Saturday, November 18, 2006


I'd like to take some time to tell you a little about myself, what I believe, and what I don't. This is a blog that covers my thoughts and observations about a variety of topics: politics, religion, philosophy, science, culture. I'm a geek, an atheist, a socialist, and a vegan — that may seem like par for the course in the wilderness of the Web, but I assure you that in the real world I'm a rare breed indeed. This is a very long post, folks, so you might do well do digest it in chunks, unless you truly find me oh-so-fascinating.

Read the full post …

Almost all of my philosophical and political positions can be traced to two basic observations about the world.

I don't know what is good for you, nor you me. Happiness is an entirely subjective experience, and it is really impossible to know what will and won't make any given person happy. Some people enjoy quiet and solitude, others requite constant action and attention. Some people fall madly in love with one person, others love many people at many times, or even all at once. You might like country music; I like indie rock and hip hop. All attempts to quantify what will bring good to anyone but ourselves are destined to fail, unless we do so in the broadest possible sense: good is the fulfillment of whatever desires one might have.

I am not more important than you, nor you me. To everyone, their own happiness seems as though it is the most important thing. But is it, really? From the point of view of the Universe as a whole, is it more important that you are happy, or me? There simply isn't any way to say. If you believe in a god, you probably also believe that he doesn't play favorites. If you don't, well, the indifference of the cosmos is ubiquitous.

Morality is concerned with how to treat others and get by in the world. Moral questions are questions of how to "be good," and the only way to be good is to do good. From the second observation above, we can derive the concept of equal consideration of interests. Since there is no objective way to decide whose happiness is more important, the only moral course of action is to treat the happiness of all equally. From the first proposition above, we can derive the concept of desire fulfillment as the only plausible "objective" measure of happiness.

To these observations we can now add a third.

Consequences matter; motives don't. This is another issue that philosophers continually grapple with, but it seems obvious to me. In what way can it be said that motives matter, objectively? Sure, good intentions feel good to us, but we've already established that we aren't the only ones that count. If we have the best intentions of helping the hungry, but never actually help them because we are too busy playing golf, the amount of happiness gained by the warm fuzziness in our hearts is more than outweighed by the suffering of those we blew off. If we want to spread democracy to foreign lands but plunge nations into chaos in the process, only the cruelest among us could say that hundreds of thousands of deaths are not immoral because we killed with good intentions. But that's jumping ahead to politics … .

What do we get when we combine these three observations about the world? From the observation that only consequences matter, we get the aptly named consequentialism. There are several consequentialist systems of ethics. Ayn Rand's so-called "Objectivism," for example, is a consequentialist ethics stating that the moral choice is that which has the best consequences for the one making the choice. This is also known as egoism, and frankly I find it abhorrent. More on that some other time. If we focus our consequentialism instead on others, we get altruism. Altruism is certainly not intuitively abhorrent, but it is a system that must be modified by our other observations.

When we combine a consequentialist viewpoint with the observation that you and I count equally, we get utilitarianism. Formal utilitarianism is generally attributed to Jeremy Bentham, though others had similar ideas at various times and places in history. Bentham defined utilitarianism as "the greatest good for the greatest number," which is still essentially the core of the philosophy today. We must consider the good of all affected by a decision, and since our own good is just one of many, that which increases good overall is the most moral choice to make. Sometimes this will look like altruism, sometimes like egoism, but most often it will be a compromise.

When considering our utilitarianism, we quickly run into the problem of defining good. Luckily, we have observed that there is only one plausible definition that we can use. Adding desire-fulfillment to utilitarianism we get what is presently the most popular variant of that philosophy: preference utilitarianism. And now we have a system of ethics: when making a decision, the moral choice is that which fulfills the most desires of those involved.

There are two objections that are likely immediately springing to mind if you are not already a utilitarian.

"Isn't that just moral relativism, since everyone's desires count equally?" In fact, utilitarianism is not relative at all, as it by definition applies one universal standard of good to all people. Moral relativism is, in practice, almost unheard of, because it leads to ludicrous conclusions. True moral relativist would have to sit idly by while cannibals consumed their neighbors since they wouldn't dare impose their morals on others. They key to answering this question is the word everyone. A utilitarian could not forgive the excesses of a brutal culture in the name of relativism; slavery, for example, so obviously frustrates the desires of those enslaved that it could not be shrugged off as a different lifestyle choice. Female circumcision is not simply how they do things in Africa, it prevents millions of girls and women from experiencing sexual pleasure. Consequences matter, not motives.

"Wouldn't a utilitarian doctor kill a perfectly healthy man to give his organs to ten people who needed them?" This and examples like it suppose a naive utilitarian calculus that is only concerned with immediate consequences. But for a utilitarian, all consequences matter, even secondary and remote ones. A society that tolerated the murder of individuals for the benefit of others would be a society in which all people feared for their lives. People would avoid necessary medical treatment rather than risk being slaughtered for parts. Is this really preferable to one in which people are secure, but occasionally wait or even die due to illness? I would argue that is is not. One can probably invent circumstances in which something intuitively horrible is permitted under utilitarianism, but in practical terms such situations would almost never arise.

I should also mention the difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism says that you have to calculate the well-being of all involved in a decision for every choice that you make. Rule utilitarianism says to follow rules that, if everyone followed them, would tend to have good consequences overall. I think the key is to use both: in everyday life, having rules of thumb like "don't steal" and "don't lie" is useful. Not only that, but often trying to calculate the results of an action may result in actually achieving worse results, since people aren't perfect utility-calculating machines! But it is also important to keep the basic principle in mind as the basis for these rules, and to cover unique circumstances.

Now for the fun stuff. Let's look at practical applications.

Government. Most people would now agree that democracy is a good thing. But why? Well, democracy gives everyone a say in decisions which effect them. It allows the government to, in effect, consider the interests of all. Democracy is utilitarian. But do we have direct democracy or representative? Does majority rule, or is there protection for minority viewpoints? We can answer these questions by examining the consequences of each possibility.

Direct democracy seems like the most fair system possible, as everyone's opinion is counted perfectly equally. But this doesn't account for the difficulties people have in forming true, honest opinions due to complications such as time and education. Even in the American congress, both houses must divide up into committees and specialize. It is simply impractical for everyone to have the time to be completely educated on all subjects that must be considered. The result is that people will vote with their gut, rather than their brain. The outcome will not necessarily be the one that people would have really wanted if they had been in full possession of the facts. And this is a point that cannot be stressed enough: you can't just fulfill transient whims and expect good consequences. Good is the fulfillment of the desires that people would have if they actually knew the consequences.

So it becomes clear that some form of delegation is necessary, but accountable delegation. The delegates must act as filters for their constituents, forming the opinions that their constituents would form if they had the time to fully consider the facts. In practical terms, this means that sometimes they will vote against the general consensus of their constituents, but the explanation for these votes must be forthcoming and clear. Personal opinions, including religious beliefs, do not trump the good of the people. This is why I support representative democracy with as many concessions to participatory governance as possible: instant-runoff voting for single offices, proportional representation for assemblies, recall of elected officials, initiatives, and referenda.

On the topic of minority rights, we need only consider the possibility that the majority might just plain be wrong sometimes to recognize that there must always be protection for alternative viewpoints.

It is not a radical position to favor democracy. Now we get to a really thorny issue.

Economics. It's gotta be capitalism, right? Sure, there are some problems that require some government regulation here and there, but nothing could allow more people to achieve their desires than having the freedom to do whatever job they want and to keep as much of their money as possible.

I couldn't disagree more.

This conclusion would almost flow from a naive utilitarianism like the one that would let doctors kill individuals for organs. It seems that a "free market" in goods and services gives people the best opportunity to fulfill their desires, and a "free market" in jobs gives people the best opportunity to make money. But we have to examine if this is actually the case before we can agree to it. I am not particularly opposed to markets. A transparent market, in which everyone plays fair, is probably the most efficient way to distribute goods and services possible. But to conflate this sort of idealized market with capitalism is to make a grave mistake.

Capitalism is many things to many people, but the fundamental property of it is private ownership of the means of production. An even simpler way to put it is to say that some people have money, they buy stuff, and they hire other people to use that stuff for profit. Profit is simply whatever money is left over after the expenses of the company are paid, including the wages given to the people the employer hired.

What this means is that most people are employees. They are not making money for themselves, they are making money for someone else who then gives them some of it for their time. The dreaded Karl Marx called this worker alienation: almost nobody these days actually gets the product of their labor. They instead accept whatever fraction of that product their employer can give them without sending them away to find another job. In the utilitarian terms we established above, employers satisfy the desire of employees for money (which allows the fulfillment of other desires) enough that they won't leave; the employers' own desires are satisfied to a much greater extent. In fact, they are satisfied roughly 400 times more than those of the employees, on average. Average CEO income was $11.8 million in 2004, while average worker income was $27,460.

This is not a "flaw" in capitalism, this is the essence of capitalism. The market for labor cannot function unless wages are driven as low as possible and profits (private potential capital) are as high as possible.

Another aspect of capitalism is that those who control capital get to decide the course of a company's future. They get to hire management, they get to sit on boards. Despite the fact that a company might have 20 or 200 or 2,000 employees, decisions are made by a minority or even an individual. When this happens in government, we call it monarchy or oligarchy or authoritarianism. Why do we abhor it in our politics but ignore it in our workplace? Because capitalism demands it. Employees don't have the resources to influence decisions; if they don't like how things are going, they can't fire their bosses — the more likely outcome is that they themselves will be fired.

People have many misconceptions about socialism, almost entirely thanks to the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Perhaps the greatest is that socialism is a "command economy," in which a select few make a plan for everyone else. The irony of this misconception is that corporations are command economies. The Soviet Union was certainly a command economy as well. Almost all modern socialists know that command economies simply don't work. Socialism requires political and economic democracy. To the extent that centralization is necessary, it can only be achieved through the same representative democratic systems we employ for government. Socialism is a diverse spectrum of economic beliefs and theories, and I wouldn't dare summarize all of them here. But there is one thing they share in common: no private ownership of the means of production. Socialists don't necessarily oppose money or even markets. Socialists oppose the concentration of power over people's lives in the hands of the few rather than the hands of the people whose lives are affected by that power.

Personally, and other socialists may strongly disagree, I do favor a market for goods and services. I think the potential abuse of such markets can be mitigated by regulation of such complications as advertising and monopolies, as well as strong government-provided services for necessary or inherently unprofitable sectors such as health care and education. But ultimately, I feel that a market approach to distribution will have better consequences than planning.

I differ from liberals in that I reject the private ownership of capital. I believe that investment must be allocated through public democratic institutions to insure that it works for the benefit of all rather than the few lucky enough to accumulate it. In practice, this would mean rather than businesses paying interest on investment loans from private banks, they would be taxed and the taxes redistributed in grants from public banks.

I also differ from liberals in rejecting the current conception of profit as being a fair distribution of a company's success. To combat the issue of worker alienation, I support workplace democracy, in which there are no employers and employees; everyone who works for a company gets one vote in running it. Needless to say, as with government, delegation and specialization will be necessary. But managers will be elected by those they manage, subject to the same obligations as representatives to Congress. Wages will not be an expense deducted from profit, wages will be profit, distributed however the workers themselves choose through the democratic process.

In other words, people will have more control over their lives, and greater abilities to fulfill their own desires. This, by our definition above, is good.

Animals. Why should equal consideration of interests only apply to human interests? Bentham said, "The question is not, 'can they reason?' nor 'can they talk?' but 'can they suffer?'" Do non-human animals have interests that must be considered?

First, it is clear that most animals do not have desires as we think of them. The sorts of desires humans preoccupy themselves with result from the conscious minds our oversize brains produce. No non-human animal is concerned with buying things, or reading books, or blogging about morality, simply because no animal has the capacity to understand any of these things. I would never argue that a non-human animal is intellectually equivalent to a human, even if certain apes, elephants, and birds approach the mental capacity of human children.

But having different interests is not at all the same as not having any interests. All animals avoid pain. All animals need nutrition. Most animals have a variety of behaviors that they naturally exhibit, both hardwired through instinct and contingent upon their environments. Many animals have social needs and, as far as science can tell, have the same hormonal responses to certain events that in humans we call "emotions." Non-human animals clearly have interests; the most rudimentary interest, and the baseline for moral consideration, is the ability to suffer.

For many people, the knowledge that non-human animals don't know things (such as the fact that a door ahead leads to their imminent slaughter) justifies their suffering. The suffering of an animal, they would argue, is of a different, lesser kind than that of humans. But how can we measure suffering? One of our basic assumptions is that we cannot possibly experience the subjective life of another person, and this applies equally well to animals. If an animal cannot experience a given type of suffering, it is meaningless to then rank other suffering below it
— the worst suffering an animal can experience is the worst it can experience, regardless of if some other animal like a human can experience something different.

The intelligence argument falls apart through thought experiment. If it is justifiable to, say, test cosmetics on rabbits or to eat cows because they are less intelligent than humans, is it also justifiable to test cosmetics on babies and eat the mentally retarded? If not, why? Simply because they are human? We see, then, that the argument from intelligence is really speciesism: disregarding the interests of a being simply because of what species a scientist classified it under. The differences between non-human animals and humans are real, but none of them have any bearing on the question of suffering.

The question then becomes: is some animal suffering worth it? When it comes to food in any modern nation, the answer is categorically no. There is absolutely no need for anyone to consume animals for survival with the multitude of non-animal options available. People continue to do so out of ignorance (which is why we vegans are continually asked "What do you eat?" as if everyone else eats nothing but meat) or simple craving of flavor. As Peter Singer put it, "If we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it." Flavor is of no moral significance compared to death or enslavement.

Abortion. The abortion question is actually directly related to the animal question. Both concern the limits of moral consideration and the nature of suffering. Conservative Christians are outraged at the notion that animals are protected by crazy vegetarians who, more often than not, also support a woman's right to choose to kill a precious human baby.

This, however, is another instance of speciesism. The Christian, with an irrational belief in a "soul," supposes that any human life is precious simply be virtue of being human. As soon as "life begins" (a ludicrous phrase, since both the sperm and egg are alive before conception), a zygote has a soul and is therefore a human being with full moral standing. The characteristics of that zygote are irrelevant. Christian ethics is not based on consequences, it is based on rules. That killing a zygote has no harmful consequences for that zygote
— since the zygote cannot experience harm — doesn't matter, because there is a rule against it, and there's no room for debate with God.

In fact, the intuitively disturbing truth is that what we think of as "human" mental capacities don't exist until well after birth, possibly years. It requires stimulation and socialization to produce consciousness, and those things don't happen until after a child is born and raised. Even our criterion for moral consideration (the capacity to suffer) isn't realized in a fetus until well into the third trimester of pregnancy, after 99% of all abortions have already been performed. In other words, morally speaking, there isn't even a question that abortion is acceptable in almost every instance.

But let's examine the gray area, after pain is potentially possible but before "human" consciousness or personhood is developed. When discussing animals, we saw that even animals that lacked sophisticated mental abilities deserved not to be killed for food, as their "desire" to continue living unmolested would be frustrated. Doesn't a late-term fetus have such an interest, and an interest in freedom from pain?

Yes. But recall Singer: "If we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it." Flavor is not of comparable moral significance to death, because flavor is trivial. But there are any number of non-trivial reasons for abortion that do justify the possibility of suffering of an unconscious fetus. Remember, almost every abortion would have been performed long before this point, at a time when even trivial desires of the mother outweigh the nonexistent desires of the embryo. So those few things that would cause a pregnant woman to abort a fetus they'd already carried for eight or nine months are generally significant. Danger to the woman's health, for example. Discovery of a painful or debilitating disability in the fetus. Such things are of comparable moral significance, and sacrificing them for an unconscious fetus would be absurd.

I hope this post has given you an idea of my beliefs, assuming you've made it down this far. As always, I welcome comment and questioning.


  1. I don't pretend to be very knowledgeable about utilitarianism and such. However a great book to read is "Cosmopolitanism" by Kwame Anthony Appiah. It raises some of your points and refutes others. It's a great read either way!

  2. It does look interesting. On the subject of utilitarianism, one interesting thing to note is that it may be that the best way to achieve the greatest good is for people to follow a non-utilitarian philosophy; I kind of touched on that in my post, but the point is that if "cosmopolitanism" or any other ethical outlook has better consequences overall than raw utilitarianism, a utilitarian would say to use it.