May 17, 2003

naive utilitarians

John Quiggin has a post on utilitarianism. It is a simple post and it indicates the naiviety of the utilitarian tradition in Australia.

John starts okay. He says that utilitarianism "is usually presented as an ethical postulate, that good actions are those which promote 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' or some such." Then he makes a good point when he says that "utilitarianism only makes sense as a public philosophy, that is as a way of assessing public policy, and it's pretty clear that this is how Bentham intended it." All well and true.

Things go downhill after this. John's claim that in "its role as a democratic public philosophy, utilitarianism lacks serious competitors" is plain wrong (rights-based liberalism is strong in Australia and hegemonic in the US). So is his claim that in an aristocratic society public philosophy is just individual ethics. That is a very poor reading of the aesthetic of Edmund Burke and the romantic culture and society tradition.

Both of these traditions (social contract and aesthetic ) have always contested utilitarianism, and John, like most economists, more or less brushes them aside. It is standard practice for utilitarian economists in Australia to dismiss their critics as irrational, thereby implying that only they are rational (ie. meaning they are scientific.) Utilitarianism along with economics as a value-free social science aspires to be imperialistic. The problem with such gatekeeping strategies is that the critics make good points but they are rarely taken up.

Consider the criticism made by those in the philosophical tradition (Frankfurt School) that is a located with. This weblog (which works under the sign of nonidentity of concepts and their objects); public opinion (which works under the sign of negative critique); and junk for code) (which works under the sign of the culture industry). They take their philosophical bearings from Adorno & Horkeimer's Dialectic of the Enlightenment, Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason, Adorno's Minima Moralia and Adorno's Negative Dialectics. I mention it like that because of stuff like this on the web.

A good account of Adorno and a defence from the misleading criticism of Habermas can be found here If we apply their critique of the Enlightenment to utilitarianism then it has tow strands of argument: utilitarian reason is an instrumental reason; the utilitarian subject is powerless in the sense of being an appendage of social machinery.

Utilitarianism has subjectivised reason (its utility-maximizing individualism) and reduced it to an instrument to efficiently serve given ends (eg., using reason to efficiently allocate resources). So it became incapable of setting values and goals or setting critieria to evaluate the competing value ends of individuals (eg., between wealth creation and sustainability). Uitilitarian reason is also an instrumental reason that is the service of political power and the profit of corporations, where it has been traditionally used to dominate and control nature for human betterment.

This mode of critique does not reject not instrumental reason outright. Rather it is critical of the hegemonic role that instrumental reason in liberal society plays and desires a fuller conception of reason though not a pre-Enlightenment one. It is one that critically works within a given conceptual system (such as neo-liberalism) by focusing on the non-identity of concepts and object (eg., the concept of self-organizing market does not fully represent civil society; instrumental reason does not fully represent reason).

The second line of criticsm addresses the way that utilitarianism makes the subject the foundation of its rational choice system building. It is argued that instead of the individual being at the centre of the social universe (the market) making all those choices that drive the evolutionary process along, he/she's room to manoeuvre is tightly constrained by social and political machinery. Though the social object (corporations and the state) call the shots not the subject, the subject is not done away with. It is humbled by the priority of the object.

These two lines of criticism have enough weight (plus the references to the social contract and aethetic traditions) to affirm the point made by Lawrence Solum that utilitarianism faces serious challenges. And we have not even mentioned central problem for why it faces serious challenge----its willingness to ride roughshod over individual & minority interests (and rights) in the name of the greatest happiness (utility) for the greatest number. No have we mentioned the way that the value of the individual over a community approach is sneaked into Treasury's value-free policy prescriptions.

What John Quiggin should be saying is something far more humble. Utilitarianism is the hegemonic public philosophy for the neo-liberal state in Australia where it has been used as a weapon to roll back the welfare state and deregulated the market. If you are going to talk about utilitarianism as a public philosophy then you need to step out of the text books into public life.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 17, 2003 09:38 AM | TrackBack

Sharp post, Gary. I like it.

Thought: if, as Quiggins states, utilitarianism only makes sense as a public philosophy but depends on a specific notion of the subject--the utility maximizing or instrumentally reasoning subject--for its articulation (it is from such a standpoint that the "greatest good" or "least evil" is calculated, right?) without giving an account of the relationship between the subject and society, then how can it be applied to issues other than those of resource allocation pure and simple? For example: a utilitarian calculus for society, as Quiggin explains it, should endorse a policy that everyone's needs for food, clothing, and shelter be met--but it can't justify why I shouldn't be allowed to murder my next door neighbor if everyone hates the guy. In the case of food, clothing, and shelter, the consequences of doing so are beneficial, and respect the equality of all members of the community, and enables everyone to then go ahead and satisfy their preferences, which lie outside of this calculation. The case of my murdering my neighbor is similar but not identical: if everyone hates him, there is a net beneficial consequence, and while he has been treated unequally in being put to death, the equal interest of the other individuals in the community qua individuals is being violated by whatever he did we all found so noxious.

Perhaps that's a contrived example, but my intuition is that without some account of the relationship between individuals and between society (the totality), a great deal of law suddenly becomes arbitrary; rights that do not deal with property rights can't be justified and may as well be stripped from the citizens.

(NB: I don't want to murder my neighbor--just break his music collection.)

Posted by: Curtiss Leung on May 17, 2003 04:25 PM

(And since breaking his CD collection lies within the sphere of property rights, he's safe.)

Posted by: Curtiss Leung on May 17, 2003 04:27 PM
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