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Thursday, October 9, 2014

LET ME TRY ONE MORE TIME


Ten days ago, I tried [see THREE CHEERS FOR JEREMY BENTHAM] to provoke a discussion about a question that has long concerned and puzzled me, viz How should we evaluate actions or decisions with large-scale consequences affecting, both positively and negatively, now and in the future, scores or hundreds of millions of people?  I offered a cheer for Jeremy Bentham because he, virtually alone among the great moral theorists, took this question seriously and offered, in Utilitarianism, an answer.  I noted that Utilitarianism has major, perhaps even crippling, logical failings on which professional philosophers have dined out for two centuries.  But the philosophically less questionable alternative moral theories that have been offered fail entirely to engage with and answer this pressing question – and I include Kant’s elegant moral theory in this negative judgment.

Now, my son Patrick has sent me a link to a long essay by Paul Krugman in Rolling Stone evaluating the Obama presidency, and on reading it, I find that it poses the question I failed to make compelling, this time in a manner that may be easier for us to engage with.  Krugman takes Obama’s greatest accomplishment to have been the enactment into law of the Affordable Care Act, now universally known as Obamacare.  [To get some idea of what a bad idea it was for the Republicans to try to destroy Obama’s reputation by tying his name forever to that law, think how it would sound today if every time you got a Social Security check it was referred to as an FDR check, and every time you handed in your Medicare card at the doctor’s office it was referred to as your LBJ card.]  Krugman suggests that the biggest disappointment for liberals with the Obama administration was its total failure to bring to account those who launched the Iraq war and made torture the official policy of the United States of America.  For the sake of this blog post, let us simply accept those two judgments, positive and negative, as true.  If you reject them, then think of this entire post as an example of what Law School professors call a Hypothetical.

Now I am going to make an assumption that I suspect is true, but for which I have no direct evidence.  I am going to assume that in the Obama White House in the early days of the current administration, there was an active discussion about calling Dick Cheney and others before the bar of justice, and it was decided that such an act, thoroughly justified both morally and in law, would be so politically controversial that it would make passage of serious health care reform impossible.  Recall, if you will, just how difficult it was to pass even the deeply flawed bill that finally became the Affordable Care Act.  There was nothing like broad support for a Single Payer system.  The death of Teddy Kennedy and Martha Coakley’s loss of his seat to the egregious Scott Brown forced the Democrats into all manner of compromises to assemble the sixty votes needed to invoke cloture.  Whether or not such discussions ever took place in the inner circles of the Obama administration, I am completely convinced that such a judgment would have been correct as a matter of vote-counting political reality.

Which brings me, once again, to the question that provoked my paean of praise for Bentham.  Assuming all the above [my “hypothetical”], by what process of reasoning should we weigh the benefits of bringing the architects of the Iraq War to justice as against the benefits of passing the Affordable Care Act?  We must remember that while we automatically take into account in such a deliberation the present and future benefits of extending affordable health care to tens or scores of millions of Americans, we must also try to estimate the effect on the actions of future administrations of a successful show trial of Cheney and company.  How many hundreds of thousands of deaths in future unjustified wars would be saved by the chilling effect of the incarceration of Dick Cheney?  [Or his execution, but that is probably just a liberal wet dream.]

I do not have an easy and comfortable response to this hypothetical [which I myself believe to be an actual, if I may put it that way.]  I invite anyone who wishes to do so to weigh in.  But let me issue one caveat:  I am not interested in high-minded condemnations of war crimes from those who are unwilling to say why they would be willing to forego the benefits of extended health care to tens of millions.  Or in political chest-thumping from those who cannot explain where they would get the sixty votes for cloture in the aftermath of a Justice Department indictment of a former Republican President or Vice-President.  Let us recall that every Democratic administration since Harry Truman tried without success to pass health care reform, including the effort by the woman who is almost certain to be our next president.

If you come down on the side of the Affordable Care Act, then you must explain what you would say by way of justification to the next person tortured by the American government.  And if you come down on the side of indicting Dick Cheney, then you must explain what you would say to parents whose child died because they could not get the health care that the ACA would afford.

If that seems like a needlessly provocative way of posing a theoretical question, I will just note that exactly such questions are the daily exercise of anyone who is elected to run the government of a wealthy and powerful nation of more than three hundred million people.

I look forward to some interesting responses.

16 comments:

enzo rossi said...

An interesting twist to this hypothetical felicific calculus is that if one opts for Obamacare then the future lives saved are American lives, whereas if one opts for punishing Cheney then the future lives saved are overwhelmingly non-American, and probably belong in large part to people with darkish complexions. Bentham and any other good cosmopolitan wouldn't care about that distinction at all, but I suspect it will colour the reactions of many readers, if only implicitly/subconsciously.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am sure you are right, although it is a red herring, but it raises a very deep question. All classic political theories are theories of the state, which means that the distinction between what affects fellow citizens and what affects others is essential. How should one deal with that? Weigh the interests of all human beings equally? really? What are the implications of such an injunction for economic policy?

enzo rossi said...

Yes, that's the bigger picture I had in mind. There's something fancifully apolitical about certain forms of ethics-driven cosmopolitanism.

Chris said...

I don't feel capable of making a comment on this because the facts presented in the hypothetical are SO divorced from the real facts of the Obama presidency, that in addressing this moral dilemma we would be perpetrating not only a falsehood, but a falsehood that makes the Obama admin look better than it should .

For instance it's a well known fact that Obama never once mumbled 'what about single payer', and within his administration was ALWAYS drafting legislation in favor of the corporate side of health coverage (he had closed door sessions with the major insurance companies before bringing forth the idea of Obamacare, although he promised on his campaign he wouldn't do that). There's also these silly ideas that Obama had to quail when he really wanted to go after Cheney and the CIA...Come on? From the guy who killed several American citizens without due process? Who bombs weddings in Afghanistan? Who relabeled all 18 year old males in a strike zone as enemy combatants until proven otherwise!? The guy who radically expanded the war powers act to basically say 'The president does what he wants when he wants' in his invasion of Libya. There's just so much wrong in this post, factually, and hypothetically, that it ought not to be answered.


On a side note, Obamacare has been an epic disaster for me and the people of the lower classes that I know. I'm now forced into healthcare coverage when I can't afford it, and my insurance won't cover the medical issues I have (e.g. sleep study, apnea, etc.) So now I not only pay full price for my ailments anyway, but I also pay premiums that aren't helping me. I would financially be better off without coverage, and medically just the same.

I'm not alone in this experience, the same thing happened to my wife, whose company slashed her healthcare preferring to take the yearly penalty than to ensure she had adequate coverage. When the women at her work complained (her line of work is predominant female) the company response was "the men in your lives are expected to take care of you".

There's this strange idea that just because more people are covered in America, they are better off medically and financially. This isn't the case with a lot of folks I know.

So how about this answer: both obamacare AND his treatment of torturers are morally gross, and we should be weighing which was the worse of the two, not can one balance the other.

Chris said...

Oh and let's not forget that he putt Chelsey Manning under indefinite detention, and solitary confinement without visitation, which the UN classified as tantamount to torture. So we can't assert that Obama had a problem with torture, when on his own watch he participated in the torture of an American citizen.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

In other words, you prefer to beat your chest and not engage with the problem. Why, because you think such a dilemma could never arise in a socialist state? Since any health care system operating in a nation of three hundred million will easily generate enough anecdotal horribles, I take it you think it is simply never relevant to ask how one evaluates large scale social programs [which would of course be all the more important under socialism.] I do not find this a particularly useful response to a question. Here is an exercise you might try. Describe ANY domestic or foreign policy you would endorse, and then invite me to pose questions about possible choices one would have to make under that policy. ANY policy you wish to propose, any at all. I challenge you to come up with one that does not require you to think about the question I asked. Get serious!

Chris said...

My problem was the hypothetical you structured - given my (unfortunately morose) awareness of facts - prevents me from even wrestling with what is otherwise a very good and solid question. I think the question in general is fine, i.e., the question "How should we evaluate actions or decisions with large-scale consequences affecting, both positively and negatively, now and in the future, scores or hundreds of millions of people?"

That question is good. Prudent. Philosophically engaging. But starting from the false dilemma of Obamacare versus Obama's (dubious) desire, and failure to, criminalize the Bush admin, makes it hard to answer.

But I fear I’m being pigeonholed, or at least made out to be saying things I’m not saying.
“In other words, you prefer to beat your chest and not engage with the problem. Why, because you think such a dilemma could never arise in a socialist state?”
I think the problem ought to be engaged, and I think it ought to be engaged in a way that deals with real factual issues. We don’t need a piori thought experiments, let’s conduct hypotheticals about what’s really going on. I don’t know what you mean by the socialist comment.
“Since any health care system operating in a nation of three hundred million will easily generate enough anecdotal horribles, I take it you think it is simply never relevant to ask how one evaluates large scale social programs [which would of course be all the more important under socialism.]”
The second half of this is not true. I’m in a crappy mood at the moment because I have the flu, and I just got nailed with over $5,000 in medical bills that should be covered but aren’t. So I wasn’t ready to hear more praise for a program that was initially the creation of Bob Dole and Mitt Romney being championed by the far left. Especially when I’m very pro-active about my health, eat right, exercise, sober, etc. That aside, what I think is being overlooked in Obamacare is what is often overlooked in the Obama presidency, the worse off are not better off, if anything they are being squeezed more. Harder and harder everyday. But so long as some of the semi-well-to-do remain the same or move up a little, we lose sight of those taking the squeezing (Muslims in the case of drone campaigns and redefinition of enemy combatants, whistle blowers in the case of manning and snowden, the poor in the case of obamacare, 15 million of whom will remain uninsured, and others millions who are stuck like me worse off than before, and much of the African American community is economically worse off under Obama than before Obama, and as Cornel West often points out, Obama tends to focus/blame their individual responsibility for their situation and not larger structures, etc.). So it seems to me that your question actually applies to Obamacare itself. How do we assess the fact that the well-to-do are MORE well-to-do, while the already worse off, are either the same, or even worse off than before? I did not highlight that well enough in my anecdotes, I apologize. But nevertheless, I think your dilemma actually applies to Obamacare, we do not need to invoke anything about Obama being a secret pro civil liberties president, when the record states the opposite.

“Here is an exercise you might try. Describe ANY domestic or foreign policy you would endorse, and then invite me to pose questions about possible choices one would have to make under that policy. ANY policy you wish to propose, any at all. I challenge you to come up with one that does not require you to think about the question I asked. Get serious!”

Well we could either do Obamacare as it really is, not as the liberal left thinks it is. Or let’s do a better healthcare system. I’m no fan of Cuba’s government, but their healthcare program is worth a serious discussion, discussions I never really see take place. But if not Cuba, I suppose France, Canada, Taiwan, and/or Japan’s healthcare system are open for discussion, since they’re vastly superior to ours in terms of overall health quality and decrease in per capita expenditure.

Jerry Fresia said...

Chomsky is fond of pointing to what he calls the,
"One moral truism that should be uncontroversial," the "principle of universality: We should apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others–in fact, more stringent ones."

Thus, if we wish that others do not invade and torture us, and/or not chop our heads off (either with a knife or drone), then we ought to apply the same standard to what we do, "in fact, more stringent ones."

I interpret this to mean that hypocrisy, especially when it comes to what we as a society do to others outside of the US, ought to weigh more, as a moral transgression, than the failure to provide healthcare to the poorest subset of the offending population - even though the poor may be only minimally responsible for the crimes it's government commits.

Reigning in the imperialist cowboys, holding them accountable, along with the banksters, might lead to a more civilized society.

Chris said...

Jerry, I think that's a damn good response. The other truism Chomsky always points out about candidates and their policy is that you can tell people X policy is to superior to Y, but do so "without illusions". As he often said vote for Obama, but do so without illusions, i.e., don't SUPPORT him, just pull the ballet.

I think these two Chomsky truisms help to answer to the question raised by Wolff then.

First, we should talk about these programs without any illusions as to what's going on.
Second, is the principle you raised. Which means Obama has actually done a good job in a horrible way. It used to be only non-americans could be killed without due process, and tortured without due process. Now Americans can be too. So he certainly applied the "principle of universality: We should apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others–in fact, more stringent ones."

Gene said...

Chris and Jerry,

This question has nothing to do with the efficacy or any policy. It is simply asking if a politician, party, or government has two desires, but it is impossible to satisfy both, how should they choose which to pursue. The given is that Obama wanted both the Affordable Care Act and to punish Cheney. However, either one of those would have exhausted so much political capital that the other would be impossible. And the question is how should he have chosen? It doesn't matter if either of those were good ideas or if Obamacare worked or if it was Romney's idea first. The question is only how should he make that decision?

Now, to get back to the question, I think some form of Utilitarianism or Pragmatism is the only possible answer. I just don't believe virtue ethics works on the macro level, and deontology leads to bad things. The trick is making sure that the end goals are good and that we always realize that all of our means create new ends that have to be taken into account (perhaps a dose of Kant's treat others always as ends in themselves).

Jerry Fresia said...

Gene, I think I understand the question.

As to your question, "How would he have chosen?" My suggestion is that "the principle of universality" prioritizes going after Cheney.

That my logic may be a mess is quite another story.

Chris said...

Gene,
What about variations on a virtue ethic like the capabilities approach?

It's certainly not the case that we are confined to pragmatism and/or utilitarianism. Other theories of justice exist which attempt to aid in this form of decision making.

Also, in a Utilitarian sense, the longer time passes, the harder it is to correlate a later effect with a cause.

Mikey said...

The problem with focusing on the prosecution of Cheney is that it treats the invasion of Iraq as an outlier of US foreign policy. I've become pretty convinced by those who see a great deal of continuity with America's prior imperial adventures and our current situation.

Hence, while Cheney's prosecution might prevent some of the more idiotic military actions by this country, absent a real, and unlikely re-evaluation of our foreign policy goals, it would probably not change much.

And other countries have their own Cheneys, after all.

That answer, I'm afraid, still doesn't really engage with your question.

I imagine a truly utilitarian calculus would put the onus on other countries to somehow defend themselves from a militarily adventurous US, or any other country, by alliance or military build up.

Virtue, deontological, utilitarian, and religiously-based ethical systems have very different advantages and flaws, such that it's difficult to directly compare them.

Chris said...

"Virtue, deontological, utilitarian, and religiously-based ethical systems have very different advantages and flaws, such that it's difficult to directly compare them."

This is true, but it strikes me as if we lost something when we gave up virtue ethics. The other systems now operate kind of us a grab bag, pick the system you like most. And so now philosophers can simply quietly muse "oh well he's a utilitarianism, so of course, but from the deontological point of view...". It's if the debate about which is genuinely true is lost, and we just calculate what's the best approach given our predisposition.

Maybe we shouldn't give up on the idea that states, and people, aim at some good, and there are fruitful and damaging ways to approach that end. If we accept that, then maybe we don't need to worry about whether choice X was bad because 50 years later we can kinda sorta tie to an effect, in terms of consequences of pleasure and pain. Instead, somewhere between X, and 50 years, we lost our path on the trajectory for the good, and so cannot blame X anymore.

J.R. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter DO Smith said...

1. Ethical system. The discussion seems to assume it is an exclusive either/or choice. That is not what I observe. What I observe is a kind of cascading ethical system where choices cascade through successive layers of ethical systems. Most people have an implicit/inchoate virtue ethics system that tends to shape the way they conduct their lives. If their ethical choice is not immediately obvious at this point they tend to appeal to the next layer in the cascade, deontology. Next they appeal to consequentialism. Their ethical choices then pass through these layers until they are resolved.

2. Political retribution. Here we are on very dangerous ground. This will be used as a tool for pure revenge and to weaken your opposition fatally, giving you a free hand. Politics will become a cycle of increasingly vindictive bloodletting. Other adverse consequences will be that law forces and judiciaries will be stuffed with sympathisers. A culture of retribution, once unleashed will have huge consequences. Politics is a vindictive game.

3. Accountability. Nevertheless, I think there should be accountability at an international level. This is how I suggest it should be done. Every national leader, at the end of his term of office, will face a mandatory judicial investigation(by the world court) of the conduct of his administration while in office. The terms of reference will be corruption, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The world court will be empowered to apply a range of sanctions, according to severity of misconduct, if found. They will also be empowered to make awards for leadership of distinction.

If every leader knew that he faced such an accounting at the end of his term of office his wrongdoing will be severely inhibited. Since it will not be administered by your political rivals a retribution culture will not take root.

Of course, getting nations to agree is a real problem. I think it would happen gradually. The US and the EU could be the first to adopt such a system, leading by example. It would probably take about 100 years for the majority of countries to join such an arrangement. The holdouts will then come under increasing pressure from the majority.

The Roman Republic had a slightly similar system where Roman governors could be sued for misconduct on their return to Rome at the end of their office. But that was more often misused for political purposes by rivals. This is why the system would have to be administered by the world court.