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Saturday, October 11, 2014


The discussion I sought to initiate, using as my starting point a column by Paul Kruger, seems to have gone in two directions, neither of which I anticipated.  The first is a free-form expression of disapproval of the Obama administration and of Obama himself; the second is an open-ended discussion at a very high level of abstraction of a variety of competing theories in the field of ethics, most notably utilitarianism, capabilities ethics [which I assume refers to the writings of Amartya Sen], and virtue ethics.  With regard to the first, it would seem that some readers of this blog are so angry at Obama that they cannot consider, even as a hypothetical, the nature of the deliberations that might have taken place within the Obama White House.  [Parenthetical aside: I would strongly suggest that those folks not consider trial law as a career.  “Your Honor, I cannot bring myself to ask whether the law is being properly applied to my client because I find him so morally reprehensible” is not a line of argument likely to have much success in a trial court.]  The mere mention of Obama’s name triggers a flood of condemnation.

With regard to the second, it would appear that participants in the exchanges cannot easily think their way, even hypothetically, into the mind of someone engaged in actually making a decision as opposed to judging it from the outside.

Since the contributors to the discussion are all quite obviously both highly intelligent and philosophically well-informed, I am forced to ask myself why I have failed to provoke the discussion I was hoping for.  After brooding on this for a bit, I have a tentative answer.  Theoretical justifications of Democracy as a form of polity typically argue that those governed have the right and the responsibility to participate, through their representatives, in the enactment of the laws by which they are bound and in the making of the executive decisions in accordance with which state agencies act.  But in an enormous nation like the United States, neither of these claims has more than the most distant relation to reality.  There are no doubt some circles in which the experience of actually enacting laws or making high level executive decisions is sufficiently common to make meaningful the sort of discussion I was seeking to stimulate.  But those of us who meet on this blog almost certainly have never travelled in those circles [save for William Polk, whose writings have on several occasions appeared as guest posts here.]

Interestingly, at least to me, my son Tobias, who has over the past six years played an important role in the evolution of the Obama administration’s position on LGBT-related matters, has repeatedly been compelled to make exactly these sorts of choices, taking into consideration the complex political forces at play in an area about which he has the very strongest possible moral convictions.  In my eighty years, I think I have never once been faced with such a set of factors.  This has liberated me always to speak my mind and act on my conscience, but of course to little or no effect.



Andrew Lionel Blais said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Mostly certainly, you have made decisions that have influenced the commonweal? Maybe not a large common, but large enough to be pertinent to your question. Perhaps the students in a program or department. How did the utilitarian calculus work for you then? In my limited political experience, school committee member, democratic town committee member, allusion to the calculus is rare. I don't mean that every so often, someone says, "Hey, let's apply good old Bentham!" I mean that someone says something like, "Hey, what are the consequences of using PARC or MCAS?" (A local reference that I hope translates easily.) When it does appear, however, there is never any calculation in the formal sense. That calculation is replaced by a discussion of what various participants feel would be the result of such a calculation. It is as if everyone were agreed that since such calculation is hopelessly subjective, not to mention impractical, all that is left is a discussion of what people guess would be the result of such a calculation were it to be capable of being objective and practically possible. In this way, it is like Mill's inductive methods.

JR said...

Professor Bob --

Regarding the complexity of performing a utilitarian moral calculation I offer up an anecdotal tale of the dismissal of a deontological moral point of view by an act utilitarian.
One autumn quarter at UW in Seattle the Australian moral philosopher J.J.C. Smart taught as a visiting professor. While there he rented a small house just north of the university. The previous summer and spring had been extraordinarily dry for the Pacific NW, so water-usage restrictions were in force. That included no outdoor watering of trees, grass, plants, and flowers, as well as no car-washing.
When three of us grad students visited Smart one afternoon we found him in the back yard of his rental house. He was busy watering rhododendrons, of which there were many. When reminded for the water-restriction rules, he shrugged.
"I know about the rules. And I fully support them. So how, you might ask, do I justify my watering the rhodies?"
We all nodded.
"I reason thusly. First, we must ask ourselves: What if everybody ignored the restrictions? And the obvious answer is that the consequences would no doubt be a disaster. However... we are also pretty bloody certain that not only will every not break that law, we can be reasonably certain that nearly everyone will in fact obey it and not water what the are told not to water. Hence, my watering these few lovely rhodies will have negligible consequences. My act, in and of itself, is harmless. And, both you and I know that my breaking the law will have little or no impact or my neighbors' or anyone else's breaking the law. The appeal to: What if everybody did X? is as beside the point as asking What if everybody decided to break the Law of Gravity?"

Jerry Fresia said...


1. What would Kant have to say about our responses?

Would he find confirmation of his ethical theory in that we, somehow, were unable to grasp properly, and were possibly bewildered by, Bentham's "felicific calculus?" (Maybe Obama haters simply possess a "Moral Will.")

2. Off the subject: when Marx used irony in Capital, whom did he believe was his "real audience?"

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

By the way, "the whole fabric of morals and legislation" can be summed up:

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be thy end:
If it be public, wide let them extend
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.

(Source: wiki)

J.R. said...

Apologies to all for my part in the derailing. I entered the discussion in good faith, not to ride a personal anti-Obama hobby horse.

Still, I think that if we take Bentham's principle as a sort of rule of thumb it really is useful for decision making. However, it is really vague, and something of a bromide. Plato's Statesman says something pretty close. At best it is a humanistic version of the "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets that were popular a few years back. (Not that this is a bad thing.)

The more it is fleshed out into a quasi-formal system with utils or hedons or whatever, the more it falls to ugly paradoxes,and the more it requires information we just don't have.

So--I guess my answer to the question of how one should deliberate about hard choices which affect the lives of many is: "With good intentions, some vague principles, too little information, and aware that the decision involves a leap of faith."

Not really satisfying for a philosopher, but there you go. . .

--The J.R. with the periods

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A rainy day here and Susie has a cold. I shall try to make some sort of integrated response to all the interesting comments tomorrow. now I am off to hear thirteenth century music at the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages.

LFC said...

My belated response to the earlier hypothetical would be: Accepting its premises for the sake of argument, passing some form of Obamacare was more important than prosecuting Cheney. The reason is that the passage of Obamacare yielded concrete material benefits to a lot of people (while also, no doubt, causing hardship to, I think, a smaller number), whereas the benefits of prosecuting Cheney would have been largely psychic and it would not have had a huge impact on future foreign policy, the majority of the electorate having already decided that the invasion of Iraq and associated policies were mistaken.

(Btw, I usually don't think of myself as a utilitarian, but one can arrive at the above answer without the overlay of any particular philosophical approach, it seems to me.)