?

    I'm worred that you're really some kind of contractualist, but just one who, ceteris paribus, has a personal preference for more utility over less?

    On the other hand, if you really mean that utility maximisation /is/ a moral claim, then "Moral claims should be considered effective or ineffective, not true or false." is presumably (itself) a false statement: What would utility maximisation be effective at doing? (certainly not conflict resolution!)

    Thanks,
    Alex

    ReplyDelete
  3. Adam,

    I need a clarification in a few places. It matters if this is from a perspective within utilitarianism, or from outside of it. That is, are these agents already utilitarians, or is part of the job to persuade them to be utilitarian? It matters, because conflict resolution will look quite different depending on which is the case.

    If this is a group of utilitarian agents (suppose they also agree on a species of utilitarianism), and they're not objecting to utilitarianism in the first place, then conflict will only arise, it seems to me, out of disagreement about predicting future outcomes, or psychological difficulty with impartiality. In predicting future outcomes, some persuasion will be necessary, though it seems like resolution will not come by "striking a fair balance of satisfaction sacrifice." This satisfaction sacrifice will come it, I suppose, when someone is caught up in their partial affections while utilitarianism is asking them to give something up for concerns of impartiality. In this case, I'm tempted to say that striking a "fair" balance will not help at all. Something more like therapy is needed, though the utilitarian can't rule out force either. If this person has the only stash of fresh water in a draught, and won't share it, a group may be justified in taking it by force if necessary. This hardly qualifies as conflict resolution or "redefining the conflicting party's preferences." I guess it goes in the "kill all uncooperative adversaries" category.

    If this is a group of agents who are not utilitarians, then most of the conflict resolution will be about converting them.

    I'm not sure why this reframing is necessary. Utilitarianism, after all, is all about "satisfaction sacrifice" in the first place. If it weren't, it would be ethical egoism.

    Based on your last post, I see why you say that moral oughts involve the prevention and resolution of conflict. I think I disagree with this framing of morality as a concept, though. If a group decided by majority vote at the conclusion that children were to be used as sex slaves, I as an observer, would still want to point out their moral failure. Are you saying that such a group has arrived at the moral conclusion?

    I don't take utilitarianism to be particularly interested in the "expansion of opportunities" as you put it. It's interested in the best outcome, and since "opportunities" are themselves morally neutral, they are not good in themselves. I don't think a utilitarian has any problem closing opportunities if she thinks it maximizes utility. Take the above draught example: the best action may be to overtake the water-hoarder by force. You describe this as "destruction," but if conflict resolution hasn't worked, it may be unavoidable.

    For your small treatise on persuasion at the end to be successful, I think you need to define it further. Some types of persuasion may be impossible, while other types work quite well. Can I persuade a six year old that 22+44=66, or once I show them, are they really just seeing it for themself? Persuading someone of this kind of mathematical truism seems different than persuading someone to watch a movie with me. You make an interesting point, but I think there's a lot more to say on it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. by draught I meant drought.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I like that Faraci has all of the "fake" posts.

    ReplyDelete