Sunday, June 10, 2007

The limits of utilitarianism

You've heard Spot, boys and girls, call himself in general a "consequentialist," haven't you?

Doesn't ring a bell, Spotty.

Sigh. Here's a really short definition of consequentialism from Wikipedia:

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action. Thus, on a consequentialist account, a morally right action is an action which produces good consequences.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism:

Utilitarianism is the ethical doctrine that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome. Utility — the good to be maximized — has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain), though preference utilitarians like Peter Singer define it as the satisfaction of preferences. Utilitarians tend to consider the interests of any entity capable of experiencing pleasure or pain.

 John Stuart Mill was an important utilitarian thinker. So was Jeremy Bentham. But there are limits to these guys' philosophy.

That's great Spot, but what does it have to do with the issues of the day?

Quite a lot, actually. And has often been the case recently, it is Balkinization that got Spot to thinking about it. This time it was Sandy Levinson, in a post titled "Necessity v. "Self Defense". Levinson is a professor of law at the University of Texas. Notice, boys and girls, that a law professor would never use the vulgar "vs." in lieu of the prim "v." as an abbreviation for versus. It's just not done.

Spot is tempted to just rip the whole darn thing off, but it's a bad idea to steal from a guy who has colleagues who teach intellectual property law. That's not done, either.

Most of the disagreeable things done, e.g. torture, in the so-called GWOT have been justified on the grounds of self-defense: we have to protect ourselves from the terrorists. Perpetrators of terror and their conspirators are not deserving of compassionate consideration.

But what about the use of the young children of a terrorist as a "lever" to get the terrorist to cooperate? How can you justify that as self defense? You can't, according to Sandy Levinson:

If these allegations about the US are true--and I agree with the quoted posting in Marty's posting from Hilzoy that one of the truly awful things about the Bush Administration is that such allegations have become all too plausible instead of being instantly dismissible on the grounds that "we don't do that sort of thing"--then we (i.e., all members of the political community for whom the current administration purports to speak) have taken a step further down the road to barbarism, since, as noted above, there are truly no limits to what can be defended if one embraces a "necessity" rationale with regard to gaining intelligence. No doubt, many in the Administration would describe themselves as opposed to a view that "the end justifies the means." But no other philosophy is available to justify what the US is accused of doing. Jesus may be George W. Bush's favorite philosopher, but the behavior of his administration is a crude parody of Benthamite utilitarianism.

We need not defend ourselves against little children; when we use them, it is "the end justifying the means."

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s kids are hardly alone here:

The US military is holding 19000 Iraqis, 16000 of them at Bucca. Although most are guerrillas or their helpers, a lot of them were picked up because they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once arrested, an inmate often cannot clear himself for months or years. I don't think they have access to attorneys. No one cares if they are depressed. At Abu Ghraib earlier on, some inmates were systematically tortured. It is unclear if all such practices have ceased.

Some Iraqi women have been held in this way. Some were essentially hostages, taken to make them reveal where their husbands or fathers were or to guarantee their good behavior. Their reputations were shot, since Iraqis think Americans are sex fiends and wouldn't trust the virtue of a woman who had been in their custody. The unmarried among them are likely doomed to be spinsters.

George Bush and his adoring—although diminishing—claque would undoubtedly be dismayed to be called utilitarians. But, irony of ironies, they are. A bigger bunch of moral relativists you will never find.

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