Objective Morality

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Now of course, none of this is to say that consequentialism and utilitarianism don’t raise some tricky questions of their own. For one thing, if morality is always a matter of having to weigh various interests against each other (as opposed to just having black-and-white rules which say that certain actions are always right and others are always wrong), does that mean that nothing is truly sacrosanct? Are there really no duties or rights – like people’s lives, or their freedom – that are so unconditional that they couldn’t be violated if doing so would provide a big enough net utility gain?

Any time you start considering the idea of potential moral tradeoffs, it’s easy to fall back onto absolutist principles like “There are certain rights that must never be violated for any reason,” and “Life must be protected at all costs.” But the thing is, we disregard these principles all the time, and for good reasons. We restrict people’s right to freedom of speech any time we prohibit them from falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We endanger people’s lives any time we allow the speed limit to be higher than 20 miles per hour. If we really considered these rights to be totally inviolable, we could guarantee total freedom of speech by allowing people to say whatever they wanted at any time; we could guarantee maximal public safety by confining everyone to protective bubbles at all times and never letting anyone do anything that might endanger them in any way; and so on. The fact that virtually none of us think these are good ideas reveals that, although it’s generally good to think of certain rights and liberties as being absolutely inviolable, there are in fact real limits to them that have to be recognized. The utility value of these rights and liberties is immensely high, no doubt – and should be treated accordingly – but it isn’t infinite. And so if the harm of unconditionally guaranteeing them in some specific situation would outweigh any possible benefit, it would be better not to guarantee them in that situation.

This is especially true considering that in most such situations, the thing that shifts the balance of the utility calculations in favor of violating some particular right or liberty is the fact that doing so would be the only way to protect some other equally important right or liberty. We have a habit here in the US of treating freedom as some kind of binary thing that you either have or don’t have; you’re either totally free, or your rights are being infringed (and therefore you’re being oppressed). But in truth, it isn’t possible to have absolute freedom at all times, simply because different freedoms often conflict with each other. One person’s right to use their property as they see fit (say, by building a factory) might conflict with another person’s right to life and health (if the pollution from the factory would damage their lungs). A newspaper’s right to freely publish news stories might conflict with their subjects’ right to privacy (if the newspaper published details of those people’s personal lives). In order to protect people’s rights, other people’s rights sometimes have to be impinged upon. Again, it all comes down to the utilitarian process of weighing the various interests against each other. And although things like rights and duties and generalized rules of conduct absolutely can (and should) play a role within this utilitarian framework, they don’t form the foundation themselves; they’re more like helpful tools for ensuring that utility is maximized.

Here’s an excerpt from Alexander’s Q&A that explains:

[Q]: So what about all the usual moral rules, like “don’t lie” and “don’t steal”?

Consequentialists accord great respect to these rules. But instead of viewing them as the base level of morality, we view them as heuristics (“heuristic” – a convenient rule-of-thumb which is usually, but not always true).

For example, “don’t steal” is a good heuristic, because when I steal something, I deny you the use of it, lowering your utility. A world in which theft is permissible is one where no one has any incentive to do honest labor, the economy collapses, and everyone is reduced to thievery. This is not a very good world, and its people are on average less happy than people in a world without theft. Theft usually lowers utility, and we can package that insight to remember later in the convenient form of “don’t steal.”

[Q]: But what do you mean when you say these sorts of heuristics aren’t always true?

In the example with the axe murderer […] above, we already noticed that the heuristic “don’t lie” doesn’t always hold true. The same can sometimes be true of “don’t steal”.

In Les Miserables Jean Valjean’s family is trapped in bitter poverty in 19th century France, and his nephew is slowly starving to death. Valjean steals a loaf of bread from a rich man who has more than enough, in order to save his nephew’s life. Although not all of us would condone Jean’s act, it sure seems more excusable than, say, stealing a PlayStation because you like PlayStations.

The common thread here seems to be that although lying and stealing usually make the world a worse place and hurt other people, in certain rare cases they might do the opposite, in which case they are okay.

[Q]: So it’s okay to lie or steal or murder whenever you think lying or stealing or murdering would make the world a better place?

Not really. Having a hard-and-fast rule “never murder” is, if nothing else, painfully clear. You know where you stand with a rule like that.

There’s a reason God supposedly gave Moses a big stone with “Thou shalt not steal” and not “Thou shalt not steal unless you have a really good reason.” People have different definitions of “really good reason”. Some people would steal to save their nephew’s life. Some people would steal if it helped defend their friends from axe murderers. And some people would steal a PlayStation, and think up some bogus moral justification for it later.

We humans are very good at special pleading – the ability to think that MY situation is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from all those other situations other people might get into. We’re very good at thinking up post hoc justifications for why whatever we want to do anyway is the right thing to do. And we’re all pretty sure that if we allowed people to steal if they thought there was a good reason, some idiot would abuse it and we’d all be worse off. So we enshrine the heuristic “don’t steal” as law, and I think it’s probably a very good choice.

Nevertheless, we do have procedures in place for breaking the heuristic when we need to. When society goes through the proper decision procedures, in most cases a vote by democratically elected representatives, the government is allowed to steal some money from everyone in the form of taxes. This is how modern day nation-states solve Jean Valjean’s problem without licensing random people to steal PlayStations: everyone agrees that Valjean’s nephew’s health is more important than a rich guy having some bread he doesn’t need, so the government taxes rich people and distributes the money to pay for bread for poor families. Having these procedures in place is also probably a very good choice.

[Q]: So is it ever okay to break laws?

I think civil disobedience – deliberate breaking of laws in accord with the principle of utility – is acceptable when you’re exceptionally sure that your action will raise utility rather than lower it.

To be exceptionally sure, you’d need very good evidence and you’d probably want to limit it to cases where you personally aren’t the beneficiary of the law-breaking, in order to prevent your brain from thinking up spurious moral arguments for breaking laws whenever it’s in your self-interest to do so.

I agree with the common opinion that people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi who used civil disobedience for good ends were right to do so. They were certain enough in their own cause to violate moral heuristics in the name of the greater good, and as such were being good utilitarians.

[Q]: What about human rights? Are these also heuristics?

Yes, and political discussion would make a lot more sense if people realized this.

Everyone disagrees on what rights people do or do not have, and these disagreements about rights mirror their political positions only in a more inscrutable and unsolvable way. Suppose I say people should get free government-sponsored health care, and you say they shouldn’t. This disagreement is problematic, but it at least seems like we could have a reasonable discussion and perhaps change our minds. But if I assert “People should have free health care because everyone has a right to free health care,” then there’s not much you can say except “No they don’t!” The interesting and potentially debatable question “Should the government provide free health care?” has turned into a purely metaphysical question about which it is theoretically impossible to develop evidence either way: “Do people have a right to free health care?”

And this will only get worse if you respond “And you can’t raise my taxes to fund universal health care, because I have a right to my own property!”

Whenever there’s a political conflict, both parties figure out some reason why their natural rights are at stake, and the arbitrator can do whatever [they feel] like. No one can prove [them] wrong, because our common notion of rights is an inherently fuzzy concept created mainly so that people who would otherwise say things like “I hate euthanasia, but I guess I have no justification” can now say things like “I hate euthanasia, because it violates your right to life and your right to dignity.” (I actually heard someone use this argument a while ago)

Consequentialism allows us to use rights not as a way to avoid honest discussion, but as the outcome of such a discussion. Suppose we debate whether universal health care will make our country a better place, and we decide that it will. And suppose we are so certain about this decision that we want to enshrine a philosophical principle that everyone should definitely get free health care and future governments should never be able to change their mind on this no matter how convenient it would be at the time. In this case, we can say “There is a right to free health care” – i.e. establish a heuristic that such care should always be available.

Our modern array of rights – free speech, free religion, property, and all the rest – are heuristics that have been established as beneficial over many years. Free speech is a perfect example. It’s very tempting to get the government to shut up certain irritating people like racists, neo-Nazis, cultists, and the like. But we’ve realized that we’re not very good at deciding who genuinely ought to be silenced, and that once we give anyone the power to silence people they’ll probably use it for evil. So instead we enforce the heuristic “Never deny anyone their freedom of speech”.

Of course, it’s still a heuristic and not a universal law, which is why we’re perfectly willing to prevent people from speaking freely in cases where we’re very sure it would lower total utility; for example, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

[Q]: So consequentialism is a higher level of morality than rights?

Yes, and it is the proper level on which to think about cases where rights conflict or in which we are not certain which rights should apply.

For example, we believe in a right to freedom of movement: people (except prisoners) should be allowed to travel freely. But we also believe in parents’ rights to take care of their children. So if a five year old decides he wants to go live in the forest, should we allow the parents to tell him he can’t?

Yes. Although this is a case of two rights conflicting, once we realize that the right to freedom of movement only exists to help mature reasonable people live in the sort of places that make them happy, it becomes clear that allowing a five year old to run away to the forest would result in bad consequences like him being eaten by bears, and we see no reason to follow it.

But what if that child wants to run away because his parents are abusing him? Everyone has a right to dignity and to freedom from fear, but parents also have a right to take care of their children. So if a five year old is being abused, is it okay for him to run away to a foster home or somewhere?

Yes. Although two rights once again conflict, and even though “right to dignity and freedom from fear” might not be a real right and I kinda just made it up, it’s more important for the child to have a safe and healthy life than for the parents to exercise their “right” to take care of him. In fact, the latter right only exists as a heuristic pointing to the insight that children will usually do better with their parents taking care of them than without; since that insight clearly doesn’t apply here, we can send the child to foster care without qualms.

The proper procedure in cases like this is to change levels and go to consequentialism, not shout ever more loudly about how such-and-such a right is being violated.

[Q]: Summary?

Rules that are generally pretty good at keeping utility high are called moral heuristics. It is usually a better idea to follow moral heuristics than to calculate utility of every individual possible action, since the latter is susceptible to bias and ignorance. When forming a law code, use of moral heuristics allows the laws to be consistent and easy to follow. On a wider scale, the moral heuristics that bind the government are called rights. Although following moral heuristics is a very good idea, in certain cases when you’re very certain of the results – like saving your friend from an axe murderer or preventing someone from shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater – it may be permissible to break the heuristic.

(An even simpler variation on this conception of rights might be to just regard them as those interests held by every individual which have such a high utility value that it would require a genuinely huge countervailing interest to override them. This might not be a perfect definition compared to Alexander’s – it might be better suited as a definition for “needs” or something – but you understand what I’m getting at. The point here, again, is just that everything must necessarily come down to utility once you get down to the most fundamental level.)

Now, having said all this, there is one sense in which I actually do think that moral rights and duties are fundamental – namely, I think the principle of maximizing global utility can itself be regarded as a moral duty (or more accurately, as a kind of meta-duty), and not just as something that’s good. And I think that the violation of that principle would likewise constitute an infringement on a real moral right (or meta-right). I’ll explain later why I think this is the case. But before we get to that, let me just finish addressing some of the more immediate questions about defining goodness in utilitarian terms, and what the implications of this system are.

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