Saturday, June 6, 2015

Particularistic Utilitarianism Demystified

My post on the infighting within contrastive utilitarian theories was an attempt to salvage a principled or generalized handle on heterodox conceptions of utilitarianism, siding decisively with Average, Negative and Preference antidotes to Total, Positive and Classical orthodoxies. The result was a rather spirited endorsement of one system; Negative Average Preference Utilitarianism. This would be fine were it not propped up under the guise of Moral Principlism. Given subsequent forays into Moral Particularism, I averred –– albeit latently –– that any isolated system of ethics cannot be reconciled with Principlism in good conscience, as the machinery of Principlism is itself worrisome. This naturally extends to NAPU’s compliance to Principlism, meaning aspects of that (otherwise dandy) entry could benefit from modification. As usual, I'd rather just do a new post and not addend old ones.
Indicators of tension between NAPU and Principlism/Generalism arise in that very write-up though, per my encouraging swift, unapologetic abandonments of NAPU in favor of Classical Negative Average Utilitarianism whenever the moral patient is a non-human animal. If NAPU is abandonable on this score, it follows that CNAU would be as well for the obverse reason. This blog's oft-discussed compartmentalization of human vs. non-human moral patients animated a garish undercurrent of particularism in refusing to hold the Preference side hostage to normative invariability. Having grown fonder of variability in the months that followed, I was pleased to see glimmers of it in the post now under refinement. Problem is, the post dealt with the three keystones of internal disputation enclosed by utilitarian ethics, with particularism open-for-business in just one of those (Preference vs. Classical). This makes it easy for readers to gather that Negative and Average utilitarianisms are unfailingly wiser than Positive and Total utilitarianisms. They aren't. What I should have argued is that they are wiser arguably more often, not in principle, as I intend to show.
On an informal account, the post was susceptible to variability early on, but ended up losing the plot once I broached the chasm between Total and Average Utilitarianism. This is where insusceptibility to particularism takes hold, as I mount a stalwart defense of the average view, banishing the total view full throttle. Here my regretful departure from variability seemed doable thanks to the all-too-favorable configurations I posed as hypotheticals; awfully accommodating configurations under which per capita metrics can't help but look superior. Of course, indulge enough many-worlds type ultimatums and you will have envisioned as many unbefitting configurations for Average Utilitarianism as were displayed for Total Utilitarianism.
Assuredly, a world containing one hundred people whose individual suffering level is a trivial -1 makes for a state of affairs that's glaringly more preferable compared to a world containing one person whose suffering level is a hellish -99 and where no other being suffers in the slightest. Numerically, the discrepancy in outcomes is evident; one state of affairs reaches a sum total of -100 utils and the other a sum total of -99 utils, but a net effect couched in these underpinnings is hardly the whole story. Only a backer of bog-standard utilitarianism would conclude that this alone is enough to dub the -100 world a temporally worse one. A less atomistic, more empathetic onlooker will not ignore the granularity of distribution-insensitivity present in the -99 world, with all negatives befalling one individual. Even still, a theorist wed to the total view must insist upon strict aggregation at all times, irrespective of configurations, lest she be "unprincipled" or "inconsistent" as the wavelengths of traditional moral theory would have it. One such wavelength is the pro tanto breed of Principlism arrived at by the alleged atomism of logic. Not only is this a fetishistic take, it can lead to even more nauseating conclusions. Consider how pro tanto establishments of true principles still work strictly arithmetically in hypotheticals with seven billion people who endure trivial -1 suffering levels respectively, accumulating to -7,000,000,000 utils overall, versus a state of affairs with just one person who endures a suffering level of -6,999,999,999 utils on her lonesome. If totality-minded tallies aren't foiled by the separateness of persons in the first ultimatum, they won't be foiled by it in the second ultimatum. Illustratively, we can just keep upping the ante so as to make the total view's distribution-insensitivity more lopsided, but none of it will faze the calculatedly holistic & anti-atomistic lens of the Total Utilitarian. In this sense, being taken in by utilitarian-themed Principlism via logical atomism can prove as disastrous to sentience as being eminently beholden to the absolutism hawked by deontological ethics.
This is not to say that zeroing in on notoriously unflattering scenarios altogether obliterates the total view. Rather, it shows that staunchly aggregative metrics shouldn't be thought of as right-marking features across the board, and should only be off-limits when badgered by the sort of configurations I chose to employ. But there is a disconcerting flipside here, one I have not taken into account in previous posts; the average view's proneness for being just as vulnerable to select irredeemable configurations –– polar opposites of the sort I used to undermine the total view. One such unpleasant configuration is a world with seven billion people resulting in a state of affairs where the average suffering level is a hellish -100. The suffering is distributed evenly across the entire population, meaning each individual is left to endure -100 respectively. Contrast this with a world containing just ten people, resulting in an average suffering level of -101 distributed evenly across the population. Neglecting the total view on this tally, so as to cleave to the average view, seems as pathological as doing the opposite in the first set of global hypotheticals. In this case, one should not hesitate to clamor for Total Utilitarianism in order to bring about an outcome where only ten people suffer at -101 each, as opposed to seven billion at -100 each. The takeaway being; allow for salubrious oscillation when it comes to aggregative vs. per capita measures. Allow for the context-attentiveness of particularism.
Now, what of the maximization vs. minimization discord? Any room for particularism there? I think so, but it must be a highly deflationary particularism in this case.
Negative Utilitarianism, properly understood, disallows any maximization of utility if the way to proceed entails having disutility-reduction used as a bargaining chip. Positive Utilitarians (who are honest) will fess up to their disinclination for delineating above-neutral and below-neutral welfare states, leading to deleterious trade-offs like the US-led syphilis experiment with unsuspecting Guatemalan citizens used as guinea pigs. A streamlined example of other trade-offs along such lines:
Adam and Bob exist in a stagnantly neutral state. No ups, no downs. Neither of them will enjoy any happiness should things remain unaltered. The only way to evoke non-neutral welfare states is with a trade-off between the two. Say the possibility presents itself, and the ideal observer acquires an ability to lift Adam into a blissful +100 state by dragging Bob into a hellish -99 state. Because the net-effect here is a surefire +1, intellectually honest exponents of positive-minded utility formulas should bite the bullet and validate the arrangement. Someone like me will be quick to scold them for it, as I hold the maximization of above-neutral welfare states to be a matter of beneficence and supererogation, rather than non-maleficence or equity. On this view, acts which increase neutral or above-neutral states are strictly beneficent or supererogatory, whereas acts which inversely decrease below-neutral states (bringing them closer to zero) qualify as just or equitable. If benefiting Adam serves supererogatory ends, as it does here, the reasoning behind the mistreatment of Bob will be difficult to account for relative to the reasoning behind trade-offs that see Adam dragged back to a blandly neutral state, so that Bob can be lifted back to the same neutral state. With the latter trade-off, Bob would be the willing participant and Adam the unwilling apparatus, but this is not maleficence nor inequity as it simply restores the initial monotonic neutrality. For as long as Adam's benefits rest on Bob's non-trivial harms, I will regard the package-deal as impermissible. A monist NU could further argue that it is immaterial whether Adam attains his +100 advantage through wrongful interference or through actual deservingness over Bob, citing the initial harmless state of the universe coupled with incompatibilistic determinism. This add-on, however, makes formulating a pluralistic brand of Negative Utilitarianism much more strenuous, perhaps even impossible, so I wouldn't recommend it. Point being, interpersonal trade-offs which employ "pluses cancel out minuses" rationale must go by the wayside.
Beclouding my stance are the so-called Negative Utilitarians who believe that positive welfare states don't really exist. In a remarkably absurd twist, the uninitiated Efilist will also scold Positive Utilitarians for the above package-deal, even though okaying the arrangement is a perfectly sensible thing to do according to the Efilist's own "Zero-Sum Game" worldview. When frustrationists genuinely believe that experiencing optimal bliss only brings the experiencer up to zero, and no further, there can be no line of demarcation between above-neutral and below-neutral welfare states, as anything above water would be a misnomer in the first place. If you buy into the idea that above-neutral experiences cannot even arise, you are left with the crudeness of early utilitarian orthodoxy wherein utility-maximization and disutility-minimization are indistinguishable as right-making features. The only way around this is by acknowledging the presence of authentically positive welfare states, such as mania, and promptly condemning interpersonal trade-offs wherever positive states stand to benefit through the worsening of negative states. This barricade is the saving grace of NU, but salient though it may be, it is made unintelligible the moment you subscribe to the zero-sum view of life, where prolonged mania is the only attainable neutral state. Sidestepping this peskiness denotes one of two things:
(1) Intellectual deceptiveness.
(2) Breathtaking inability to grasp anything a few notches above rudimentary concepts.
Hence the humdrum objections from other ethicists, many of which may ring true when tailored to positive utilitarians and so-called negative utilitarians who are really just deprivationalists in sheep's clothing.
Even (the usually levelheaded) Harris can be guilty of this, as illuminated by his last appearance on the Very Bad Wizards podcast (Episode # 63, minute 91). According to Harris' axioms, in his own words:
"I suffer the Utility Monster problem; if an alien being came to earth and drew so much pleasure from consuming us that it completely swamped all the pleasure –– and not just pleasure, but all the wellbeing in every relevant sense –– that we would accrue by persisting as a civilization, then, viewed from above, the right thing to happen is to have us sacrificed to this Utility Monster. Now that's not to say that I think I would run willingly into its jaws, but globally, I would succumb to that argument".
But this is textbook moral myopia. Harris would just have to drop utility-maximization and apply the bulwark of disutility. No moral tragedy would unfold by doing so. An intergalactic creature would merely have to go about its business without consuming the human race, the way it managed to do before stumbling upon planet earth. But alas, Harris has hitherto been reluctant to draw a line on this. Is he unable distinguish between mandatory and supererogatory components of ethics? Does he not ponder Act vs. Rule manuals? Or could it be that he is simply unaware of the minimization-only clause? Perhaps he's not willing to see it through. I'd like to leave open the possibility for additional nuance, given the number of readers and listeners Harris may feel the need to placate by not overcomplicating things. Then again, the guy straightforwardly admitted that we ought to curry favor with the interests of a monster at everyone else's expense, so in all likelihood, this is me being unduly optimistic about his receptiveness to disutility-only.
All that said, what if particularism was invoked to allow for a permanent maximization of above-neutral states in outliers where the cost to below-neutral states amounts not to a consumption of all living organisms at the hands of one Utility Monster, but to a "speck of dust being caught in someone's eye for a few seconds" degree of triviality? If the worsening effect is indeed this innocuous, a positive utilitarian might actually have an argument for the minimalistic agitation of the eye. Reluctantly, I confess that it'd be unwise to deny the utmost betterment of a supermajority on the basis of not piling on ever so slightly to a below-neutral state of one person who's already right beneath zero. I’ll stress that this wiggle room doesn't carry over to macro overviews in the here and now, as the type of package-deals acceptable to contemporary positive utilitarians are anything but benign. Ditto for most other renowned moral theorists, like Kant.
I'll always stand in awe at the intellectual acrobatics of Kantians who convince themselves that deontology always treats individuals as ends and never as means, only to turn around and slavishly accept Kant’s dense arguments for why suicide is always wrong. Kant actually believed that all suicidal individuals would be committing a wrongdoing by following through on their unwillingness to wait for death by natural causesIntrapersonal life-taking was the paragon of wrongness, no matter the severity of the suicidal person's plight. If this isn't a refusal to view individuals as ends unto themselves, I don't know what is. The arguments are closet consequentialism 101, but that never stopped Kantians from posturing moral purity before, so why expect anything different now? The interpersonal intrusiveness inherent in Kant's condemnations of suicide cannot be overstated. Bemoaning the non-absolutism of consequentialism (specifically with negative-minded theories which don't always treat every individual as an end) entails eschewing this element of Kantianism. That no concerted efforts are made to expose this duplicity does not bode well for the state of moral discourse, whether online or in academia.
Returning to maximization and outliers; Strictly speaking, benign trade-offs are possible in micro contexts, which often involve a benefactor who is consensually participating. In macro talks however, the wall between positives and negatives should not be torn asunder, as those discussions engender cases with higher volumes of hardship and with many participants not giving consent for their role in the package-deal (like a suicidal person who'd rather not be used as a means to Kant's moralistic ends).
At any rate, the micro contexts are prevalent enough to give us sufficient cause to disengage Principlism on this front as well.
Now that I have remedied the unnecessary resoluteness behind the Average and Negative verdicts, I'll intensify my justifications for seesawing between Classical and Preference touchstones.
Considering that transgressions against a preference or dispreference are brought about by an act itself, rather than the ensuing consequences of an act, it's crucial to note Preference Utilitarianism's unique capacity to operate under non-consequentialist guidelines. This as far as I know has not been explored in the literature on Preference Utilitarianism (its purveyors seem to consider it a token consequentialism, as do its critics). Once we grant that preferences or dispreferences can be contravened without the wronged party being experientially impacted, we must acknowledge Preference Utilitarianism as both consequentialist and non-consequentialist in character, and therefore as ripe for particularism.
It can be expected of any traditionalist to push back with incessant; how can any type of utilitarianism be non-consequentialist in character? The answer is best understood by familiarizing oneself with the categorical distinctions between Preference and Classical constituents. Generally, to commit a wrongdoing against a human is to violate said human's preference or dispreference regardless of whether the violation disturbs qualia, whereas to wrong an animal is to cause it physical harm in some way, and nothing else. One is qualia-neutral, the other qualia-specific. Pouncing on these differences, the post's theme surrenders normative weight to configurations of morally relevant features, discerned on a piecemeal basis, thereby devastating Principlism and its lofty goals of having a single utility criterion shoehorned into all cases.
I can write volumes on the widespread intuitiveness behind a Classical/Preference one-two punch strategy, in recognition of how commonplace animal welfare concerns are in the west as of late. Just recall the backlash against Michael Vick over his ownership of an interstate dog-fighting ring; capitalizing on animalistic barbarity in the interest of gambling and –– one can safely assume –– unabashed entertainment for him and fellow canine-exploiters.
Dogs fought. It's what they'll do, unless trained/conditioned otherwise. The scandal is noteworthy because Vick didn't just get into legal trouble –– he had his reputation permanently tarnished as a result of the broader culture's belief in the unethicality of allowing/training dogs to fight. It's true that many of Vick's critics still internalize carnism, or view it in an anodyne light, but their outrage over the mistreatment of some animals is still a step up from the common attitudes of just a century back.
Compare this outrage to the very same culture's growing appetite for UFC; watching humans in octagons battering each other into stupefaction. Surely, owning and operating dog-fighting rackets begs for condemnatory feedback because the competitors harm each other without an ability to comprehend the purely instinctual driving forces fueled by natural endowments. But why should this (particular) verdict inform our judgment on the UFC as an organization? The UFC enables introspective humans to cause immense harm and injury to other introspective humans without legal ramifications, period. Rightfully calling foul on dog-fighting doesn't open the door to moral wisdom in reaching an identical verdict when analyzing human competitors who do considerable damage to opponents in an organized yet equally savage environment. The human participants suffer physically during bouts just as the dogs do, but their informed willingness to sign up –– despite an awareness of inevitable physical toil each self-aware subject continually reflects on –– serves as the premier factor behind the asymmetrical features of the two cases. Monistic Classical Utilitarianism extended to humanity would beg to differ, since it crassly regards all sentient organisms as nothing more than repositories of value. A moral system that reduces you to a repository of value is a system that rallies behind having your well thought-out interests paternalistically subverted whenever said interests are inharmonious with qualia-welfarism. We're talking intrapersonal risk-stifling by outside forces, not interpersonal risk-stifling by outside forces. Key difference.
If one were to arrive at NAPU (or other versions of Preference Utilitarianism) through pro tanto principles, the formula would have to maintain evaluative interchangeability across human and non-human patients, and likewise with CNAU (or other versions of Classical Utilitarianism) once acclimated to the same pro tanto Principlism. I've yet to encounter an argument detailing the unsoundness of holding the monistic qualia-welfarism offered by token Classical Utilitarianism as ill-suited to humans, and one explaining why the qualia-absent foundations of token Preference Utilitarianism would ever be suited to animals. Principlism is rightly roadblocked the moment the ethicist envisions catchall axioms with a tinge of askance, prioritizing features-over-principles. Though I didn't recognize them as such –– at least not formally –– while promulgating Negative Average Preference Utilitarianism last year.
  • Total Utilitarianism vs. Average Utilitarianism
  • Positive Utilitarianism vs. Negative Utilitarianism
  • Classic Utilitarianism vs. Preference Utilitarianism 


All three keystones of disputation fail to withstand particularistic scrutiny from a pragmatic standpoint, thus a conscientious utilitarian will not stick to one-over-the-other 100% of the time. The strongest case against Principlism is seen with the Classical vs. Preference schism, followed by the Total vs. Average schism. Finally, a highly deflationary particularism is observed within the Positive vs. Negative schism, given enough "speck of dust" outliers. Ultimately, there are no invariable verdicts.
Now that I've nitpicked my earlier works to pieces, note that there will be no more posts on consequentialism or non-consequentialism in the foreseeable future. I plan to move on from normative theories and to offer some thoughts on metaethical theories. This doesn't mean I'll never do first-order ethical analyses again, it just means that I'm a bit burned out on normative ethics right now and would prefer to explore the challenges of second-order theories.
Managed to keep this relatively short. Hope to get into the habit of doing the same with every new post. Or shorter.