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Monday, September 29, 2014


Utilitarianism is far and away the most attractive and popular moral principle ever put forward by a serious philosopher, but it gets very little respect from most in the philosophical profession.  Leaving aside the rather more sophisticated objections of Parfit and others [Parfit, by the way,  fifty years ago or so submitted to me at Columbia a one hundred and ten page paper defending act utilitarianism in a course he was not even taking for credit -- there were giants in the earth in those days, as the Good Book says], there are several seemingly crippling objections to the form of utilitarianism advanced by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation [1789].

Bentham's formula, which as everyone knows is usually referred to as the Greatest Happiness Principle, calls upon us to choose that act or law which promises to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons, each one to count for one.  If the principle is construed in what seems the natural way as meaning that we must try to make each person as happy as we can, then it is in general impossible to comply with, because it commands us to maximize each person's utility function simultaneously, and save in special circumstances, it is impossible to maximize two or more functions at once.  If, on the other hand, we understand the principle as calling on us to maximize the total happiness in society, each person's happiness or unhappiness being given the same weight, than there are all manner of objections that appear upon consideration to be absolutely crushing.  Even if we ignore the really hairy problems introduced by taking into account the happiness of future generations [problems for whose elaboration Parfit is quite famous], it seems manifestly wrong to impose pain on a few innocent folks in order to reap increased pleasure for the many -- just the sort of consideration that led John Rawls to advance his Theory of Justice.

Because philosophers have spent so much time exposing the theoretical weaknesses of utilitarianism, it is difficult for us today to recall just how revolutionary the Greatest Happiness Principle was, and was intended to be, when Bentham first articulated it.  The truly radical part of the principle was not the identification of pleasure with the good -- by the late eighteenth century, there was a hedonist tradition in ethical theory going back at least two thousand years.  No, what really upset the applecart was the specification, "each one to count for one."  The problem, you see, was that the principle gave the same weight to the pains and pleasures of peasants as it gave to those of aristocrats.  To be sure, one could argue, as many did, that because aristocrats had such refined sensibilities they were likely to suffer excruciating pain from bodily insults that rough peasants would scarcely notice [a theory immortalized in the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Princess and the Pea.]  But there were so many peasants and so few aristocrats!  Even the dullest dukes and duchesses could see that once you began adding up pleasures and pains à la Bentham, the interests of the masses were going to outweigh those of the classes.  Indeed, Bentham's principle, as he quite well intended, constituted a very powerful argument for democratic government resting on universal suffrage.  [Strictly speaking, to get to that conclusion required adding the lemma that each person is the best judge of his or her own pain and pleasure, an assumption with which Bentham was comfortable but that proved a bridge too far for his godson John Stuart Mill.]

But the real problem, which was clearly understood by a great many bright economists, was that utilitarianism seemed ineluctably to lead us to an endorsement of a far-reaching redistribution of income.  After the so-called marginalist triple revolution of the 1870's, economists were prone to claim that individuals have declining marginal utility for wealth.  This means, roughly, that the richer you are, the less pleasure you get from each additional dollar you can lay your hands on.  This is certainly plausible [although you can consult a classical article by Milton Friedman and Leonard Savage for some objections and quibbles], but the principle of declining marginal utility was really embraced because it made all the math so lovely.  The problem was that if you take a dollar away from a Ritchie Rich and give it to a poor minimum wage worker, the pain suffered by the toff because of the loss will be less than the pleasure gained by the working stiff, and that will increase the total happiness of society.  Well, that was clearly an unacceptable inference!  Modern economics did not come into existence to justify Robin Hood policies of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

As it has so often in the past, Philosophy came to the rescue, this time by discovering the problem of Other Minds.  Each of us, Philosophy decided, John Donne to the contrary notwithstanding, is an island, incapable of establishing more than the most indirect communication with the other islands in the sea of humanity.  Whew!  Close call!  If I cannot ever really know what is going on in your mind, then I cannot measure your pains and pleasures against my own, establish a common unit of measurement, and add them all up.  Capitalism was saved, and economists could go back to elaborating elegant mathematical structures confident that in so doing they would not be burning the house down.  Thus sprang up indifference curves, production possibility frontiers, general equilibria, and all the other gems of the modern Economics profession.  Here is the classic statement of this saving argument as stated in that old classic, An Essay on The Nature and Significance of Economic Science by Lionel Lord Robbins in 1932:

"There is no way of comparing the satisfactions of different people. ... Hence the extension of the Law of Diminishing Marginal utility, postulated in the propositions we are examining, is illegitimate. ...The conception of diminishing relative utility (the convexity downwards of the indifference curve) does not justify the inference that transferences from the rich to the poor will increase total satisfaction."  [selected from pages 140-141 of The Essay.]

But if this seemingly sensible inference is illegitimate, what are we left with?  Well, to lapse into tech talk, we are left with unanimity partial orderings, which are said to exhibit, after Vilfredo Pareto, Pareto Optimality.  In brief, any change that makes at least someone better off [higher on his or her Indifference Curve] without making anyone worse off, is clearly preferable [assuming no envy, which is why Rawls sticks in that odd caveat.] 

Apologists for capitalism, which is to say professional economists, showing a positive genius for propaganda, call this state of affairs "efficient."  I mean, who on earth could be against efficiency, especially in America?  So the present distribution of wealth and income is efficient, so long as taking a dollar away from a billionaire and giving it to a poor man makes the billionaire even the slightest bit less happy.  Unless, of course, the transfer has the all-round happy effect of somehow increasing the total output of the society so that the billionaire can be given his dollar back [or, more likely, a million dollars back] while also leaving enough to give the poor man an extra crust of bread, which will, ex hypothesi, move him a tad up his indifference curve.  [They give Nobel Prizes for this stuff.  I think astrologers should complain.] 

Which brings me back to Bentham and the reason why I started this extended rant.  For all its manifest flaws, utilitarianism is the only ethical theory that actually tells me how to think about one of the hardest questions in political theory and public life:  How can I judge which of the innumerable outrages that assault me deserve my closest attention?  How can I tell whether a complex policy pursued in a complex world is making things better or worse?  Was a homophobic America that treated African-Americans and women as second-class citizens a worse or a better place than an America in which the condition of African-Americans, women, and the LGBT community has dramatically improved, but in which income inequality has soared, the state routinely tortures its political prisoners, and labor unions are dying?  Save by means of some sort of "felicific calculus" [to use the old-fashioned term], I do not know how to begin thinking about this question.

So let's hear it for old Jeremy Bentham.  A wax replica of his head may sit atop his skeleton stuffed with hay and clad in his own clothes, but his heart was in the right place.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


It being a rather slow Sunday, I was amusing myself by checking in on some academic blogs, such as that run by English economist Simon Wren-Lewis, and I made an astonishing discovery.  Not every academic who maintains an intellectually oriented blog puts up a new post every day!  Who knew?  This is a very great relief to me.  Now that I have come to terms with the fact that this blog is, in my retirement, my job, as it were, I have felt a heavy weight of responsibility to write something thoughtful, arcane, and original every single day.  That is a terrible burden to carry around, and I have been much weighed down by it.  I am now seriously contemplating cutting myself a little slack.

The inner voice of compulsion is not new to me, as I have remarked in my Autobiography.  I recall what was said many years ago at a mid-Western college by the Professor who had agreed to  introduce me for a talk I was giving there.  "Professor Wolff," he said, "joined the Book-of-the-Month Club a while back, but he failed to understand the instructions that came with his membership card.  On the card it said he was obligated to buy at least three books a year but he misread it as saying that he was required to write three books a year, and he has been doing his best to obey ever since."

From now on, if invention fails from time to time, I shall pour myself a glass of wine and relax.


During my walk this morning, I found myself thinking back many decades to my undergraduate days and the effect on me of studying, when I was so young, with Willard van Orman Quine.  I have already told a number of stories about Quine in my Autobiography, so I shan't rehearse them here, but as I neared the end of my walk, I recalled the great opening paragraph of Quine's famous essay, "On What There Is," whose laconic style so perfectly captured Quine's character.  For those of you who do not know the essay, here it is:

"A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity.  It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?'  It can be answered, moreover, in a word -- 'Everything' -- and everyone will accept this answer as true.  However, this is merely to say that there is what there is.  There remains room for disagreement over cases, and so the issue has stayed alive down the centuries." 

I wonder sometimes whether I was not influenced, as a young undergraduate, by this bare style in my own writing.  Later in the same essay, when he is discussing the views of an imaginary philosopher whom he calls "Wyman,"  [to contrast him with Mr. X], Quine says that Wyman's "over-populated universe" [which has in it possible entities as well as actual entities] "offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes."

This naturally reminded me of Eric Erickson's fascinating observation that people have styles in dreaming -- some of us always have Technicolor dreams stuffed full of images and events, while others have spare Black and White dreams, regardless of the meaning of the dreams.

The Quine opening paragraph also reminded me of other striking opening lines -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  And of course the most famous first line in all literature:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

My mind, like that of Tristram Shandy, being prone to digression, I soon found myself thinking of favorite lines from movies, and since we leave in just seven days for Paris, I thought quite naturally of Casablanca.  Casablanca offers not one but three immortal lines along with a fourth that does not actually appear in the movie.  "We'll always have Paris" is the signature line of the movie, but "Round up the usual suspects" runs a close second, giving us the name of the great Kevin Spacey movie.  And then, of course, there is the last line of the movie, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."  The line that does not actually appear is "Play it again, Sam."

Humphrey Bogart's closing remark to Claude Raines reminded me of my personal favorite last line of any movie.  It comes from Men in Black.  Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have just defeated a giant intergalactic cockroach, played with brilliance in an over-the-top performance by Vincent D'Onofrio.  Jones and Smith are getting ready to leave Flushing Meadow with Smith's new love interest and future Woman in Black Linda Fiorentino when a call comes in of trouble with some planet somewhere.  Jones says, "Call Dennis Rodman."  Fiorentino asks, "Is he from there?" and when Jones says yes, Fiorentino delivers the great throwaway last line:  "Not much of a disguise."

Tha-tha-that's all folks.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Well, I posted a rumination about the higher meaning of my writing, went down to the first floor to get the mail, and promptly got stuck in the elevator coming back up to the third floor.  A big bump, a smaller bump, and it stopped dead between the floors.  I pressed the emergency phone button on the elevator command panel [it worked!], reported the problem ["Help is one the way," the lady said], and waited.  While I waited, I learned that contrary to every movie I have ever seen, you cannot pry the door open from the inside.  Also, though there is what appears to be a trap door in the ceiling, I am way too short to reach it.  After fifteen minutes, during which I called Susie to let her know where I was [good old reliable cell phone], the elevator started up, stopped at the second floor, and the door opened.  I jumped out.  The elevator door closed and the entire elevator system went dead.  Rather like being swallowed by a big fish that decides I am not tasty and egests me.  I think now I know how Jonah may have felt.

For what it is worth, the elevator inspector in this part of North Carolina is named Cherry Berry, according to the inspection sticker in the elevator -- not a name to inspire confidence.  It could as well be a new Ben and Jerry flavor.


I was introduced to serious philosophy sixty-four years ago, when I was a sixteen year old Freshman at Harvard,  by two of the leading analytic philosophers of the middle of the twentieth century, Willard van Orman Quine and Nelson Goodman.  Their standards of clarity and precision in the explanation of formal ideas and arguments made a lasting impression on me.  And yet I have, all my life, been drawn to what I found to be the deeper insights of thinkers whose writings did not always comport with the rather stringent standards of clarity urged by the best analytic philosophers.  Rather than give up those insights, I have throughout my long career sought to articulate them in ways that remained true to them while also achieving the clarity I came to admire in the work of Quine and many others.  Looking back now on all that I have written, I realize that this quest has been my dominant philosophical impulse.

It began, of course, with my struggle to make clear to myself the complex and very deep arguments in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, but the same impulse led me to write the chapter on "Community" in an early book, The Poverty of Liberalism, as well as my critical book on Rawls' A Theory of Justice [Understanding Rawls], my two books on Marx [Moneybags Must Be So Lucky and Understanding Marx], my highly critical journal articles on Bob Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia and Jon Elster's Making Sense of Marx, and much else besides. 

As a frequent commentator on this blog, Andrew Blais, can attest, I liked to say in my lectures on the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding of the Critique that a metaphor is not an argument, so that until we can explain exactly what Kant means when he describes synthesis as a "running through and holding together of a manifold in one concept." we do not understand the Critique.  The most original and important contribution of my first book on Kant was precisely the unpacking of that metaphor, which then enabled me to state clearly in the forms of elementary logic Kant's central argument, something that no commentator before me had succeeded in doing.  The same impulse led me to struggle with Chapter One of Capital until I could explain clearly, precisely, and non-metaphorically what Marx means by his extended talk about the Equivalent and the Relative Forms of Value [an explication I enlivened by exhibiting the formal similarity of Marx's exposition to an old Jewish joke.]

Speaking generally, my work has been a constant effort to show that we can preserve and learn from the insights of the great philosophers and social theorists of the Western tradition without reducing them simplistically to one-dimensional caricatures, while at the same time refusing to  succumb to the temptation to sink into the bafflegab of a Hegel. 

As Kierkegaard says in what by now you must realize is one of my favorite works, the Philosophical Fragments, we must shun "a state of ineffable bliss in what might be called the howling madness of the higher lunacy, recognizable by such symptoms as convulsive shouting; a constant reiteration of the words 'era,' 'epoch,' 'era and epoch,' 'the System' ... "

Only rarely have I undertaken in my writing to state and defend new ideas, rather than to clarify those I have found in the writings of others -- mostly notably in In Defense of Anarchism, but also in The Ideal of the University, and perhaps in The Poverty of Liberalism [three books that I published in the space of three years.]

Although I have frequently written about controversial authors and subjects, my greatest pleasure comes from the aesthetic gratification of a complex idea rendered clear and simple.  Some who read what I have written confuse simplicity with superficiality, rather like a reader who cannot distinguish between Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. 

It is said of Michelangelo that he went one day to the palace of a Prince to seek a commission for a work of art.  When the Prince asked to see a sample of his work, Michelangelo picked up a piece of charcoal, went to a blank wall, and freehand drew an absolutely perfect circle.  I have sometimes fantasized that if I were a violist auditioning behind a screen for a position in a great orchestra, I would want to play nothing but a simple three octave C major scale, so perfectly in tune and with so rich and seamless a tone as only a transcendently great violist can produce.  When I am at my best in my writing, it is that perfect simplicity and beauty to which I aspire.


Enzo Rossi asked me about Analytical Marxism, and I replied.  Now, one of the oddities of old age, I find, is that although I seem to be able to recall in excruciating detail experiences I had sixty years ago and more -- hence my endless story-telling -- I seem not to be able to recall what I have written and published with anything like the same precision.  Having arisen at a bit after midnight, as I do most nights for an hour or more, I thought to re-read an essay I wrote about Jan Elster's book on Marx twenty-five years ago or so.  It is, I say without a shred of false modesty, a brilliant critique of Analytical Marxism.  If anyone is still interested in the subject, I strongly recommend it.  It can be found archived at by following the link at the top of this page.  Inasmuch as I wrote it but did not remember its contents, it is an interesting question whether I can be said to have known what the article said before I re-read it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


In this post, I shall expand somewhat on my remarks in the last few posts concerning the relationship between social reality and the language used to try to capture that reality.  For those who are interested in this subject, I strongly recommend reading Erich Auerbach's classic book, Mimesis, one of the greatest works of humanist scholarship ever written.  Through a nuanced analysis of passages selected from works of the Western literary tradition, ranging from the Odyssey and the Old and New Testaments to the Chanson de Roland and Decameron all the way to the novels of the nineteenth century, Auerbach shows us in elegant detail the relationship between the linguistic devices employed by a writer and the conception of social reality that he or she seeks to convey.  For example, if the author of the Chanson de Roland has available only bare parataxis [the stringing together of atomic sentences with the conjunction "and"] it is virtually impossible for him to convey a flexible, perspectival rendering of a social interaction.  But by the time Boccaccio is writing the Decameron, the Italian he has available to him allows him, in a single sentence, to capture a scene from several points of view at once, by the use of complex syntactic devices such as subordinate clauses, embedded parenthetical asides, and so forth.

Auerbach teaches us that an author must have linguistic tools adequate to the social complexity he or she seeks to represent.  One of his most striking paired textual contrasts is the recognition scene from The Odyssey [in which a disguised Odysseus, home from his wanderings, is recognized by his old maid because of a scar on his leg] and the passage from Genesis in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  [For an equally great but utterly different treatment of this famous passage, see Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.]  To the author of The Odyssey, social reality is completely on the surface, open to view, equanimous.  But to the author of Genesis, reality is complex, many-layered, with hidden depths and inaccessible heights, from which a God can speak directly and without intermediation to a man and command incomprehensible things.

With these few remarks as background, it is interesting to contrast the language of the great classical Political Economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo,  John Stuart Mill -- with that of Marx in Capital.  The language of Ricardo -- to choose the greatest of them -- is a serviceable, limpid prose, transparent, clear, easily penetrated by the mind.  Ricardo believes that the market presents us with puzzles, some of which he is able to solve -- most famously, the nature of land rent -- and some of which he is unable to solve -- notably the determination of price in cases in which the quantity of labor directly and indirectly required for production is not the same in all lines of production.  But the market does not present us with mysteries.  Those are reserved for the throne or the altar.  But by the nineteenth century, the cool breezes of Enlightenment Reason have dispelled the clouds of mystery in the church and the palace, leaving only the puzzles of the marketplace to be solved by careful analysis and observation.  Marx, in contrast, is convinced that the capitalist market is as mystified as ever the altar was;  indeed, more so, for the market's greatest victory is to present itself as unmystified while in fact utterly befuddling both participants in the market and those seeking to understand it.

Now Marx could have written Capital à l'anglaise, as it were.  This is demonstrated by the existence of a little pamphlet, Value, Price, and Profit which Marx actually wrote in English in the period when he was preparing Volume One to publication.  In that little work, his language is indistinguishable from that of Ricardo.  So Marx's decision to write Capital in a completely different sort of prose cannot be explained, as I put it in Moneybags, by the theory that he had contracted a nearly fatal case of Hegelism as a youth which left him linguistically crippled and hence unable to write like an Englishman.  My hypothesis in Moneybags, which makes perfect sense of his literary choices, is that he had a complex conception of social reality, the articulation of which required a discourse both ironic and filled with allusions to the literary, religious, and cultural legacy of Western Civilization.

But if that is what he thought, why not just say so?  Well, I have explained that also in Moneybags.  The answer, not at all simple, is that he understood himself to be embedded in the mystifications and ideological delusions of capitalism and hence needed a language that could at one and the same time express those mystifications and call them into question.  In that way, he could accurately render his own situation and that of all thoughtful, reflective, revolutionary men and women trapped in a capitalist economy and society.
How then can we liberate ourselves from these mystifications?  Not merely by writing about them, Marx thought.  For, as he reminded us in the famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.