Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Friday, October 10, 2014

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION


My blog post generated a vigorous discussion, which I should like to rejoin via this post.  Chris, I am sorry to hear that you are under the weather, and that you have been burdened with medical bills that ought, in a well-run country, not to be laid upon you.

I have not been entirely successful in my effort to pose a question for discussion.  First a comment about Noam Chomsky’s moral truism about universality, which Jerry Fresia reads as an injunction not to be hypocritical.  No doubt, but universality in this sense is not a policy, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding.  Looking back at the thirteen men who have held the presidency during my life, I imagine I would judge that only two of them have not been hypocrites in Jerry’s sense – Eisenhower and Carter.  But all of them actively pursued what might be called America’s imperial project.  They would have been less irritating if they had acknowledged openly what they were doing when they did it, but I do not think they would then have done much of anything differently.

I return to the question I posed originally:  When a politician is forced by political reality to sacrifice one policy he or she wishes to pursue in order to pursue another, how should he or she deliberate about which one to sacrifice?  None of us who are participating in this discussion face that question personally, because none of us is a politician in a position to make such choices [assuming for the moment that Vladimir Putin is not one of the readers whom Google identifies as being located in Russia.]  And it may also be that many of you feel, as Chris seems to, that because you hate everything about Obama and his policies and his actions, you either cannot or will not even think about how he ought to make the choice I describe.  It may even be that there is not now, and never has been, any political figure about whom Chris does not feel that way.  O.K.  Then ask the question of an imaginary man or women who at some time in the future is elected to the presidency or premiership of a democratic socialist nation.  If you think that such a person, should there ever be one deo volente, will never face such choices, that it will never be the case in the socialist nation of the future that a president will have to scurry about assembling a voting coalition to enact a law and will be faced with a problem of the sort I posed, then I really think you are being hopelessly naïve and unrealistic.

The closest I have ever come to such a decision was the question posed to my grandfather, Barnet Wolff, in 1918.  He had been elected to the New York City Board of Aldermen on the Socialist ticket in 1917 – the high water mark in the electoral efforts of the New York Socialist Party.  He and the other Socialist Aldermen – the Seven Honest Men, as they were called in Socialist circles – were pushing for a program of free lunches in the elementary schools for the many scores of thousands of desperately poor boys and girls suffering from malnutrition at a time of the great flu pandemic that killed thirty-five million worldwide.  [You can read the full story of Barney’s political career by going to box.net via the link at the top of this blog.  My account is excerpted from a book I wrote about my grandparents.]  The proposal brought them into conflict with a committee of wealthy philanthropists who were pushing for a system of two cent lunches.  Each of the Socialist Aldermen received a letter on fancy stationary from Mrs. Simon Guggenheim [yes, that Guggenheim – the Guggenheim Museum] asking that they withdraw their proposal for free lunches and join them in working for the more manageable two cent proposal.  [The original of her letter to Barney is in my file cabinets at home.]  Barney and his comrades held firm; a $50,000 trial program for two cent lunches was approved, debated, withdrawn, re-approved and eventually, I believe, dropped.  I do not know whether Barney ever deliberated in the manner of the hypothetical I outlined in my original post on this question, but he might well have done so.  Since he was an elected official [albeit a quite powerless one in the corrupt milieu of early 20th century New York politics] he would have had no choice but to make a decision one way or the other.  It does not seem to me that Noam’s truisms would have been much help.

One last observation.  The question “Shall I bring Dick Cheney to justice or win health care for five million?” presents us with what might be termed a syntactical dilemma.  English being what it is, “Dick Cheney” and “five million” are both expressions formed from two words, and so it is fatally easy to treat them as quite naturally of equal weight.  But suppose we spoke a language in which it was grammatically incumbent upon us, in forming that sentence, to identify each of the five million by name as we had Dick Cheney.  The effect might be something like what Tolkien tells us is spoken by the Ents in Fangorn Forest, in which sentences are interminable and discussions take days, but perhaps we would be led ineluctably to assign greater weight to the needs of the five million, simply by having been syntactically compelled to name them all.

12 comments:

Chris said...

It's true, I've read a lot of presidential and U.S. history, and there's no one I like. It's also true that Obama is someone I like even less than most. (Mostly because he has this uncanny ability to delude the left into supporting his basically right wing policies, policies that if Bush enacted them, the left would be rabid).


But the reason the particular hypothetical made the abstract question hard to answer is that it is a necessary condition for answering this question that we know 1) what's being decided upon, and 2) as much information about its consequences and practical implementations as we can, right?

There seems to be a qualitative difference between deciding whether or not to implement obamacare and/or go after Cheney, versus appoint a supreme court justice and/or expand our drone policy into half a dozen countries. Maybe I'm incorrect thought.

If we had to make these decisions in our liberal capitalist society, wouldn't we make a decision in the most Rawlsian sense? I.e., use our due reflection to make sure our choices don’t violate a general principle of a justice, unless of course that is to stave off a greater injustice? In this sense it strikes me as if the more aggressive healthcare campaign (i.e., start arguing for single payer, and see where it lands you ((maybe compromise it for a public option)), instead of arguing for a public option and selling it out) supersedes Cheney's imprisonment.

Jim Westrich said...

I am not sure where to add any value in this discussion but I will add a few points. As to your point about the value of naming the "5 million". Indeed, truly naming them would improve our view to aiding them. But the action in question also impacts other people (including many people losing health care benefits like Chris) and should they not be named as well. More importantly, "win health care" needs to be named and understood as well.

Health is a "peculiar commodity" in such that is can be indirectly obtained through a multitude of commodities and just "winning health care" may not be enough or even the most effective way of attaining health. It is possible that even through established bipartisan levers that more health could be attained than (more could be attained with more traditional Democratic aims). Better jobs, better education, consumer protection, and a litany of other things would have a more salubrious effect on general population than marginal victories in "winning health care".

I say this to possibly get back to your social utility question. In my admittedly limited understanding of such issues, I would think this is a way to understand that greater health (or good) could be produced by making peoples lives better in a number of ways (better jobs, lower interest rates, better education, critical thinking, safer lives, less stress, etc.) than funneling more resources into a poor marginal investment of "health care". (I hope no one reads this to understand that I am anti-health care--the opposite, "health care" does many remarkable and important things in curing and caring but when health care nears 20% of an economy something has clearly gone wrong with the marginal/"last dollar" impact).

Also a tip, health care is a tricky business for any economist (even Nobel prize winners) so you need to look more widely than Krugman in this case. Krugman has been wrong about dismissing loss of private insurance in direct impact of ACA (in this case just read the Wall Street Journal if Chris's story appears anecdotal and you will see many large companies dropping health insurance for employees) and has not had the ego to admit it yet. This is no insult to the obvious intellect and experience of Krugman but it is an area where there so many sides that the usual binary/dichotomous thinking fails.

Jim Westrich said...

Apologies for the poorly written second paragraph. A fix:

--
Health is a "peculiar commodity" in such that is can be indirectly obtained through a multitude of commodities and just "winning health care" may not be enough or even the most effective way of attaining health. It is possible that even through established bipartisan levers that more health could be attained than through the ACA. Obviously, more could be attained with more traditional or progressive Democratic aims but the point stands that any political action is not binary (ACA or Single Payer). Working for better jobs, better education, consumer protection, and a litany of other things would have a more salubrious effect on general population than marginal victories in "winning health care".


Robert Paul Wolff said...

All of this is true and just makes my point more forcefully. The interesting point I was trying to bring forward for consideration is that sometimes centrally placed political actors who can actually choose which of several policies to effectuate -- but cannot choose to effectuate them all -- are faced with choices, either moral or prudential, in which some sort of calculus seems called for. The virtue of utilitarianism, with all its faults, is that it tries to provide such a calculus, and does so [at least in Bentham's formulation] with radical democratic anti-elitist implications.

Chris said...

Can we not a calculation method from Rawls too? Who is of course anti-utilitarian.

Jerry Fresia said...

2nd try; I knew the Chomsky truism wouldn't get me very far but it seems like the banality of evil to push aside the crimes against those living outside of the US (the prosecution of Cheney et al, would be a way of opening a window onto the horrors of imperialism for decades) in order to provide succor to those in need domestically. If quantifying lives helped is important, then allowing the world to know the dimensions of US terror, past and present, might positively impact the lives of millions too.

The only policy principles that I can come up with are rather lame. One is "Don't clean up your own nest before you stop dirtying the nest of others." (Okay, not as great as Bentham's.) But if we frame it slightly differently, namely that torture and such, as part of aggressive imperialism is intended to transfer wealth to the domestic population at large, then a policy principle might be, "Never rob Peter to pay Paul."

Maybe we should just forget about pithy policy principles.

Mitch said...

While not an elected official, I do work in "politics" and even outside the arena of decision making by an administration or a question of what bills to introduce, outside groups also have to make these calculations. I can say form experience there is no set formula to which we turn. Each instance is an ad hoc process of weighing the positive and negative outcomes of pursuing this or that campaign, this or that strategy.And often, too often, the calculus is weighted by financial considerations: if we do this will we lose funding? This is true for elected officials as well. If an attempt is being made to sway an elected, we often ask if anyone knows his or her fundraisers. We know, more or less, that Obama's administration had to make a choice of either pushing for a health care law or for climate legislation. We also know, more or less, that a decision was made to try and get stimulus done quickly and get it out of the way. My best sense of what went into the calculus here is that Obama wanted to achieve the "holy grail" of outstanding Democratic domestic policy - universal health care.(Setting aside whether or not Obamacare is that.) It really seems to me that the calculation made was about much more mundane matters, questions of votes and legacies. That's not an answer to how these decisions should be made, but it gives a sense of how they are made, at least in this system.

Jim Westrich said...

I should have been clearer on how insight into your question would be important to me as well. If someone could propose a useful formal way to make the necessary utilitarian calculations for my paragraph 3 above, it would be very beneficial to all.

Most political actors in my experience are not calculating in a social utility space but are, if they are calculating at all, in some "what is in it for me way". There are people who are amenable to argument from social utility so there is always hope.

J.R. said...

The following was composed at the pub, so pardon and incoherence or rambling:

The problem here is that far too many of us find the framing of the question to be pernicious. It is not a case of improving the lives of millions of Americans versus punishing a handful of malefactors--if that were the case, the choice would be clear to all but the most strident deontologist. So, if I follow your advice to treat it as a hypothetical, constrained by your premises, well, it is not that interesting of a question.

If I let in things outside your hypothetical framing, then it does become a richer question. We have a case of improving the lives of millions of Americans versus strengthening the impunity of politicians to commit the worst crimes with no repercussions. Combine this with Obama's expansion of the executive authority to wage war, hold people without trial, and engage in the extrajudicial execution of citizens and non-citizens alike--well, that is a different story, no? It looks more like weighing a case where millions of Americans get better health care, but incalculably greater numbers of foreigners are ripped apart by American bombs or locked in dark dungeons all courtesy of billions of dollars from the public treasury that could be conceivably applied to public works, versus a case where we get no improved health care, far fewer people die from Hellfire missiles, and maybe some additional money goes to bridges or schools.

That is a rich question, but it falls prey to one of the many problems with utilitarian reasoning, namely the uncertainty of the future, the lack of information concerning the present, and the complexities of the counterfactuals involved.

All that said, the utilitarian calculus does provide some useful heuristics. However, given the well-known problems with utilitarianism, we would be well-advised to look for other options.

The problems with utilitarianism do have real-world negative consequences. The use of the so-called "ticking time bomb" argument to justify torture is straight out of the Ethics 101 curriculum, and the utilitarian assumptions built into Pareto's understanding of economic efficiency have produced some very real utility monsters.

I have recently begun looking in to the capabilities approach of Nussbaum and Sen, what I have read so far warms my Marxist/Aristotelian heart--but I do not yet know how well it would function as a decision making apparatus.

J.R. said...

The problems with pub composition are on display--"and" should read "any," there should be one less "versus" and I just now see that Chris brought up the capabilities approach after I stopped following the prior thread.

Chris said...

"If I let in things outside your hypothetical framing, then it does become a richer question. We have a case of improving the lives of millions of Americans versus strengthening the impunity of politicians to commit the worst crimes with no repercussions. Combine this with Obama's expansion of the executive authority to wage war, hold people without trial, and engage in the extrajudicial execution of citizens and non-citizens alike--well, that is a different story, no? It looks more like weighing a case where millions of Americans get better health care, but incalculably greater numbers of foreigners are ripped apart by American bombs or locked in dark dungeons all courtesy of billions of dollars from the public treasury that could be conceivably applied to public works, versus a case where we get no improved health care, far fewer people die from Hellfire missiles, and maybe some additional money goes to bridges or schools. "

It's good to know I'm not totally delusional and other people see what I see
:)

Thank you J.R.!

J.R. said...

Glad to be help Chris, and I believe that I agree with you about virtue ethics. I wish you would say more on this, as well as what you believe the strengths (and weaknesses)of the Nussbaum/Sen approach to be.

I am going to try to rework what I said earlier in a way that I hope more directly engages with the question Wolff posed, further shows why the discussion has, by his lights, gone astray, and ideally reaches his standards of clarity,if not brevity.

I take Wolff to be right that utilitarianism represented a revolutionary approach to ethics. This is so for the reasons mentioned—namely that it is both secular and egalitarian--but also because it recognized the non-monotonic nature of moral reasoning.

For a Kantian, at least the cartoonish Kantian of the standard philosophy education, moral reasoning is deductive. Because of this, once something is shown to be an impermissible course of action, no further fact, no additional premise, can alter this conclusion. If it is wrong to lie, for example, it is always wrong, no matter how many complicating factors one adds to the situation. This I take to be the point of his convoluted essay “On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives.”

This is not the case for utilitarian moral reasoning. Additional premises can transform a valid piece of moral reasoning into an invalid piece of moral reasoning or vice versa.

1: Clubbing Joe over the head will increase the amount of suffering in the world.
-----
2: One ought not club Joe over the head.

Is valid as far as it goes.

1: Clubbing Joe over the head will increase the amount of suffering in the world.
2: Joe is about to set off a bomb in a crowded theater.
-----
3: One ought not club Joe over the head.

Is pretty clearly invalid.

1: Clubbing Joe over the head will increase the amount of suffering in the world.
2: Joe is about to set off a bomb in a crowded theater.
3: Everyone in the theater is a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party.
-----
4: One ought not club Joe over the head.

Might well be valid.

So, given this, it really is difficult to limit the question the way the OP tried to. It would indeed be morally repugnant to forgo helping millions gain access to health care simply to satisfy a desire for vengeance on Cheney. However, if we add the further fact that forgoing the prosecution on Cheney reinforces the de facto immunity of the powerful from prosecution, suddenly we have a situation where choosing not to prosecute comes with an increased likelihood of future powerful public officials ordering torture or murder because they believe themselves safe from any consequences, the situation looks different. If we add further information about independent but related choices made by the Obama administration which increase the ability of powerful public officials to easily initiate wars, murder, and torture—well, the practical syllogism looks very different indeed. And here's the thing—because of this, we must incorporate all relevant additional information into our evaluation if we are to reason rightly. The dilemma that Wolff, following Krugman, want to set up rapidly becomes, I don't know, a docdecalemma or something.

I would maintain, despite my discomfort with utilitarianism, that this openness to new facts and thus new premises is a virtue of the theory. However it does make it difficult to pose limited questions like the one which opened this discussion. We cannot either evaluate our leaders, or make decisions as leaders, on model of single, isolated, “great choices.” The truth, as a much maligned thinker once said, is in the whole.